Murali's clone, and the sweet feeling of respect
Sipping his morning's cup of tea, Dav Whatmore uttered with sheepish excitement, "Have you seen our Murali?" 'Our Murali,' it was discovered, was a raw clone of the actual wizard, who was making waves at the nets of the Sri Lanka-bound Bangladesh team.
"He still doesn't have the same control but his flip of the wrist is pretty close to that of Murali," said Whatmore, as the players made use of their new practice facility, adjacent to the soon-to-be home of Bangladesh cricket in Mirpur, a suburb of Dhaka. That was quite a compliment for Himel, a college student, especially as it came from a person who is supposed to know Muttiah Muralitharan inside out.
Himel was as close as the Bangladeshi batsmen would get to the real Murali before they head for Sri Lanka. Watching him bowl, one could see the similarity in the extravagant twirl of arm and wrist and more importantly, the turn extracted, which was quite remarkable for a rookie with no past experience of playing serious club cricket. Ironically, Himel hails from Jinjira, a grey and suffocating riverside locality famous and infamous at the same time for creating unlicensed prototypes of almost every kind of foreign product you can name.
"He was making me look like a fool on a cement wicket. The deliveries were turning a mile both ways and the bounce was also awkward," said Mohammad Rafique, Bangladesh's irrepressible left-arm spinner who faced the boy while practicing near his home and, sensing the importance of his discovery, brought him to the Bangladesh camp. The Bangladesh batsmen also had a Lasith Malinga body double named Nazrul bowling at them. Although his action is slightly more pronounced than the freakish discus-throwing style of Malinga, Nazrul did give the batsmen a lot of discomfort with inswinging yorkers at a reasonable pace, never mind the odd beamer that almost knocked Nazmul Hossain's head off. There were no left-arm pacemen with even distant qualities of Chaminda Vaas available close by, so that part of the dress rehearsal was missed.
The near-desperation to practice with lookalikes of their main threats in Sri Lanka signifies the importance placed on this tour by Bangladesh. There have been elaborate discussions on how to approach the likes of Vaas and Murali and, for his own sake, Whatmore would want to let his present charges in on every secret he had stored from his two eventful and largely successful stints with Sri Lanka, the first culminating in a World Cup triumph.
"This is a very important tour for me. I want to do well in that country," might sound like an inherent desire to get one over the people who let him go, but there is a Bangladeshi angle here too.
Before and during the Tigers' tour of England, a few players felt the coach's heart and mind were elsewhere. Then the team manager's observations about Whatmore were published in a local daily and this fuelled questions about an apparent lack of interest and aloofness regarding the side's fortunes.
"He is such a great motivator. But he has used that ability to inspire only fleetingly with Bangladesh," said a source close to the Bangladesh team. "Now Sri Lanka is another opportunity for him to be in his elements and he can literally do wonders off the field as he knows everything about that country. Let's hope for the best."
Understandably, there were curious eyes searching for hints of apathy when the training camp for Sri Lanka began but the general verdict has been "he's more involved this time around". And there is no reason why he should not be as this tour could be extremely rewarding from an individual and collective perspective.
Despite Sri Lanka's recent success against West Indies and India, they could not hide the fact that the old guard had to bail them out whenever they were in a corner and depth in fresh talent was often found wanting. With his local knowledge, Whatmore will be in a position to pounce on any signs of weakness from Sri Lanka. He should fancy pushing them to the limit, like the desperately inexperienced West Indies did recently, but with a more varied bowling attack perfectly suited to the demands of the sub-continent. He could also expect his batsmen, who shrugged off all fear and inhibition from day two of the second Test against England, to bat with more confidence and hopefully some purpose too.
"Whereas a player like Ashraful finds it hard to understand the game because he has so many shots in his arsenal, for someone like Javed [Omar], it is easy because he knows his limitations," said Whatmore a couple of days after Ashraful blew his chance to make a name with an impish hook that resulted in a first ball duck in the first match of the Afro-Asian Cup. "Once they understand their game better, they will be match-winners," he added.
One of those potential match-winners, Mashrafe Mortaza, should be an angry man. After playing no part in the three-match Afro-Asian series, Bangladesh's premier quick bowler has every right to feel aggrieved. Together with Ashraful, Mortaza made the long flight to South Africa hoping to feature in the Asian XI at some point of the series. Instead all his time was spent cursing boredom.
Now to those who say that for a Bangladeshi player it is a great learning experience anyway to be in the same dressing-room with cricketers of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, it should be pointed out that there is no fun in watching contemporaries do all the running in the field after you have travelled thousands of miles to represent your side. Denied a chance to show his worth, Mortaza returns home just a day before Bangladesh depart for Sri Lanka on August 24.
After Whatmore joined the Tigers in 2003, they have enhanced their image with each passing tour. Their next trip gives them a chance to go one better as the players now realise the relation between performance and respect.
"I had toured England twice before and on both occasions we could feel a lack of respect from all quarters. But during this A tour, we noticed how things have changed. We were treated with genuine regard even though we were only the second string Bangladesh side. Our showing in the NatWest Series has made that possible," said Shahriar Nafees Ahmed, who had led the Bangladesh A side in England recently. Whatmore, who is perhaps the only cricket coach in the world who receives the same round of applause usually reserved for players from cricket fans, when he boards his car at the end of a session, by now knows the sweetness of that feeling only too well.
Rabeed Imam is a senior sub-editor for the Daily Star