Mortaza makes haste, slowly
There's a mad man loose at the Bangladesh nets. It has been raining incessantly in Chittagong; the third one-dayer between Bangladesh and India looks improbable, and the players have moved to the indoor facility. Mashrafe Mortaza spots a mini football and wants to dribble past his friend Abdur Razzak. Next, he wants to keep heading it forever - cap in one hand, the other gesturing towards the forehead, as though saying "I have magic there, I can make it talk with my head". He wants Syed Rasel to bowl him bouncers with that ball and he hooks them. He wants to beat up Rasel and chases him all over the nets. He aims with the ball from one end and hits Rasel smack in the head. All the while his face, his hands and legs keep moving, expressing, telling the story. This isn't body language, more a conference of polyglots.
On the field, Mortaza performs one of the most thankless jobs in cricket: spearhead the fast bowling attack of a subcontinent team. He does that remarkably well. Only a few days ago, he had missed a match because of injury. On his comeback, the first ball flew at 86mph.
Where does he get all this energy from? "I think I am strong," he says with a confidence that in anyone else would have sounded arrogant. Mortaza's strength comes from his first love: the river Chitra, which flows just opposite his house in Narail. "I loved swimming from childhood; I'd swim, with friends or kids tied to my back, from noon to 3 pm or so." He also had a penchant for climbing coconut trees; on his wedding day last September, one of his guests joked that there were no coconuts. Mortaza made for the nearest tree in a flash; it took a lot of effort to keep him down. Anyway, he swam in the Chitra that night.
His team-mates and friends call him pagla, an affectionate term loosely translated as madman. "Maybe I am a bit like that", he acknowledges. When he was young - he's 23 now - he was a veritable circus on the road. "I did a lot of tricks with my bike." When he was younger still, he would jump 20 feet off a bridge and on to moving trucks. "I used to do it everyday. Not now," he says. "I have stopped the bike antics too. My father doesn't like it. He thinks as a player I shouldn't be doing all this."
Mortaza was so in love with Narail that he didn't like travelling. At the age of 17, a grand-uncle who was a coach at Dhaka's Mohammedan Sporting club, asked Mortaza to join the team, which was short of players, for a match about an hour's journey from Narail. He agreed only after his grandmother convinced him, and took six wickets against Kashim City. He returned, but the bug had bitten; soon he was bound for the under-17 zonal camp, where he was picked by Malcolm Pareira for a tour of Sri Lanka; then to the under-19 side, and finally the national side. All this, and stints with Andy Roberts too.
The lows are as clear in his mind as the highs. Mortaza remembers the worst day of his career. "Once Zimbabwe [at Harare last August] needed 17 runs off the last over." He looks down, smiles, and says, "I gave them. That was the worst day for me." The simplicity conveys the anguish.
Dav Whatmore, the coach, was good support then. "He said, 'When you wake up the next day, it will be hard for you. But don't worry, just keep working.'" A day later, Mortaza was heard telling a friend, "This will never happen to me again. Even if I try to do it, this will never happen."
He remembers when he dropped Ricky Ponting in the Fatullah Test last year, a catch which, if taken, might well have caused the biggest upset in cricket history. "There was a breeze, and I was three seconds late." It plays on his mind whenever they are close to winning an important match.
He fondly remembers his Man-of-the-Match performance against India at the World Cup, and also Sachin Tendulkar's wicket at Chittagong in 2004-05. He has seen and felt the change of the other teams' attitude towards Bangladesh. "They used to ignore us earlier. They would think, 'Bangladesh is coming; we will win easily.' Nowadays, they cannot afford to do this," he says. "It used to hurt a lot.
"But it was nice", he adds wryly, "to see India celebrate so much after beating us." At 23, he has seen a lot of cricket, has travelled the world, yet he still misses the good life of Narail. "I miss everything. Friends, family," he says, sounding like a 17-year-old on his first tour. "But as a professional cricketer, you have to do all this." All of a sudden the country's leading paceman takes over. In three seconds, his face has changed from a child's to that of a grown-up.
Mortaza is, if possible, a wise mad man. Part of the maturity stems from a long list of injuries and operations - three operations on his left knee, one on the right, many stress fractures of his back, shoulder problems and two torn ankle ligaments. He has spent agonising days in hospitals - injury after injury, operation after operation. He recently lost Manjural Islam Rana, his close friend and team-mate, in a motor accident.
Most significantly, Mortaza has started to realise his responsibility as Bangladesh's leading pace bowler. He has become more measured. That shows in his bowling. "I love bowling fast but in the past two years I haven't been bowling really fast," he says. "I am getting fit and back. I think I can bowl really fast now but I like to bowl in the right areas. [Glenn] McGrath, [Brett] Lee, everyone told me I should bowl in the right areas." He also believes he has the ability to raise his speed whenever he wants to. He has started to read the batsmen and started to work them out. "This is an aspect I have improved a lot in. I like to read a batsman."
His goal is to become one of the world's top-10 bowlers in Tests. In one-dayers too, but Tests especially. "Test match is the real cricket." He has started taking his batting seriously. "The coach tells me I can be a good batsman." Dinesh Mongia will testify to that.
On an average, he goes back home once about two months. "I love the river. I like sitting there and chatting with my friends. Even if I am not swimming, I like to just sit there."
Mortaza has changed. There's a price he is paying. "I can't injure myself anymore."
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer with Cricinfo Magazine