November 10, 2012

Bangladesh's disappointing dozen

It is 12 years since they made their Test debut, and if they have little to show for it, the organisation of domestic cricket in the country must bear much of the blame

On a winter morning 12 years ago, Bangladesh realised a dream: their inaugural Test had finally come to pass, after four turbulent decades. The first ball was bowled by Javagal Srinath and left alone by Shahriar Hossain.

Within four days, though, reality bit: Bangladesh lost to India by nine wickets. It pointed at the steep, but not impossible, path ahead. Twelve years on, however, there is no mild way to describe what has become of Bangladesh's treasured Test status. The country has failed to produce a team capable of lasting five days for more than 15 occasions without the assistance of nature. In the last five years, 14 out of 24 Tests featuring Bangladesh haven't gone to a fifth day. These numbers, apart from their record of winning just three Tests out of 73, are not the reward a cricket-mad public deserves for their loyalty through thin and threadbare.

When they take on West Indies next week, it will be Bangladesh's first Test match this year; they played their last one before it in December 2011. The 11-month break is not their longest: they went 14 months without a Test between June 2010 and August 2011. Several other such interruptions have dogged the team's progress, but these need to be partly attributed to the team's performance, due to which Bangladesh's administrators have lost confidence in arranging Tests with other cricket boards and in devising a balanced calendar, or asking for more Tests in the ICC's Future Tours Programme. Though they haven't been as explicit as Sri Lanka Cricket in postponing Tests, their focus seems to have shifted subtly to one-day cricket.

Jalal Yunus, a former cricketer and now a director of the BCB, believes that results matter at the end of the day and the team has miles to go. "[Confidence] entirely depends on on-field results," Yunus told ESPNcricinfo. "Whatever we do as board directors count for nothing when the team doesn't do well. The team hasn't reached the level of battling out the final day and drawing a Test match, for instance. So there has been very little progress in that sense. If we can draw a Test series, it will be a major achievement at this stage."

In their first 12 years in the game, Sri Lanka won just one Test more than Bangladesh have, four in 58, while Zimbabwe won seven out of 71. These two countries are frequently used in comparison to Bangladesh since they were the last two before Bangladesh to gain Test status. Those sides came through fighting; Bangladesh have fought too, but not hard enough.

On the outside, many have encouraged Bangladesh at every opportunity but there are plenty who criticise the ICC for granting them Test status. There is also always the mention of the lack of a first-class structure, and of how unprepared Bangladesh were when they began to play Test cricket. The fact is, they are still ill-equipped, but the level of interest in cricket in the country was always going to produce potential players, and it has. However, the BCB has left it at that, having failed to develop the first-class structure into a solid foundation.

If one looks at the BCB's power base, it would be easy to understand why the first-class competition, the regional National Cricket League (NCL), locally referred to as "picnic cricket" sometimes, has never enjoyed the influence that the Dhaka-based clubs that participate in the five-tiered one-day leagues do. The clubs in Dhaka have made a significant contribution to the development of players in post-liberation Bangladesh, chiefly for the financial security they have guaranteed over the years, and also the cricketing culture they have upheld, but the first-class cricket that is played has been along state or divisional lines. Decentralisation was paramount, but the process of making sure cricket grew roots in places outside of the capital has remained only in theory.

The NCL is played among the seven divisions of the country - Dhaka, Chittagong, Rajshahi, Rangpur, Khulna, Sylhet, Barisal - and Dhaka Metropolis, in a league format across Bangladesh, wherever cricket grounds have been properly developed. It began in the 1999-2000 season, when the ICC seriously took up Bangladesh's appeal for Test status, which was ultimately bestowed in June 2000. The NCL is often played early in the domestic season, after which the players move over to the Dhaka Premier League. Till the 2010-11 season there was also a List-A competition alongside the four-day NCL tournament.

Of all the divisions, only Rajshahi has made itself self-sufficient enough to produce players for not just the Dhaka leagues but also set up a strong first-class team that has now won five NCL titles, including the last four in a row. For the most part, though, the onus of producing cricketers is on the Dhaka leagues, mainly because that is where the money is.

The board's constitution is tilted in favour of the clubs too: 12 directors are voted to power by 128 councillors among the Dhaka clubs, while there can be ten directors from the 68 district sports associations (DSAs) across the country. (Divisional sports authorities are also included in this category.)

If the BCB spent half of what it pays the already wealthy Dhaka clubs, in the form of grants, on divisional-level infrastructural development and basic facilities in the districts, Bangladesh's player development would have been truly countrywide

Yunus however believes that the numbers do not reflect the influence of the district directors. "In terms of representation, there isn't a big difference between club- and district-level directors. They now get equal say in important matters. We have never discriminated because they're not from clubs. Whenever they come up with suggestions, they are listened to." Yunus was voted to power as a director from the Dhaka clubs category in the 2008 BCB elections.

Be that as it may, the regional directors ought to have been groomed and educated for the responsibilities of running a first-class system, but they never have been. It has always been the way of the Dhaka clubs to look out for themselves, exemplified by how they stopped first-class cricket in the 2011-12 season and then dragged the Dhaka Premier League out till June after a quarrel over a player's registration.

The average Dhaka club is funded by donations from members, who are normally from the locality or are generally cricket lovers, but of late the Dhaka Premier League clubs (the top-tier of the city's league system) have attracted enthusiastic businessmen who are ready to pump in big money. The process of acquisition of players is rudimentary, with only the registration of the player changing when he changes clubs, during a short transfer window.

Till 1999, the Dhaka leagues were the highest level of cricket in the country. "It is true that the clubs are a dominant factor and one can't deny their contributions since 1977, when cricket really started in Bangladesh," Yunus said. "Clubs receive a large amount as grants these days, but they also spend a lot. A top Dhaka Premier League club now has to spend Tk 2 to 3 crore (approximately US$300,000) per season; a First Division club spends Tk 25-30 lakh ($33,000) in the same period. Where does this money come from? These clubs have made major contributions to players' development and livelihood." At present a top cricketer can earn up to Tk 25-30 lakh ($33,000) per season playing for a Dhaka club, while in the NCL, payments are equal to all playing members, and match fees and other allowances add up to about Tk 3-4 lakh ($4300) per season. Among centrally contracted cricketers, the highest payment amounts to Tk 12 lakh ($14,700) per year, while the rookies get half that.

It can't be ignored, though, that the clubs are only in it for a season at a time, building a team with money, competing, and then being dormant for the next nine months. Based as they are in the country's most affluent city, at least some of these wealthy clubs could have built themselves into top cricketing venues. Quite the opposite. More than 80% of these clubs do not have their own cricket grounds. Many of them are not even based in a playground, and hold their pre-season campaigns on rented cement pitches in any of the larger grounds in the city. When Jamie Siddons, the former national coach, visited a practice session at one of these clubs, he was appalled to see, among other things, an international cricketer drinking water from a bucket. In his time, Dav Whatmore would be seen at the Dhanmondi Cricket Stadium, trying to find a dust-free spot to watch from, finally settling for the match referee's tent, which at least had a roof against the sun.

The clubs end up taking money from the cricket board that could well be used on development, simply because the limited-overs-based Dhaka league system is the lifeblood of Bangladesh cricket. If the BCB spent half of what it pays the already wealthy Dhaka clubs, in the form of grants, on divisional-level infrastructural development and basic facilities in the districts, Bangladesh's player development would have been truly countrywide.

Yunus agreed that the payments made to the clubs are much greater than what the BCB pays the districts for cricket development. "It is nominal, really, but again, the clubs are recognised for their contribution. But I'm sure once regional cricket comes up, it will better decentralise the game in Bangladesh," he said.

An ample player base exists across Bangladesh - Shakib Al Hasan, Tamim Iqbal, Mashrafe Mortaza, Mushfiqur Rahim and Rubel Hossain, to name just a few, were produced by the districts. But they developed their game elsewhere, either at the Bangladesh Krira Shiksha Protisthan, in age-group tournaments, or through talent-hunt programmes.

Once these players were identified as ones for the future, they were yanked out of first-class cricket and placed in representative squads, with only fleeting returns. One of the reasons for failure in sport is lack of practice. When these players stopped playing first-class cricket against each other even occasionally, their ability to withstand five days of Test cricket was affected.

When Tamim made two hundreds against Dhaka Metropolis in the opening game of this season's NCL, he was playing only his fourth game in five years. He missed every first-class match for Chittagong Division since he made his Test debut in 2007-08. Shakib has played a game this season, which is only his eighth in the last five years (during which he took a three-year break from Khulna Division). Mushfiqur has played just the one game for Rajshahi in the last five seasons. Left-arm spinner Abdur Razzak has played nine of Khulna's last 47 games. All these players were regulars before they made their international debuts.

The shortage of appearances by the country's top players hampers the image of first-class cricket in Bangladesh. The scheduling, too, has been shambolic. The NCL has begun in October in four seasons (2007-08, 2008-09, 2010-11, 2012-13), in November on three (2000-01, 2005-06, 2006-07), three times in December (2003-04, 2002-03, 2001-02), once in January (2009-10), and in 2004-05 it started as late as February. On average, the league has taken up three months, with large breaks in the middle to fit in the Dhaka Premier League or the now-defunct NCL one-day competition.

The lack of consistency in scheduling has been blamed on how short the Bangladesh domestic season is, but it has been seen that if the tournament starts in October, it leaves enough time for the rest to be held. The other major problem the BCB often talks about is the number of grounds used for first-class cricket. There are enough venues to hold four matches simultaneously without using the Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium, as will need to be done now, since West Indies are touring Bangladesh. In any case, if the BCB feels there is a lack of cricket grounds in the country, solving this problem would solve many of the country's cricket infrastructural issues, and speed up decentralisation as well.

One of AHM Mustafa Kamal's agendas as BCB president was to get this process going in some way. Towards the end of his term, he reportedly convinced the board's directors to bring first-class cricketers under the board's pay, thus ensuring player bases in all seven divisions, which is a step towards spreading the game. The BCB decided in August this year that 105 cricketers from the eight divisional sides would be paid a monthly salary, which would vary based on their first-class experience, and offered one-year contracts.

"We should all make a contribution, I feel," Yunus said, about raising the standard of the game. "I am of the opinion that even our 50-over Premier League should be converted to an 100-overs-an innings competition. If the cricketers are struggling to come to grips with a format, we should all help them. I think we could try it for a few seasons and when we get better at Test cricket, we can turn it back into one-day cricket."

A change in mentality of this manner is essential, as are more cricket-minded administrators in the BCB. The board unfortunately seems to attract mainly businessmen and politicians.

The oft-quoted line is that the country's passion for the game will pull it through. And it probably has, for 12 years. But while Bangladesh got lucky with the swift rise of the likes of Shakib and Mortaza, is there any guarantee they will keep finding players like them in the years ahead?

The questions remain: Does the BCB have a long-term plan? Do any of the board's directors look a decade down the line when they put together a schedule or hire a coach, for instance? There are more questions, but answers are hard to gather in the corridors of the BCB headquarters in Mirpur.

Cricket, so dear to the Bangladeshi people, and the heartbeat of the nation since 1997, should not have to be captive to the short-term personal needs of a few. While some might call Bangladesh playing Test cricket a travesty, it will equally be a tragedy if they were to stop.

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Bangladesh