Struggling Ashraful confident of fulfilling promise
After an ODI series that was perhaps closer than the 3-0 scoreline suggests, the general consensus is that Bangladesh cricket is slowly reaching the standard required to compete on equal terms with the bigger nations in world cricket. But "slowly", unfortunately, is the operative word, and in Chittagong on Sunday, one of the slowest developers of them all returns to centre stage.
Mohammad Ashraful epitomises all the promise and frustration of Bangladesh cricket. When he's in form, he bats with a fluency that few in the world can match - never more thrillingly than during his century on debut against Sri Lanka in September 2001, when he was a carefree whippersnapper of 16, which encapsulated the richness of talent that the country seemed set to produce.
Unfortunately, of late, Ashraful's career has hit the buffers. A wretched tour of New Zealand realised 62 runs in six innings, in all three forms of the game, and followed a threadbare series of performances against India and Sri Lanka, in which he managed one half-century in eight innings.
With the blessing of the board, Ashraful sat out the three ODIs in a bid to clear his mind ahead of next week's Test series, but even that policy didn't quite pay the dividends he'd hoped. In four first-class innings for Dhaka Division, he mustered 21 runs including three ducks, to leave his hopes of a recall resting rather heavily on his performance against England in the forthcoming three-day warm-up.
"In the last couple of months I have not been batting well," Ashraful told Cricinfo. "In the nets I am batting well, but in the middle I get out very early, so that's why I feel I needed a bit of a break from international cricket. But tomorrow is a three-day game, and if I bat well there, I can play Test cricket again."
In Ashraful's absence, Bangladesh have made decent progress against England, particularly in the batting where Tamim Iqbal, Imrul Kayes, Shakib Al Hasan and Mushfiqur Rahim have formed a promising core of young and motivated prospects. But there's no question in the minds of either the selectors or the coaching staff that a confident and focussed Ashraful would transform the dynamic of their team, by slotting in at No. 3 or 4, and providing a touch of class to an otherwise functional middle-order.
"I still think that he is one of our best players for Bangladesh," Akram Khan, a member of the selection committee, told Cricinfo. "He's played a lot of good innings for us, and so there's no confusion about how good he is. But the last six or seven months, he has not been in good shape, so we are praying that he can finally come good. If he plays well, he can make the difference for Bangladesh, and we are ready for that."
Unfortunately, Ashraful's single biggest problem is the fact that these expectations have already been looming over him for nigh on a decade, and with every new failure, a new solution is thrust into the mix. He was feeling the burden during England's last tour in 2003, when Dav Whatmore dropped him from the Test series in a bid to shield him from the pressures, and his desperation to avoid a repetition of that scenario was one of the main reasons why he sat out the one-dayers.
"Everyone has been talking with me, and giving me advice, so I just needed to go away and work it out for myself," Ashraful said. "I think I have a problem with my gameplan. My batting is okay, but some days I'm very attacking and some days I'm very defensive. That's why I'm scoring only every four or five games.
"I needed to think more, and come up with one solid gameplan, and now I am thinking ball-by-ball and playing positive cricket," he added. "I just haven't scored enough runs recently, but I believe in myself, and if I feel good, Insh'allah they will select me."
The selectors are, by and large, sympathetic to Ashraful's plight. "It happens," Akram said. "When good players play for a long time, they go through periods when their form is not quite there. I think this was the right time [for Ashraful] to get out from there. I know he is trying very hard, and I hope he can come back soon. The boys played very well without him, but we need some experience and he has played a lot of long innings. If he comes back, it can only be good for the Test team."
For all the problems that Ashraful has endured of late, the chance to slot into a team in which his personal performance is no longer the decisive factor can only be a good thing. "In the past there was big pressure on me, but now we have a lot of match-winners," he said. "Now I am just one of the players who has to perform. When we beat the big teams I sometimes play brilliant cricket, but now we have four or five guys who can do that, so I need to step up again.
"It is good for Bangladesh," he added. "When Jamie [Siddons, the coach] came here two years ago, he said he needed more players like me. Now we have a lot of players performing good cricket. They are very confident, and they are not scared anymore. Last year we won 14 games, and even though ten of those were against Zimbabwe, it still shows that we are improving."
As for Ashraful's personal ambitions, he hopes that the coming year can prove to be a watershed in his career. Having given up the captaincy and reassessed his game away from the spotlight, he still believes he is young enough, and sufficiently motivated, to transform an international record that does no justice whatsoever to his talent.
"Scoring in domestic cricket isn't the same as doing it in Test cricket, so it was just good for me to get away," he said. "I definitely see this as a new start. I'm only 26, so if I'm fit enough I can play ten years or more. For the last nine years, I have been up and down, so now I need to perform regularly. My best time is still to come, I think."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo. Go to http://twitter.com/miller_cricket to follow him on Twitter through the England tour of Bangladesh.