With heads held high
If 2008 was a year to forget for Bangladesh cricket, 2009 has been a rare treat: one to savour.
At first glance, heading into the year, it seemed that cricket's youngest Test nation was destined to have a tumultuous 12 months. Having lost arguably some of their best players to the ICL, Bangladesh also had to contend with injuries to their most reliable bowler and the change of captaincy that ensued. Mohammad Ashraful, Mashrafe Mortaza and Shakib Al Hasan have all skippered the side at one time or another in 2009. Shakib, who signed for Worcestershire late in 2009, proved to be an inspirational captain, and largely under his leadership, Bangladesh have had their most successful year since they gained Test status.
Bangladesh played three Tests in 2009. Having lost the first against Sri Lanka in January in a predictably nonchalant style, they went on to surprise the world and possibly themselves by notching up their first Test series victory against West Indies, who fielded a depleted side. But the victory was no less sweet for success-starved Bangladesh supporters.
Bangladesh's year in Test cricket was notable for other reasons too. They made a top score of 345 in St Vincent, where Tamim Iqbal scored his maiden Test century, and on all but one occasion they were able to post at least 200 runs in an innings. For a side that is accustomed to the ignominy of innings defeats, this was no mean feat.
It was in ODI cricket, however, that Bangladesh made the most impressive strides in 2009. Of the 19 ODIs they played, they won 14 and lost five. This compares favourably to 2008, when they only won five of their 26 ODIs. A success rate of 74% is impressive by itself, but they also twice scored over 300 against Zimbabwe in Bulwayo - a remarkable statistic for a side that frequently struggles to score above 250 in 50-over cricket.
It will be argued that Bangladesh hardly faced the better-ranked sides in 2009, and while this is of course true, it is also worth noting that one of those ODI victories came against a full-strength Sri Lanka side and that Zimbabwe fielded one of their strongest teams in recent years.
There is no doubt that the team's tour to the West Indies in July was the highlight of Bangladesh's year. Bangladesh had tasted Test success just once previously, against Zimbabwe in 2005. Since then, they have come close but ultimately failed to cross the finish line. In 2009 they not only swept the Test series but also the ODIs.
A cursory glance at the scorecards for those Tests will reflect that West Indies fielded an inexperienced side and that both matches were closely fought. However, statistics alone cannot paint an accurate picture. Although lacking big-name players, Reifer's side contained some cricketers who were an injury or two away from selection to a full-strength side (for example, Kemar Roach, Travis Dowlin and Darren Sammy are all currently touring Australia). Moreover, while West Indies were undercooked before the first Test, they were certainly better prepared for the second. It was the nature of those wins that gives Bangladesh supporters cause for optimism.
Amid all the uncertainty and controversy on that tour, Bangladesh could easily have succumbed to yet another loss. Followers of Bangladesh cricket will know only too well the team's habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. But this proved not to be Multan in 2003 or Fatullah in 2006. Ultimately Bangladesh triumphed.
There were other high points too. In Zimbabwe, Charles Coventry posted the highest individual ODI score, but this could not prevent Shakib's men taking the series 4-1, and then repeating the feat with an identical scoreline at home in November. Bangladesh supporters only dare to whisper it right now, but there is an increasing suspicion that their side has finally discovered the art of winning.
It was not all success and accolades for Bangladesh this year. In Twenty20s, which would appear in theory to be tailormade for the trigger-happy Bangladesh batsmen, the team have had a year to forget, losing every match they played. The most embarrassing of these was against Ireland at Trent Bridge, where the Bangladesh batting reverted to type and the O'Brien brothers enhanced their reputations.
In this review last year Utpal Shuvro nominated Mohammad Ashraful as Bangladesh's "fading star". This year he averaged just under 13 in Tests and under 25 in ODIs. Ashraful's career has descended into cliché; an apparently gifted young batsman unable to assert himself on the international stage is a story heard before, as the careers of Mark Ramprakash and Mohammad Kaif will attest. Ashraful did make some valuable contributions in 2009, but these were with the ball rather than the bat.
The loss of the captaincy means Ashraful is no longer guaranteed a place in the side. He may be only 25 but he has also played 50 Tests, and more ODIs than Andrew Flintoff. His future must now surely be in doubt.
New kid on the block
Just one cricketer made debuts in all three formats for Bangladesh in 2009, and what a debut it was. Rubel Hossain is young, energetic and capable of regularly hitting 85mph. He returned figures of 4 for 33 from just 5.3 overs in his maiden ODI, against Sri Lanka in January. The 19-year-old from Bagerhat is Bangladesh's answer to Mohammad Aamer, and while he has much to learn, he is certainly an exciting prospect.
What 2010 holds
Bangladesh have a surprisingly busy schedule in 2010, when they will face some of the bigger beasts in world cricket. Sri Lanka, India, New Zealand and England will all provide much sterner tests.
Although they have performed admirably in 2009, there are still unanswered questions. It is not yet clear whether the injury-prone Mortaza will reclaim the captaincy or whether the selectors will keep faith with Shakib. The selectors must also decide whether to recall any former ICL players, who become eligible for selection in the New Year.
Bangladesh continue to be overly reliant on their army of spinners and will be acutely aware that matches are rarely won through left-arm spin alone. The lack of seam bowling support will need to be addressed.
A relatively successful year has come to an end, but Bangladesh's performances in 2010 will provide a truer reflection of how much they have evolved. Greater challenges lie ahead, but a side that constantly has to battle for respectability can venture into the New Year full of hope and optimism, and it is not very often that one can say that.
Abu Choudhury is a regular contributor to Banglacricket.com. He lives in London