Shakib shakes off the pox
It's fair to say that Bangladesh have not enjoyed the ideal build-up to the first Test at Lord's. For all that they competed above expectations in their recent home series against England, the prospect of negotiating England's lively early-season surfaces is one that, when they last toured the country in 2005, was cited by the then-captain Habibul Bashar as the toughest assignment of his 50-Test career.
To have any real hope of putting up a fight, therefore, the Bangladeshis would surely, at the bare minimum, require their star players to be at the peak of their form and fitness. Alas, the two men most likely to provide the inspiration for an upset have spent large swathes of the tour to date on the sidelines. Tamim Iqbal has been labouring with a wrist injury that may yet require surgery, while the captain, Shakib Al Hasan, has only just emerged from quarantine after contracting chicken pox.
Shakib's style since assuming the captaincy in the Caribbean last year has been to lead from the front in every respect, both on and off the field. So the enforced isolation, with only the occasional visit from those team members who were sure that they had contracted the illness in the past and were therefore immune, was far from the best preparation for such a daunting contest.
"I've been kept away almost for two weeks," said Shakib. "It was very hard, staying a whole day in your room. It was weird, and a bit frustrating when you're not going with your team-mates for dinner or a practice session. You're missing everything. It was very hard. But I've been talking and going out with all the guys since, and we're feeling much better."
After two days of practice, Shakib is certain that he's now over the worse, and can instead concentrate on the build-up to one of the undoubted highlights of a cricketer's career. Only three members of the Bangladesh squad have previously played a Test at Lord's - Mohammad Ashraful, Shadahat Hossain and the wicketkeeper, Mushfiqur Rahim - and Shakib can't wait to lead his team through the Long Room and onto the field on Thursday.
"It's exciting for most of the guys, because only a couple of the guys have played here before," he said. "If we take 20 wickets and our batsmen do their job, we have a fair chance [of winning]. But we need to stick to our basics and be very disciplined. England know the conditions much better than us. But we've been here for 15 days, so we've got very good experience of the conditions."
Though Shakib habitually talks a good game, he's fooling no-one as to the scale of the challenge that awaits Bangladesh. As was the case back in 2005, they are running the misfortune of encountering an England side on the up, and once again, there's the prospect of an Ashes series on the horizon to galvanise their mindsets. It may still be some six months in the distance, but the ambitious selections of Steven Finn and Eoin Morgan are evidence that the planning for the Gabba starts right here.
On their own wickets, Bangladesh were able to keep England's ambitions in check with a spin-heavy bowling attack, but that's not a viable option this time around, especially with the need to incorporate an extra batsman to guard against the sort of batting meltdown that has undermined all too many of their 57 Test defeats.
"The practice wickets have turned a bit, so we hope it will in the middle too, but we'll have to change our tactics," said Shakib, who implied that there would be a Test debut for the seamer Robiul Islam, who impressed with 3 for 72 in the nine-wicket defeat against England Lions in Derby last week. "We have got some very good fast bowlers, and we have a newcomer, who will be perfect for the future of Bangladesh cricket."
The Lord's Test will also mark the return to action of an old-stager, Ashraful, who missed England's recent visit due to a loss of form, but is sure to slot into the middle-order at a venue that he remembers from his last Test tour back in 2005. "Being at Lord's is a very different feeling," he said. "We don't have any tour to the UK until 2020, so we are not sure whether we will get another chance to play here. Everyone is excited."
Ashraful's career has been undermined by uncertainty, with too much advice and expectation constraining the natural ability that he demonstrated both on debut as a 16-year-old in 2001, but also back in 2005, when his memorable century was responsible for the humbling of Australia in a never-to-be-forgotten one-day victory at Cardiff. Now, however, he says he intends to jettison the angst, and just get back to striking the ball with all the confidence he can muster.
"An England tour is challenging for most teams that come here, and even Australia lost two Ashes Tests last summer," he said. "But I just hope to play a big innings to cement my place, and to do that, I have gone back to my old style. I used to be a strokemaker but over the last few months I tried to check my strokes. But it did not bring any benefit, so I've decided to go back to my natural game."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo