Ashes impatience sours the Bangladeshi dream
From the moment England's cricketers wrapped up their tour of South Africa, all thoughts shifted squarely onto the next big assignment - the only big assignment. From now until July, the newspapers will be inundated with a daily belch of space-filling waffle - "Trescothick / Vaughan / Flintoff / Pietersen - We're Up For The Ashes" - and as of 11am Brisbane time today, the hype was cranked up an extra notch, with the unveiling of the Australian tour party. Forget about England's extraordinary success in 2004. If the long gestation of the 2005 Ashes will prove one thing, it is that English audiences are not content with having their cake and eating it. They need the cherry on top as well.
More's the pity therefore, that in this summer of all summers, the oldest rivals in sport have been asked to compromise their intensity and make small-talk with the youngest novices. For the Australians will not be the only Test team to visit English shores this summer. Far from it. In less than a month's time, the Bangladeshis will have landed; proud as punch, and nervously anticipating their inaugural series in the birthplace of cricket. Their first encounter with English early-season wickets will come at Fenner's on May 10, where they launch their campaign with a three-day match against British Universities, and they are scheduled to play in two more three-dayers against Sussex and Northamptonshire, before embarking on the moment that all cricketers dream of - a maiden Test match at Lord's.
A maiden Test at Lord's! What an honour and a privilege it must be to step out through the pavilion gate and onto the hallowed turf - the ultimate for any cricketer of any nationality, let alone that nation's very first representatives. The last Asian side to do so - the 1984 Sri Lankans - charmed the entire country with the innocence and effectiveness of their strokeplay, as Sidath Wettimuny and Duleep Mendis rattled up a 400-plus total at the first attempt and gave a complacent England a very bloody nose indeed.
Two decades later, however, and we can but dream of a similar outcome. Sri Lanka's big day out at Lord's came in late August, which is not even on the same planet as Lord's in late-May. Admittedly, Bangladesh emerged with credit from their last great challenge, the top-end tour of Australia two winters ago, but this series will arguably provide their sternest test yet - has any Bangladeshi batsman ever encountered anything so alien as a genuine English greentop? Whether it is Habibul Bashar who leads his team out to field first, or Javed Omar and Nafis Iqbal who stride out in tandem to open the batting, we can only hope that Bangladesh's chosen few lap up the moment for everything it is worth, put up a performance that makes their country proud ... and emerge all the stronger after the trouncing that seems certain to come their way.
A great many wrongs have combined to produce this depressingly misguided itinerary, which seems designed specifically to ruin everyone's fun this summer. By placing Bangladesh in the flight-path of the incoming Australian jumbo, even their finest efforts will, at best, be drowned out by the din, and at worst be totally squashed by the landing. What is more, there are issues at stake this summer that transcend mere mismatches - chief among them being the fact that this is English's cricket last season on terrestrial TV, and the ECB has, in its wisdom, scheduled the execrable, inconsequential (and, coincidentally, Sky-operated) NatWest Series right on top of the one Ashes-shaped window in an ever-expanding football season.
Though their own newspapers can at times be impatient for success, Bangladesh have never yet encountered the full vitriolic force of the English media, which is sure to descend in unison come the midway point of this macabre competition, when Bangladesh have slumped to the fourth of their six scheduled defeats. They had better brace themselves now, because believe me, it won't be pretty, but nor will it be intended as personal.
In the circumstances, it is arguable whether any side, in 128 years of Test cricket, has ever been placed on a greater hiding-to-nothing than the Bangladeshis. They have been at once honoured and alienated by a fixture list that, on the face of it, treats them as equals, but in fact casts them as voiceless witnesses to a very private squabble. It took Sri Lanka 14 years and four one-Test tours before the ECB were embarrassed into accepting them as equal opponents. And yet, the After-The-Lord-Mayor's-Show nature of those old tours would have been far preferable, and far more beneficial, for this current Bangladeshi squad.
Still, you can but take the complement when it is offered, and never before has a leading cricket nation rolled out the red carpet for Bangladesh to quite this extent. Australia and South Africa were quicker to issue the invites, but their matches were ushered into the backwaters of Darwin and Cairns; East London and Potchefstroom. West Indies served up a decent venue in Sabina Park (and a decent thrashing to match), while Pakistan offered the National Stadium in Karachi (and approximately 12 spectators). But Lord's, for the opening match of an Ashes summer? That is something else entirely.
And so, while the entire world salivates about a series that is still a distant dink on the horizon, Bangladesh have gathered a 20-man training squad to Dhaka and begun preparations for the biggest tour of their lives. They have Dav Whatmore, a former coach of Lancashire, to guide them through their anxieties, and disarm the media with his wry humour - yesterday, he told the Dhaka Daily Star that his main ambition was to reach the final of the NatWest Series.
Furthermore, they have a squad young enough and malleable enough to regain their shape if the poundings, on and off the pitch, get too heavy. And that, perhaps, is Bangladesh's trump card - the youthful enthusiasm which somehow refuses to be swamped by endless disappointment. According to the website, Banglacricket.com (the home of some of the most relentlessly optimistic fans any team can wish to have) large and vocal bands of ex-pats have annexed large swathes of seating at both Lord's and, especially, Chester-le-Street. They can't wait for what lies ahead.
The trouble is, nor can the English.
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo. He covered England's 2003-04 tour of Bangladesh.