Tough questions for Bangladesh selectors
Bangladesh could stick to tried and tested players for the two-match Test series against West Indies that begins on November 13, despite question marks hanging over several positions in the team. The national selectors are expected to pick a 15-man squad on November 6, a day after the National Cricket League's second game ends.
"Eighty per cent of the team is confirmed, so we will watch the NCL matches starting on November 2 and name the team the day after this round ends," chief selector Akram Khan told ESPNcricinfo. "We will look at some players as we will pick options for some positions. Our job is to select the fifteen and the team management picks the XI."
Interim coach Shane Jurgensen however believes that several places are up for grabs as Bangladesh will be playing Test matches after eleven months, a period which has seen some of those regular players losing spots due to injury, poor form or even, in one case, controversy.
"I think there is a possibility for a number of players to make their way into the team. We haven't played Test cricket for a long time. So it might be a tough call for the selectors. But at the moment I can't comment on selection," Jurgensen, who has been Bangladesh's bowling coach before being thrust into the bigger role of head coach after Richard Pybus' resignation, said.
He said he firmly believes match practice is the best way to prepare for a Test series, and the Bangladesh players have some scheduled ahead of the West Indies series instead of the long preparatory camp in Mirpur. "We are doing the best preparation we can by playing four-day cricket. We played a game in the [first-class National Cricket] league and we have seen some very good performances in the first game.
"Some young guys played very well and their names might be up for selection as well. That's what we want to see. There are more four-day games coming up. They will play two four-day games and then they'll play another game (a three-day warm-up match) against West Indies. So they'll basically be playing three games in the long version. That's good enough preparation for me."
Consequently the selection panel's plate should be full: a new opener, a stable No. 4, a second spinner and a revamped pace attack may be on the cards. The selectors wouldn't be too stressed if they go in for 12 players who have been regulars in the Bangladesh line-up since the Asia Cup and the Twenty20s from June. But some of those players have delivered sub-par performances, which should make Akram look for new faces. The difference in quality of domestic cricket in the country and the international game, however, prevents a new face from making it directly to the Test team. More importantly, the lack of Test cricket doesn't allow selectors much of a yardstick by which to judge how - and if - the players have progressed.
Hence, Tamim Iqbal is likely to open with either Imrul Kayes or Nazimuddin since both have featured in Bangladesh's five Tests in the 2011-12 season. At the moment the call is tilted slightly towards a return for Kayes, who was dropped for the Pakistan Tests. Nazimuddin's weak Asia Cup performance would play a part in Kayes' return, and since he was picked specifically to balance Tamim's aggression, a continuation wouldn't be unlikely.
The No. 3 position is also unlikely to see a new face if Shahriar Nafees' last Test performance is taken into account. But he is not a centrally-contracted player and moreover has a controversy hanging over his head though he continued playing for Bangladesh A last month. Despite the mediocrity expected these days from Mohammad Ashraful, his stability in the Twenty20 team as an opener has probably won him a place in the middle-order. Mahmudullah, who has batted at every position from four to eight, would slot in after Mushfiqur Rahim and Shakib Al Hasan, at seven. That would leave Nasir Hossain batting with the tail and Bangladesh playing with eight batsmen.
"I think the middle-order is fine at the moment. Shakib and Mushfiqur will bat at five and six and Mahmudullah will come in after them," Akram said.
Due to the stretched out batting order, the bowling attack will again be heavily dependent on Shakib, who bowled 92 more Test overs than any of his team-mates last year. The selectors are also pinning hopes on Rubel Hossain completely recovering from a shoulder injury. Jurgensen, who has worked closely with the pace bowler, thinks he is in shape after the long lay-off. "I think Rubel Hossain is one of the bowlers who has been performing well before his injury. He had improved a lot," he said. "At that point of time, he could bowl well no matter what kind of a wicket it was.
"Personally as the bowling coach of the team, it was a very sad day for me when he got injured. He is fit now and is bowling in the nets. Now we have to wait and see if he can make it to the squad."
With such thin prospects on the bowling front, Akram still has left-arm spinner Enamul Haque jnr, who has taken more than a hundred wickets in all forms of the game since last season's NCL, in mind.
"This is one spot where everyone performs. I wish I had that luxury in the other areas too. Enamul has been bowling well but it is still early to say [if he'll be picked]," Akram said. "We are hopeful of Rubel, he bowled well in the first-class game for Khulna."
The team will certainly be without Mashrafe Mortaza as the seamer's debilitating knees are still not strong enough to withstand the rigours of the longer format, though he has regularly played ODIs and Twenty20s for Bangladesh after recovering from his latest surgery late last year. Jurgensen, who helped Mashrafe in his latest rehabilitation by tweaking his run-up, said the management still has the former captain in their Test plans. "There is a long-term plan for Mashrafe Mortaza. He is following a process for his return to international cricket.
"He plays the one day internationals and has performed quite well. Unfortunately the longer version of the game is still a bit of a stumbling block. It'll take some time for him."
Nineteen players were picked for the five Tests last year and a carry-over of such numbers is expected in a season that has Bangladesh playing Tests in three different countries and varied conditions. Given the trend of selection and form and fitness of some of the players, the selection committee is likely to delve more deeply into first-class cricket.
Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Bangladesh