Super League shifts focus to World Cup spots
As the Dhaka Premier Division League enters the title-deciding Super League phase, the focus in Bangladesh now shifts to the World Cup berths up for grabs. Twenty five of Bangladesh's preliminary squad members will be playing in the six-team competition for the top-most domestic prize and push their World Cup cases from December 24.
Barring injuries and given current form, the Tamim Iqbal-Anamul Haque opening partnership and the next four batting places are confirmed spots. These slots include the team's top allrounder Shakib Al Hasan and the main wicketkeeper, and their most consistent batsman, Mushfiqur Rahim. Mahmudullah's return to form has taken away the questions about his place in the middle order, and he could even find himself batting at No. 4 as he had done at home recently. Apart from these places, at least four pace bowlers will be picked among the seven specialists and three pace-bowling allrounders. But the rest have to fight for it.
The most talked about places up for grabs, despite the conditions that await Bangladesh in Australia and New Zealand, are the specialist spinners' places. The importance of this selection is the team's dependence on spinners across conditions. Shakib Al Hasan will be the lead spinner but one or two out of Abdur Razzak, Taijul Islam, Arafat Sunny, Jubair Hossain and Elias Sunny will be picked. While Jubair and Elias are quite far back in the race, Razzak remains the big decision.
Razzak is Bangladesh's highest wicket-taker in ODIs but his last game was in August. He has been intermittent in the ODI team this year, having taken just three wickets in six games. A hamstring injury kept him away for a couple of months before returning in the Dhaka Premier League. Arafat took 10 wickets in three ODIs against Zimbabwe but was mysteriously dropped for the remaining two games.
Taijul's case is quite strong too, particularly after his four-wicket haul on debut when he became the only ODI bowler to take a hat-trick on debut. If Razzak loses out to Arafat and Taijul, it won't be much of a surprise but it will ruffle a few feathers within the senior ranks in the Bangladesh team.
A choice will also have to be made between Imrul Kayes and Shamsur Rahman for the third opener's place. Although the pair has done well in Tests, they averaged 15 and 18.12 respectively in ODIs this year, and neither is going to play in the Super League phase. Shamsur did get to play three extra games for relegation-threatened Kalabagan Krira Chakra, which could prompt the selectors to push for his case.
In the lower middle order, Sabbir Rahman recently replaced Nasir Hossain, who has had his worst year since making his debut in 2011. Sabbir played a couple of handy knocks against Zimbabwe and has batted rapidly in the Dhaka Premier League, but his inexperience at the highest level could make a case for both him and Nasir to be picked.
Marshall Ayub has not been an ODI option for the selectors while Naeem Islam, despite his reasonable domestic numbers and adaptability at the top level, has not played an ODI since the loss against Afghanistan in the Asia Cup.
Among the five bona fide allrounders picked in the preliminary squad, only Shakib is an automatic choice. Shuvagata Hom was unconvincing against Zimbabwe in the recent Test series and was not part of the ODI squad. Soumya Sarkar is ahead of Ziaur Rahman and Muktar Ali among the pace-bowling allrounders but his lack of experience means that he is not guaranteed a place. There is, however, said to be a lot of interest in Soumya within the Bangladesh team management, particularly coach Chandika Hathurusingha.
The attention towards newbie Soumya may encourage the uncapped wicketkeeper-batsman Litton Das. He was the Dhaka Premier League's top-scorer in the first phase and is being talked about as a possible option for the World Cup as backup wicketkeeper. But with Anamul already established as an opener, Mushfiqur may not need two backups.
Mashrafe, Rubel Hossain, Taskin Ahmed and Al-Amin Hossain are the pace bowlers most likely to make it to the flight on January 24. Abul Hasan did not create an impression against Zimbabwe and has only just returned from a long injury lay-off. Shafiul Islam hurt his hamstring in late November and is still recovering while the quick Mohammad Shahid was always an encouragement pick.
The five rounds of the Super League will keep everyone guessing. Table-toppers Abahani have won the league 17 times previously but haven't won it since the 2011-12 season. Prime Bank, equal with Abahani on 18 points, will battle it out for their maiden title. But the battle within the battle will have larger consequences for the Bangladesh cricket team.
Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84