Bangladesh's regime change February 3, 2004

Mahmud manoeuvrings

A look at the strange goings-on in the Bangladesh captaincy stakes

This week, our Round the World column looks at the strange goings-on in the Bangladeshi captaincy stakes

Dav Whatmore keeps an eye on Khaled Mahmud in the nets
© Getty Images

Nobody said it was going to be easy. When Dav Whatmore agreed to take up the challenge of coaching the striplings of Bangladesh, he knew full well that it would be a journey into the unknown. He accepted that he was putting his considerable reputation on the line, and from the outset, his primary aim was to be as honest to the job as possible, even if it meant offending a few sensibilities along the way. But, if the politicking and horse-trading of the past fortnight are anything to go by, his mission has barely even begun.

After a three-month break from internationals, Bangladesh erupted back onto the radar in an extraordinary sequence of events last week. After rumours that his position was under threat, Khaled Mahmud was first sacked as captain, then dropped from the Test team, then forced into retirement, then coerced back into action, then reinstated to the one-day squad for the current trip to Namibia and Zimbabwe, under the new leadership of Habibul Bashar. And all in the space of three days.

It was a very topsy-turvy chain of events. Mahmud, who had been booed from pillar to post by a hostile and frustrated public in the one-day series against England, was suddenly receiving sympathy as the apparent victim of a very public stitch-up. Whatmore, the coach with the Midas touch whose mere presence had lifted Bangladesh to unpredecented heights, was being viewed with a touch of suspicion for the first time in his tenure. And all for daring to drop a man who, at one stage last year, was boasting the Test batting and bowling averages of 11.25 and 406 respectively.

Clearly, this was an issue that transcended mere cricket. As Test captains and national treasures go, Mahmud was not exactly in the mould of Steve Waugh. And yet, for many Bangladeshis, he had attributes every bit as valuable as Waugh's grit and resolve. Honesty and integrity for starters (if tempered by a hint of delusion as to his merits as a Test cricketer), plus the loyal support of a team that had hit absolute rock-bottom when he took over as captain after the disastrous 2003 World Cup. And talking of World Cups, who could overlook Mahmud's finest hour, when he took 3 for 31 - and the Man of the Match award - in Bangladesh's last one-day victory, against Pakistan at Northampton in 1999. Mahmud may not have been a hero in the conventional sense, but moments like this could not be easily forgotten by his success-starved country.

And so, despite all the catcalls during his poor run of form last season, it was Mahmud's country that rallied round when word got out of his sacking last week. Or, more accurately, it was an embarrassed Bangladesh Cricket Board, who sensed the mood of the nation and winced at Mahmud's plaintive retirement statements, in which he spoke of his increasing isolation in the preceding days. "I admit that I have shortcomings, and I'm average too," he said in a touchingly naive display of candour, "but I have always treasured self-respect above everything in my career".

Unfortunately for Mahmud, whose embarrassment had been compounded by the fact that, back in November, he had been included in the elite grade of the team's new pay structure, his bid for self-respect quickly hit the rocks. Soon, he was being begged to reconsider by several BCB officials, most prominently the chairman of the development committee, Arafat Rahman, who just happens to be the youngest son of the Prime Minister, Khaleda Zia. Clearly, this was not a man who takes no for an answer.

And so the absurd situation arose, whereby a player who had publicly admitted he was not good enough for international cricket, was being forced back into the side against his will. For Whatmore, it was a frustrating outcome. He had hinted to Mahmud on several occasions in the preceding months that he might want to consider his future, but each time he had been rebuffed by a proud man who could not divorce his personal sense of honour and duty from the professional needs of his team and country.

It is that ugly word "professionalism" that is at the root of Bangladesh's struggles. For players, press and public alike, the next step in their development is proving to be the hardest to take. Mahmud, for all his manifest failings (one newspaper suggested that his "allrounder" status referred to his waistline, rather than his abilities), played the role of a national security blanket - slightly cuddly, reasonably robust, and something to cling to in times of never-ending strife.

But now the mantle passes to Bashar, the one proven Test-class batsman in the squad, and the nation holds its breath. For all his undoubted talent, Bashar has earned a reputation for aloofness that doesn't sit easily with an inherently insecure team. The early signs have not been overly encouraging - two squeakingly tight victories over Namibia do not augur well for the forthcoming Tests against an ever-improving Zimbabwe. Three months ago, that series might have been earmarked for Bangladesh's long-awaited first victory. But not anymore. As Whatmore has repeatedly said, there is no quick fix.

This is an era when the Australian way is the only way. Whatmore has successfully redefined the BCB's selection policy along Aussie lines, so that the squad is now chosen first, and a captain selected from within its ranks, rather than the other way round. Now he must redefine the team. With Bashar in charge, there can no longer be any excuse for Bangladesh fielding anything less than their strongest team for every match. If Duncan Fletcher's influence on Nasser Hussain is anything to go by, Bashar's selfish streak could and should be channelled to Bangladesh's advantage in the coming months.

As Whatmore himself said, he needs to be given enough rope to hang himself if he is to make a difference to Bangladesh. It has been like extracting teeth at times, but at last he is being cut the necessary slack.

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo in London.