Bangladesh cricket needs practical approach
Every year since 2006, Bangladesh have had one very bad game. The one for 2014 has now come in their first international match of the year after Sri Lanka crushed them by an innings and 248 runs in the first Test in Dhaka.
The margin of loss, and non-stop speculation on the proposed two-tier Test system, has further made it an inconvenient defeat, particularly when all the talk is about the country's future in Test cricket. Bangladesh are No. 10 in the ICC rankings, making them one of two teams in danger of being relegated to the Intercontinental Cup from 2015 if the two-tier system is adopted.
For now, the threat is still only on paper. The ICC press release summarising the guiding principles of the Big Three's proposals on the January 28 did not contain the words 'demotion', 'relegation' or 'I-Cup'. But the effect of discussions, speculation, statements and board meetings had been seen in the lead-up to the Dhaka Test.
Two days before the game, Mushfiqur Rahim rightfully gave his views on the two-tier system and how it would affect the team. A few players, like Shakib Al Hasan, spoke briefly about their concern, while others, like Tamim Iqbal, joked about what their future would look like. Mushfiqur's statement was definitive.
The Bangladesh captain was worried, about the future of the team and about too much talk of other issues before a Test series. A similar thing had happened in March 2013 on Bangladesh's tour to Sri Lanka when the visiting side lost players to injuries and the hosts were uncertain of fielding a proper line-up due to a tiff over contracts with SLC. Bangladesh shut off the distraction and drew their first game against Sri Lanka in Galle. They even won their first ODI against Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka later on the tour. In Zimbabwe, however, Bangladesh faced poor training facilities, complained about it and lost the first Test by 335 runs.
After his statement against the proposed system, Mushfiqur was mocked in some circles. But the ICC's decision to grant Bangladesh Test status in 2000 or the BCB's continued apathy towards Test cricket is not his burden to carry. He is a salt-of-the-earth cricketer whose life has been devoted to the game.
There was half a chance that Bangladesh would be at their best against Sri Lanka because, in the past, they have reacted well when faced with difficult situations. However, one could not fault them if they were thinking of their future on the eve of a Test match. One would also have understood if the situation had worried them to the extent that the next morning, they picked three seamers, were put in to bat and lost four wickets before lunch.
Shamsur Rahman was making his Test debut, but it seemed the entire playing XI were just as nervous. They bowled poorly for the rest of the game and the captain led the way in dropping sitters. While this was happening, news from Dubai on the second day of the Test match suggested Bangladesh had been given the stay of execution and there was no direct threat to their status and international schedule. By then, however, Sri Lanka had run away with the game. In the second innings, all the batsmen looked like they wanted to be left alone but not out in the middle.
The day after the game, coach Shane Jurgensen called the ongoing draft proposal controversy during the Test match a case of "bad timing".
"There were a few distractions before the game which probably didn't help either, with the ICC thing," Jurgensen said. "More than just discussions, there was disappointment. It was bad timing for the whole thing to happen ahead of a Test match. At the same time, we are representing Bangladesh in international cricket, and we didn't play well."
There was a peculiar glare on the Bangladesh team throughout this game. While the seniors like Tamim, Shakib and Mushfiqur would know what it is like to play Test cricket when the rest of the cricketing world is questioning their status as a team, guys like Mominul Haque, Sohag Gazi and Al-Amin Hossain would have been oblivious of such a scenario.
Now the newcomers, too, would be feeling the burden of this pressure until Bangladesh rise in the Test rankings. For that Test matches have to be won, not something done by bowling dot balls or throwing wickets away.
The last week would have been hard for Mushfiqur, who takes some time letting go of things. The reaction to the statement on the two-tier system must have rankled him and he may even have regretted it. When he spoke after the game, Mushfiqur sounded stricken, but he was brave enough to take the blame, when the prevailing culture in Bangladesh cricket is to do the opposite.
From this point onwards, whether Bangladesh play more, or less, Test cricket will depend completely on the BCB's strengths in building relations with other boards. The team's performance would definitely be counted but given the climate in world cricket, diplomacy and finance are going to override how well the game is played.
Mushfiqur's team cannot stop being positive or stop trying to win Test matches. If they are disheartened by all the talk, they should imagine how the likes of Habibul Bashar, Mohammad Rafique and Mashrafe Mortaza played between 2001 and 2005. It was horrible, at times, but they held firm.
Since 2006, Bangladesh have started to win matches, first against lower-ranked or equal-strength sides, and gradually against higher-ranked teams. In each of those years, they have had one disaster, either in Tests or limited-overs matches. In 2006, it was the Brendan Taylor's last-ball six, followed by a New Zealand victory achieved in six overs in Queenstown.
The ICL player defection in 2008, defeat to Ireland in the 2009 World Twenty20s, the losses to Netherlands in 2010 and 2012 and scores of 58 and 78 in the 2011 World Cup were subsequent low points. Last year, Bangladesh suffered a 335-run loss to Zimbabwe, Mushfiqur resigned on the tour and the BPL corruption controversy erupted.
There could be more defeats for Bangladesh this year, as they have started off on the wrong foot. The optimists inside the dressing room, however, would see it as a customary blip that is now out of the way.
The BCB also needs to be proactive and appease its players rather than shooting them down for being vocal on issues. The board needs to talk to the players and explain what is happening and how it could affect them. A general sense of practicality is necessary and expected over the next couple of weeks in Bangladesh cricket.
Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. He tweets here