October 20, 2013

'I always thought I have to do something extraordinary'

Sohag Gazi has come a remarkably long way considering the little support he got during his early years in Bangladesh cricket

Sohag Gazi holds a remarkable position in Test cricket but it has not sunk in yet.

It has been a week since he became the first cricketer to score a hundred and take a hat-trick in a Test match. Most heads would spin after such a performance, and perhaps Gazi's did too. But when you sit down and talk to him, he doesn't treat his achievements with childlike wonder or with cynicism.

"I have been through a personal struggle since I was in my teens," Gazi said. "I never had anyone to back me. Someone who would recommend me, give me that final push during selection time in the age-group tournaments. There were no major cricketers in my family. I always thought that since I am alone in this fight, I have to do something extraordinary. I cannot perform at a normal level like everyone else. It is so tough to play as an offspinner in Bangladesh.

"People say there is a shortage of offspinners in the country, but I have reached a level that others have striven for but never reached. There were so many good offspinners from the past and even some now. I must say that I am proud of how far I have come in my career."

During the extraordinary events over the past week, Gazi was reminded of the night before his first-class debut, for Barisal Division nearly four years ago.

"I was picked in the first-class team from [Dhaka's] first division league. It is very tough to play first-class cricket directly from that level. I thank [Zafrul] Ehsan sir who believed in me. The night before my debut, he told me he had had to battle to put me in the playing XI. After hearing that, I told myself I have to perform, but not by taking pressure. I cannot lose sleep over it. I have to play normally."

After two good seasons in the National Cricket League, Gazi made it to the National Cricket Academy. In his first four-day match, in South Africa in August 2011, he took 11 wickets, including a first innings hat-trick (in a seven-for). Two months later he scored his maiden first-class century - a 99-ball 140 against Khulna Division. After another productive season, Gazi expected to get noticed.

Four weeks later, he put in a performance that grabbed everyone's attention. In the 2012-13 NCL season opener for Barisal Division, he struck a hundred and took a hat-trick in his seven-wicket haul in Khulna's second innings.

"When I didn't make it to the Under-19 World Cup, I wanted to see what happens in the end. I had given so much time in my life to cricket, I just wanted to see what is there when it all finishes"

"We fielded the first day and nearly half the second day. Almost immediately afterwards, I had to bat. I was middling the ball very well. I got to 50, so I thought, let's take a chance. I took it, and I got the hundred.

"Taposh Ghosh, Rubel Hossain and Al-Amin Hossain were my hat-trick wickets in that game. I don't know how it happened. I got into the national team after I had done this, so it felt great. I had done something, it is a record, and I was hearing people talk about me as a prospect for the senior team," Gazi said.

Barisal wicketkeeper Shahin Hossain, who caught Ghosh and stumped Al-Amin in that match, recalled the hat-trick. "He is a good bowler and doesn't miss the spot often. We lost the game, but someone later told me that he is the first player from Bangladesh to score a ton and take a hat-trick in the same first-class match," Shahin said.

Gazi was picked in the Test team to play West Indies. A few days before his debut, the captain, Mushfiqur Rahim, informed him that he would be opening the attack.

"The greatest pressure was to bowl to Chris Gayle in the first over of a Test match," Gazi said. "It was my first over in Test cricket. Before that, when I made my BPL debut, I had felt the pressure. I was terrified at the thought of playing on live television. My performance suffered as a result, and I vowed never to do such a thing again."

With that over to Gayle, Gazi became the first offspinner to bowl the first over of a Test on debut, and the first debutant spinner to do so in 104 years. He still remembers the first ball: Gayle ran down the wicket and slammed him for a huge six over long-on. But Gazi got Gayle out in his third over, and ended up with nine wickets in the match.

By his third Test, in Sri Lanka, Gazi was the team's bowling leader. The pressure was immense for a young cricketer, but he ended the series as Bangladesh's highest wicket-taker. However, in Zimbabwe after that, he struggled to get a decent spell, and in England, playing for the A side this August, he felt lost.

"I needed to struggle somewhere, and it happened in England. I wouldn't know what I was doing wrong. After I returned from the tour, I did a lot of spot-bowling on my own. I understood what areas needed improvement, and I worked on them. The senior players helped me through this period. There was also talk about my fitness. I really wanted to prove myself, and I think I needed the Chittagong Test to go my way."

If Gazi hadn't buckled down to bat on the fourth morning in Chittagong, New Zealand would have dominated and probably forced a win on the placid track.

"My mind was fresh before I had gone out to bat. I had just prayed, so I was feeling good. My only target was to bat as long as Nasir [Hossain] is in the middle. After I defended the first ball, I felt confident because I had middled it. During the innings I charged the spinners. My mind was set on not playing a cross-bat shot - just to play straight.

"As much as the hat-trick, I was happy with the hundred. I helped the team in a vital moment, and I batted with the tail. [Robiul Islam] Shiblu kept telling me that I will get you through to 50 and 100. I didn't play rough shots, only tried to play deliveries within my reach."

After the Test, Gazi went home to celebrate Eid with his parents. He travelled 82 nautical miles, from Dhaka to Patuakhali at the southern tip of the country, on board Kuakata-1, a sturdy ship that is often overloaded as it meanders down Bangladesh's rivers. It is an unusual way for a Bangladesh cricketer to go home between Tests.

Those who have played with Gazi say he doesn't like to be told how to do things. It probably explains why at the age of 19, having faced several rejections in age-group cricket, he decided to stick to the game.

"I had been a standby for nine years. When I didn't make it to the Under-19 World Cup, I wanted to see what happens in the end. I had given so much time in my life to cricket, I just wanted to see what is there when it all finishes," he said.

Credit goes to Gazi for not giving up on the game. He has lit up a path for others like him. Players coming through will know it is possible to make it big as long as their belief in themselves is as strong as his.

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. He tweets here

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