January 29, 2010

Wanted: Top-class, top-order batsmen

The performances of Bangladesh's specialist batsmen have been terribly disappointing, and Mohammad Ashraful has been the biggest culprit

In both Tests of their series against India, Bangladesh had moments when they had their more fancied opponents on the defensive, but on both occasions they threw away the initiative far too readily, with little fight: in Chittagong they replied with a limp 242 after bowling out the visitors for 243; and in Mirpur they fought back spiritedly after trailing by 311, but from 290 for 3 they lost seven wickets for 22, turning what should have been a tricky fourth-innings target for India into a mere formality.

On both occasions, the batsmen conceded ground when a little more backbone from them could have made for intriguing contests. Admittedly, in Mirpur the batsmen - led by Tamim Iqbal - brought Bangladesh back into the game when all had seemed lost, but having done all the hard work, they let go far too easily.

The bowlers have struggled often as well, but through most of Bangladesh's ten years as a fledgling Test nation, the batting has been by far their more disappointing suit. They impressed all the pundits in their first Test, scoring 400 against India, but in 62 matches since then, only four times have they gone past that mark, and just thrice against the top teams. And during a decade which has generally been very favourable for batting, they've averaged only 20.97 per wicket, giving their bowlers little to play with.

Amid the gloom, though, there is something to cheer about. Over the past year, Bangladesh have also uncovered a few genuine talents who should serve them well for several years to come. Tamim's 151 in Mirpur is the second-highest Test score by a Bangladesh batsman, and it would perhaps have been fitting if he'd scored eight more runs and gone past Mohammad Ashraful's unbeaten 158, for Tamim is showing himself to be the one of the best batting talents to emerge from the country. He has played only 14 Tests, and is 158 shy of 1000 runs. Habibul Bashar achieved the feat in his 16th Test, and Tamim could get there in as many matches if he continues his recent form. Shakib Al Hasan and Mushfiqur Rahim have good numbers too, featuring in the top four in terms of averages, which is a quite an indictment on the rest of the batsmen as neither is a specialist in that area.

Bangladesh's best batsmen in Tests (Qual: 500 runs)
Batsman Tests Runs Average 100s/ 50s
Tamim Iqbal 14 842 32.38 2/ 3
Habibul Bashar 50 3026 30.87 3/ 24
Shakib Al Hasan 16 790 28.21 0/ 3
Mushfiqur Rahim 18 864 27.00 1/ 4
Shahriar Nafees 16 835 26.09 1/ 4
Rajin Saleh 24 1141 25.93 0/ 7
Nafees Iqbal 11 518 23.54 1/ 2
Junaid Siddique 13 588 23.52 0/ 5
Mohammad Ashraful 52 2242 23.11 5/ 7
Al Shahriar 15 683 22.76 0/ 4

Tamim's rise has done a bit to lift the plight of Bangladesh's openers too. He has played 26 fewer Tests than Javed Omar, but has already scored two hundreds to Omar's one. Looking at Bangladesh's stats by batting position, it's clear that No.3 has been the best slot, thanks largely to Bashar's record: he has played 80 innings at this position and averages almost 32.

What Bangladesh desperately need, though, is a more prolific batsman at No.4. Ashraful occupied that slot in the series against India and didn't do much to enhance his reputation, scoring 68 in three innings, in fact, the highest score at two-down was nightwatchman Shahadat Hossain's 40 in the second Test. In 124 innings, Bangladesh have only managed one Test century from a No.4 batsman, and that was in their very first Test innings, when Aminul Islam scored 145. Since then, only twice has any batsman scored even half as many, with the highest being 77 by Ashraful, whose average at that slot in 39 innings is an embarrassing 14.46. In fact, Bangladesh's No.8 batsmen have a higher average than their No.4s.

The second-highest average has been at the No.5 position, with Ashraful scoring three hundreds at this slot and Rajin Saleh and Bashar too doing well in their limited outings.

Bangladesh averages by batting position
Position Innings Runs Average 100s/ 50s
Openers 248 5450 22.15 5/ 26
No.3 124 3412 27.73 3/ 25
No.4 124 2392 19.60 1/ 10
No.5 123 2815 24.05 3/ 12
No.6 122 2266 19.20 2/ 5
No.7 122 2465 22.40 1/ 7
No.8 121 2175 20.32 1/ 11

Which brings us to the Ashraful debate - is he a hugely talented batsman who has consistently underachieved, or is he an ordinary player who has managed to play a few extraordinary innings in between several failures? Bangladesh have been remarkably patient with him - in part due to the lack of options - but his returns, over the last couple of years especially, have been terribly disappointing: in 14 Tests during this period, he averages a paltry 16.33, hardly the numbers befitting the team's most experienced batsman. His mediocre display is one of the primary reasons for Bangladesh's terrible numbers at No.4 - he has flopped at that position when given a chance, which has forced the team to try out other options.

There was a period - between 2004 and 2007 - when it seemed he was, at least partially, fulfilling his potential, but his stats have regressed so considerably over the last couple of years that Bangladesh must consider giving him a break.

Ashraful's Test career in three parts
Period Tests Runs Average 100s/ 50s
2001 to 2003 15 592 20.41 1/ 2
2004 to 2007 23 1209 29.48 3/ 5
2008 onwards 14 441 16.33 1/ 0
Career 52 2242 23.11 5/ 7

On the other hand, some of the other players have made considerable strides during this period. Over the last 15 months (since October 2008), Mushfiqur averages more than 40 and has been consistent, while Shakib and Tamim have averaged more than 30. What Bangladesh need is for more specialist batsmen to rise to the challenge, and to do so at a stage when the game is still up for grabs: of the 17 centuries that Bangladesh batsmen have scored in Tests so far, only eight have come in the first innings of the match. On current form, Mushfiqur has done enough to stake a claim in the top five of the batting line-up.

Bangladesh's top five run-getters since October 2008
Batsman Tests Runs Average 100s/ 50s
Mushfiqur Rahim 10 690 40.58 1/ 3
Tamim Iqbal 10 665 35.00 2/ 1
Shakib Al Hasan 10 573 31.83 0/ 3
Junaid Siddique 9 405 23.82 0/ 3
Mohammad Ashraful 10 320 16.84 1/ 0

S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo

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