Bashar embraces his mission improbable
It is just as well for the young Bangladeshi squad, which landed at Heathrow this weekend ahead of their maiden Test tour of England, that their most experienced player, the 32-year-old captain Habibul Bashar, is not a man who is fazed by new environments. On their first visit to the Caribbean in May and June 2004, Bashar was so enamoured with the place that he led the batting averages with 235 runs at 58.75, and earned himself a return trip, some three years before Bangladesh are due to visit the West Indies again.
While the rest of his colleagues were gathered down in Chittagong for a preliminary training camp, Bashar was given time off by the Bangladesh Cricket Board and winged his way back to Trinidad to appear for the West Indies Vice-Chancellor's XI against South Africa, in what turned out to be a tribute match for Ridley Jacobs, the former West Indian wicketkeeper who confirmed his retirement last week.
"You don't get to travel to the West Indies every day so when the invitation came, I jumped at it," said Bashar, who starred with an unbeaten 86-ball 77 to save the two-day game for the West Indians and, not for the first time, had the locals of a Caribbean island chanting his name in appreciation. But before he could put his feet up to get rid of the jet-lag, Bashar was already in consultation with the selectors about the 16-man squad for England.
Bashar has been given more say in selection matters than any former Bangladesh captain, so the side that he will lead out at Lord's for the first Test on May 26 is sure to bear his seal of approval. The squad had two predictable new faces - the opening batsman, Shahriar Nafees Ahmed, and the paceman, Kazi Shahadat Hossain - and one absolute surprise by the name of Mushfiqur Rahim, a 16-year-old wicketkeeper who had not even been named in the preliminary squad of 20. He had been leading the Bangladesh Under-19 squad in Australia when he learned that he had been chosen as cover for the irrepressible and irreplaceable Khaled Mashud - a player who, according to his coach, Dav Whatmore, is the "best keeper in Asia".
At their training camp in Chittagong, the curators of the newly completed Divisional Stadium had made a valiant attempt to give the players a feel of what to expect in England, by preparing greentops and providing English-standard Duke balls for the practice sessions. The occasional light-to-heavy drizzle also helped in creating the desired atmosphere. But the players were under no illusions about the difference between the Bangladeshi and English summers. "You can leave tons of grass on the wickets but still it will be nothing like what we will face in England," said Mohammad Ashraful, who visited for the Champions Trophy last September. "The weather is so different."
Bangladesh's preparations were concluded with a three-day break at the seaside resort town of Cox's Bazaar, the home of the world's longest continuous beach. And for the jet-setting Bashar, it must have felt as if he was settling into a comfortable pattern. "It was more like the West Indian beaches and felt so refreshing," he admitted. "We needed to get away from the monotony of training for a while.
"The practice facilities and wickets in Chittagong were excellent, but our main preparation will take place during the three three-day matches leading up to the first Test," he added. "We are going to England almost three weeks before the Lord's match, and by the time the series gets underway, we should be comfortable with the English conditions."
Though Bashar did not elaborate, it was apparent that the players had also needed to escape the media frenzy that blew up when Whatmore's contract came up for renewal. Whatmore had kept the local press in the dark about a possible extension to a two-year deal that had expired at the end of April, and at the same time, reports in the international media were coming out almost every other day - including quotes from the man himself - saying how he would love to coach India. With such an important tour coming up, the matter reached a point where the captain felt he needed to step in.
"Obviously such situations hamper the players' concentration as these things will get discussed," said Bashar. "But I have told them in very clear words that coaches will come and go, and that should not be our concern. Ultimately it is the cricketers who have to go out there and perform." In the end Whatmore signed another two-year deal, with a fatter cheque and a guarantee of enhanced facilities. That should see him through to the end of the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies. But, according to foreign media reports, he also secured a get-out clause should that better offer come sailing past.
Whatmore's constant contact with foreign newsmen while at the same time ignoring the local journalists was considered disrespectful, especially after all the unconditional support he had received from the media in Bangladesh. He was busy negotiating his future in the middle of a training camp, and some of the players thought that his concentration was not entirely on the job. Publicly, Whatmore tried to stress the fact that the England tour was the only thing on his mind, but he'll need to back his statements up with action if he is to win back the trust of quite a few people.
But regardless of the situation with Whatmore, Bashar was relishing the English challenge. "This will be our toughest tour ever. But at the end of it, irrespective of the results, ours will be a much, much better team. You can't get stronger opponents than England and Australia, and if we can push both teams, who are at the peak of their prowess, and show fight, imagine what wonders that can do to the confidence of a young side like ours."
The international press has no doubt that the Tigers' maiden tour will be the misadventure of the decade, but from a Bangladeshi point of view, it is the chance for some of the country's finest young talents to make a mark, and it is the bowlers who appear better equipped to succeed.
The 18-year-old Shahadat is considered the quickest bowler in Bangladesh, and has a liking for rattling helmets. He also has English experience under his belt, having made a full tour with the Under-19 side last year, and appreciation of his skills came from the most unlikely of sources: "He has got the right attitude and ... pace," said Mashrafe bin Mortaza, Bangladesh's pace spearhead. Mortaza seldom enthuses about cricketers, including himself.
There are five quick bowlers in the Bangladesh squad - all aggressive, young and nippy. For the first time they will bowl in conditions tailor-made for them, but in Bashar's opinion, his team's dark horse is a spinner. "Enamul Haque junior can give English batsmen a rough time," said Bashar about his prodigious 18-year-old left-armer. "You can't prepare for him and, like Mohammad Rafique, he is at ease on any surface. He's a genius."
The real test, however, will come with the batting, and Bashar knows it. "Harmison, Hoggard, Lee, McGrath, Gillespie ... we have faced all these bowlers. So we have an idea about how they bowl. I just want 100% commitment and effort from each batsman. I am amazed at the ability of players like Ashraful or Aftab [Ahmed]. I desperately want them to justify that potential and not get content at any point. Personally, I would like nothing more than scoring a hundred at Lord's. That would be beautiful."
Before they face the hostility on the field, Bangladesh will have to combat another relentless and unconvinced force - the British media. What little has been written about Bangladesh in recent times has followed a familiar and negative theme. But Bashar is not upset about the apathy.
"A lot of these reports are being written by people who look at statistics and then draw a conclusion. Actually, it doesn't matter that they are not beating the drums for us. Besides, few of us are going to read newspapers while in England anyway. We have an open stage in front of us and we should take the indifference as an incentive to surprise a few people. Remember, we have won our first Test, so that pressure is off."
Bashar is also heartened by the knowledge that encouragement will not be in short supply from the moment the Tigers reach the English shores. "There are so many Bangladeshis living in England and they have already made plans to arrive in numbers at our matches. Our wins against India and Zimbabwe have caught their imagination, and they can sense that this team has a future. That belief is very important."
Rabeed Imam is senior sub-editor of the Daily Star in Dhaka. He was recently named as Bangladesh's Cricket Journalist of the Year 2004-05.