The Narail Express
Bangladesh's youngsters are suddenly the talk of the tournament. Their fearless mob of merrymakers showed such talent and chutzpah in their victory over India in Trinidad, one wonders what they might be capable of when they reach their full maturity. Of the 11 men who played in that game, only two - the captain, Habibul Bashar and the senior spinner, Mohammad Rafique - had even crossed their 25th birthday.
It wasn't always thus. Around the time of the last World Cup, when Bangladesh lost humiliatingly to Canada in their opening match at Durban, the team was in such a state of disarray and depression, it was hard to shrug off the demands that they be stripped of their Test status. Up until that time, Bangladesh had lost 16 out of 17 Tests (with one rain-affected draw), 11 by an innings. Whatever talent that may have existed was being drowned in a tide of perpetual failure.
It is all the more extraordinary, therefore, that the man who will be leading the Bangladesh line in today's showdown with Australia in Antigua is Mashrafe Mortaza, a fast bowler who bobbed to the surface even as the rest of his country seemed to be sinking around him. Mortaza has endured more trials and tribulations in his 23 years than many pace bowlers are put through in a lifetime. As if the pain of dual knee surgery is not enough, he has had to pick himself up from back and ankle injuries, as well as the agony of incessant defeat. The experience has made him stronger, tougher, and much, much better.
"He's a very strong lad," his captain, Habibul Bashar, told Cricinfo. "He's had two knee reconstructions and he still comes hard. He's the kind of person who is ideal for a captain, because he'll always do his best. Whether he's fit or not fit, if I ask he gives me 150%. That makes him a captain's dream and a matchwinner, because he does the right things at the right time."
Every enterprise requires a pioneer. When Mashrafe was plucked from obscurity as an 18-year-old on the recommendation of the former West Indian fast bowler, Andy Roberts, he entered his maiden Test against a Zimbabwe at Dhaka without even the experience of a first-class debut to fall back on. His maiden figures of 4 for 106 included the wickets of Grant Flower and Heath Streak, and even at that early stage of his development, all the signs were in place that a genuine talent had been unearthed. The pace, the aggression, the thrusting whiplash bowling action. But he was an anomaly - a discovery that had been made in spite of the system, not because of it.
Things are different now. Under the astute guidance of Dav Whatmore, and in the secure knowledge that nothing can be achieved without considerable and painstaking investment, a system is being put into place that will eventually channel every prospective Bangladeshi Test cricketer into the national melting pot. Age-group cricket and the academy programme has already delivered the core of the current squad; the nascent first-class and one-day competitions will one day cover all the remaining bases. Mashrafe, however, remains a man apart - a talent who endured in spite of the overwhelming odds against his international survival.
To this day he retains a certain worldly wisdom that sets him apart from his excitable peers. Though at 23 he is barely out of nappies in international terms, he is already a longer-serving international than most of England's representatives at this World Cup - of the players that he faced at Chittagong in November 2003, for instance, only Michael Vaughan remains. That was the match in which he took an heroic 4 for 60 in the first innings to keep his side in the hunt, but then twisted his knee so grievously in the second innings that he didn't feature for another 12 months.
Injuries have punctuated Mashrafe's career more frequently than statistical milestones, but to his credit, they have kept coming nonetheless. At Dhaka on Boxing Day in 2004, his first-over demolition of Virender Sehwag's stumps sent Bangladesh on their way to a 15-run victory that was widely glossed over at the time, but nonetheless provided a massive confidence boost ahead of their recent rematch in Trinidad.
And when Australia were toppled at Cardiff in that famous NatWest Series victory in 2005, Mashrafe's steady and incisive figures of 1 for 33 were instrumental in keeping Australia's big hitters in check. As so often happens when a side has one genuine world-class bowler to fall back on, Mashrafe's figures have possibly suffered for the degree of respect his performances have been afforded. Nevertheless, he has still muscled his way to 85 wickets from 59 ODIs, and a further 50 from 20 Tests.
These days, superstardom is just a roll of the dice away. Last year, he found time to get married as well as, in an indication of Bangladesh cricket's rising profile, starring in his first commercial - for a nation-wide talent-scouting programme. In the 40-second clip, he is featured shaving (another indication of his growing maturity, perhaps) when a vision of his younger self appears to him. The sense that he is a role model for a new generation is tangible.
It is a far cry from Mashrafe's own arrival in international cricket. As a hyperactive child growing up in the district of Narail, beside the Chitra river in south-west Bangladesh, Mashrafe spent more time swimming in the river and climbing the nearest mango trees than bothering with schoolwork. Sport was a blessed release for his energies, although cricket was by no means his only focus - football and badminton also competed for his time. And even when he did play, he was more excited at the prospect of wielding a bat than flinging a ball.
Had it not been for a chance opportunity to blast away the tail in a district match for Narail, his abilities might have been entirely overlooked - on the strength of a six-ball spell that wrapped up a comprehensive win, he was dispatched to a BCB Under-17 team and the rest is history. Thanks, however, to his talent and endurance through thin times and even thinner, Bangladesh has had a focal point for its fast-bowling aspirations, and a figurehead in the drive to ensure a dynasty is established.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo