August 29, 2014

An unfulfilled talent

Aftab Ahmed was long thought of as a potential star in Bangladesh cricket, and he had the game to match, but not the required desire and work ethic

Aftab Ahmed played his part in one of the most glorious moments in Bangladesh cricket history: upsetting Australia at Cardiff in 2005 © Getty Images

In the late-1990s, teachers at Chittagong's Nasirabad Government Boys High School would constantly ask their star batsman to stay back one more year to play the national school cricket tournament. He would always agree, in order to keep the school in the running for the championship. From the school yard, he would often break a few windows. Nobody would mind since it was Aftab Ahmed, rising star of Chittagong.

He made his first-class debut in 2002, played two Under-19 World Cups, and made his senior debut before turning 19. He played at the highest level for six years, from 2004. Four years after his last game for Bangladesh, he has now decided to quit cricket a few months short of turning 29. He felt out of demand in the Dhaka Premier League and perhaps lost interest having done poorly last season. For someone like Aftab, the exit is a relief.

He wasn't cut from the same cloth as many of the big-city kids who played or were to play for Bangladesh. Off the field he liked to take things slow, and there was much of the old-time cricketer in him. But Nafees Iqbal, also from Chittagong and a Bangladesh team-mate, was surprised by the retirement.

"Aftab was an enormous talent while we were growing up," Nafees said. "Whenever I went back to Chittagong, I would actually go to see him play, and he was not much older than me. Then we played together and became friends. When I heard that he had announced his retirement I was surprised, but I respect his decision. I feel that he still had a few more years in him. As a player, I think he had a bit of homesickness about him, but when he was at the ground, he would always give his 100%. He would never back down. If he had probably worked a bit harder, he would have fulfilled more of his potential."

Homesickness is rare among Bangladeshi cricketers, most preferring the high life of touring. Aftab's team-mates know their way around the big cities of the cricketing world. But Aftab wasn't a go-getter. He was a strange mix of bravado and timidity. He would take on the best fast bowlers in the world like very few Bangladeshi batsmen could, yet he was never quite a crowd-puller. He would stick to a small group of friends, hardly be seen in public or starring in commercials. It is hard to remember him anywhere outside a cricket field, helmeted and with a Bangladesh flag worn as a bandana underneath.

He was from a part of the country where cricket meant mostly batting. In Dhaka the scene was ultra-competitive. Aftab paid the price for his lack of interest in training and the nitty-gritty of modern cricket, factors taken seriously by players from smaller towns and those who graduate out of the BKSP (the national sports institute). There are stories from U-19 camps about Aftab sleeping in late when the rest had started training. A trainer would wake him up and bring him to bat, and Aftab would score runs and still make the cut. He was simply following the time-honoured tradition of Chittagong cricketers only turning up in training to bat in the nets. He understood that this was not the way, and never defended it.

Then again, he is arguably Bangladesh's best fielder, their best No. 3 in ODIs yet, and between 2004 and 2010 he had the best strike rate among No. 3 ODI batsmen who have played at least 50 innings.

He was always a cavalier batsman, hitting the ball over the infield and pushing on to his front foot when facing short deliveries. A tic in his trigger movement - pushing his front elbow up slightly before playing his shots - added an attractiveness missing with most Bangladeshi batsmen. They were too busy finding a way to deal with fast bowling. Aftab made it look easy at times, but like many of his peers, threw it away too soon.

As a 14-year-old, Aftab made his debut in the BCB-recognised equivalent of first-class matches. He made one first-class century in the next four years, and was picked to play for Bangladesh the following year, having long been considered a young talent.

His first ODI fifty came in Bangladesh's maiden win over India. A month later, he and Mohammad Rafique thumped Zimbabwe in a series-deciding ODI. When everyone else crumbled in England, he enthusiastically stroked a run-a-ball 82 (eventually his only Test fifty). Two weeks later, his six and winning single sealed possibly the greatest upset of all time, Bangladesh beating Australia in Cardiff.

Match-winning fifties, a much-loved style of batting, lightning reflexes and agility in the 30-yard circle. Bangladesh had themselves a hero who disappointed less than Mohammad Ashraful.

Statistically, Aftab's best year was 2006, and though the selectors waited for him to settle down as a Test No. 6, he couldn't make it his own. He then found T20 to his liking: mostly batting and a bit of fielding. He went toe to toe with Ashraful in the 2007 World Twenty20 win over West Indies, and against South Africa threatened for about 15 minutes when he hit five fours and two sixes.

It started to go downhill from there. Richard McInnes, who had two stints in Bangladesh as development coach, came across Aftab in 2003. "Aftab was very talented, as are many, but he was never really driven to be the best he could be," McInnes said. "He enjoyed playing the game and as soon as the enjoyment is gone, as he referred to in his press conference, there is nothing left for him to play for.

"He certainly had the physical attributes to be successful. Good balance, quick hands, powerful with exceptional timing, and importantly he could play the short ball. So I was impressed. Unfortunately he never really had the desire to see what he could achieve, to do the work to find out how good he could be."

Loss of form led to his axing in 2008, but his natural reluctance to do the extra work was probably catching up with him too. So when he missed out on the Australia tour that year after a sequence of 0, 0 and 3 against Pakistan, he decided to take up an offer from the ICL. He didn't have a great time there in the middle, but players from that team would often refer to the lack of training in the unofficial T20 tournament. Must have fit nicely with Aftab's way of playing, but it wasn't to last.

He returned to play for Bangladesh in 2010 but it wasn't a well-timed comeback since he was asked to hold up the top order despite having struggled that season in domestic cricket. A year later, he was not in Bangladesh's preliminary squad for the 2011 World Cup, and his time was up. He felt like an outsider, and now he was one.

He was waiting to bat in a Dhaka Premier League match when he saw the squad without his name in it. Laying the newspaper aside, he murmured to himself, though loud enough for those within earshot: "Remember what Aftab Ahmed was like, and see what this Aftab Ahmed has become. There's a World Cup at home and I am not going to be a part of it."

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84

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