Someone to emulate
Of all possible catalysts to development of a cricket nation, the strongest possible one is the existence of role models. Young cricketers picking up a bat or a ball in their backyard, must have someone to look up to, someone to want to emulate, when they make their first tentative steps into the game, playing make-believe games of Test cricket. Bangladesh have not had any such pin-up boys so far, but Mohammad Rafique reluctantly presents himself as the lone candidate worthy of examination.
When you first watch Rafique, you cannot help but be struck by the bustling manner in which he goes about his business on a cricket field; it is his most obvious physical characteristic. Not particularly tall or short, not slim nor carrying extra weight, neither short-haired nor long, Rafique is a pretty nondescript character in the sheer physical sense. But, when he stands at the top of his mark, flicking the ball from hand to hand, and begins his vigorous, angular run to the bowling crease, pivots, and hurls the ball towards the batsman, you can tell that he is a sturdy performer in a weak team.
Rafique took 4 for 156 from a now-routine 50 overs yesterday, but the numbers belie the effort. He was the only bowler who consistently troubled the Indians. Mashrafe Mortaza had his moments, as promising young fast bowlers with a pace will do. But Rafique's awkwardness lies in the fact that he gives the ball a jolly rip, and as it gathers revolutions and heads to the batsman, it is difficult to judge which way the ball will turn. Not dissimilar to a seamer, which is what he started off as, when Rafique bowls, the position of the seam is visible, but once the ball pitches, it scrambles, and either turns sharply away from the right hander, or fizzes straight on with the arm. Add to this the fact that the odd ball is slipped in much quicker, with a kink in the action that is clearly visible in slow-motion replays, and you have a tough customer to handle.
And it was the bowling action that derailed Rafique's career temporarily, when he was reported to the International Cricket Council soon after Bangladesh's inaugural Test against India at Dhaka, when Raman Subba Row was the match referee. But, where quick remedial action was needed, as Rafique was no spring chicken at 31, the Bangladesh selectors lost their faith and plumped for Enamul Haq instead. Haq, however, was merely a containing option, and not the wicket-taker Rafique was, and the selectors soon realised that they had made a colossal blunder, and after Rafique had sat out 12 Tests, a long time in Bangladesh cricket, they reinstated him.
Soon after Rafique returned he picked up 6 for 77, against South Africa at Dhaka, the best by a Bangladeshi bowler in 19 Tests. Since then he has been the backbone of the Bangladesh attack, sending down a huge number of overs in each innings.
But just as Rafique's bowling is methodical, rhythmic and unrelenting, his batting is earthy, uninhibited, and you sometimes sense, a chance for the man to express himself. How can you not admire a left-arm spinner who hits a four and six off the first over of a left-arm spinner he faces in Test cricket? And then later slams 111 batting at No. 9 in a Test in West Indies?
There are many reasons why young Bangladeshi cricketers should look up to Rafique. But he's not a ready-made star in many ways. He is rarely in the spotlight, and shies away from the media. Even when he does grant an interview he is more comfortable in Dhakkai urdu than even Bengali, forget about English. He does not chase after endorsements thought he comes from a poor background, and three families rely on his income for survival.
For Rafique, it has already been a long journey, from the shantytown across the Buriganga river in Dhaka, from where he initially had to take a ferry to ply his trade in Dhaka. But one senses, the journey is not anywhere near complete yet.
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo.