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March 3, 2006
For all that Bangladesh fought bravely in their latest Test outing, at least until lunch on the third day, the turn-out at Test cricket's newest venue has not been encouraging. But even that moderate presence dwindled once Mohammad Ashraful's contribution had come to an end. After a magnificent 136 first-time around, he made just 1 in the second innings and with his unceremonious exit, a nation's clear hopes started to get hazier.
In just five years of competitive cricket, Ashraful has become the most popular sportsman in Bangladesh. Be it a local league game or an international at home, he invariably draws the most attention and the biggest cheers are always reserved for the moment he goes out to bat. The worrying thing is that he is fast becoming an icon without anyone knowing whether he will ever reach the pinnacle of his game. But maybe, just maybe, he is beginning to understand what it means to be one of the leading lights of the game, and is tailoring his behaviour accordingly.
For those who saw his first innings at Chittagong's newly initiated stadium, Ashraful the batsman can be faultless. At one stage it looked as though only he could choose when to end his innings and everyone, including the great Muttiah Muralitharan, was powerless to intervene. What can you do when a batsman with the ability of a genius, extraordinary reflexes and no apparent technical weakness sets his mind on fighting for his team? Not much.
For four hours Ashraful thrilled the audience like a Chinese acrobat balancing a hundred ceramic pots on her forehead - awesome to behold yet always in control. He hardly missed a ball and was reverse-sweeping Murali before he had even reached double figures. The first attempt did not connect properly, the second whistled over the third-man ropes in no time.
Even when he was attempting the audacious, there was absolute certainty felt beyond the boundary and the heart didn't go into the mouth. For the hook with which he went from 97 to 101, there were two fielders placed within 10 yards of one another. The ball went between them and neither moved an inch. There was another part of Ashraful that evolved with his batting on that day, the responsible self that steals a peek more frequently these days.
"I think playing in the domestic competitions really helped," Ashraful said about his run of 51 and 64 in the second and third one-dayers, and then his first-day century at Chittagong. He wasn't bluffing either because his perceived transformation can be traced back to three months earlier.
In this year's Dhaka Premier Division League, the sponsors of the Sonargaon Cricketers team caused a stir by signing two fan favourites, Ashraful and Mohammad Rafique. The team also had some proven campaigners, former Bangladesh internationals plus other men on the fringes of national selection. Most importantly, they had the coffers and ambition to make a difference and Ashraful fitted the scheme like a glove.
But after four losses in their first five games, the bubble had burst and desperate measures were needed to avert relegation threats. The club's management turned to Ashraful as captain, promoting him ahead of his former Test colleague, Al-Shahriar. Sonargaon's fortunes changed with Ashraful leading, learning and performing, and the club that had started at the bottom finished second. He had captained sides before, but for the first time it was to justify his value as a professional and to repay the investment made in him.
He had been just 17 when he scored that debut hundred against Sri Lanka, but now he was being hailed as a wunderkind. At 19 he was still the best around and at 21, Ashraful remained Bangladesh's batting ambassador on the international circuit. That is a lot of pressure to take for someone so young, especially if you knew your livelihood depended on scoring runs.
Ashraful takes it all in his stride. The money he earns is mostly spent on making the lifestyle of his close-knit family better, and he does that with a smile. On tours, he shops, shops and shops - not wishing to miss buying for anyone. On one such trip, he bought a velvet tiger as large as his kit coffin for his nephew, and giggled in anticipation of the joy it would bring. When he chooses the designer jeans for himself, he is as excited as a teenager with a credit card. When he goes through shelves looking for stuff for his close ones, he is as careful and picky as any responsible elder brother of a typical sub-continental middle-class family. Only in his case, he is the youngest.
From the instant he became Test cricket's youngest centurion, Ashraful's role has been to make others happy and content. He has never shied away from that weight of expectation although he has not lived up to it either. There have been hiccups, more often than he would have liked, such as the moment of despair when the controlled glance off Murali that should have been heading towards fine leg for some reason fell into the waiting hands of Upul Tharanga.
That error left Bangladesh on 69 for 4, with a lead of just 50. Another 112 runs later they were all out, with Muralitharan celebrating his 49th five-for and 1000 international wickets. Ashraful is growing up, but some others around him need to make a start too.
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