Rob Steen
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Sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

The perils of promise

Plenty of players have been doomed over the years by the burden of expectation. Here's hoping Shakib Al Hasan does not become a member of the club

Rob Steen

March 4, 2010

Comments: 26 | Text size: A | A

Shakib Al Hasan raises three figures for the first time, New Zealand v Bangladesh, only Test, Hamilton, 5th day, February 19, 2010
Shakib: good thing he wasn't the ICC's Emerging Player of the Year © Getty Images
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"Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising." Shakib Al Hasan may not have heard of the author and critic Cyril Connolly, but it is hard to believe he is ignorant of the message.

Shakib, at 22, was the youngest member of the ICC World Test XI for 2009. He is probably quite relieved that it was not he but Peter Siddle who inherited the game's most toxic chalice when crowned as the best Emerging Player: of the five previous winners of that burdensome award, only Kevin Pietersen has subsequently experienced more good times than bad.

Irfan Pathan's bowling went into freefall; only recently has Ian Bell hinted at the consistency of purpose without which his fitful artistry cannot be indulged. Tormented by loss of form, besieged by expectations that he could produce accurate 100mph thunderbolts on demand, Shaun Tait sank into depression and has only just returned to the frontline. Ajantha Mendis carried on mesmerising for a short while, only to be unravelled by batsmen and unravel himself. Siddle looked drained after the Ashes and then broke down. And just look at the speed with which JP Duminy and Phillip Hughes have reclaimed mortality.

As with every branch of human endeavour, this game of ours is littered with similar tales of precipitous decline, prolonged blips and ultimate unfulfilment, of promise squandered and unsurvived. Of the first 21 men to score a century on their Test debut (a list that stretches from Charles Bannerman in 1877 to Jim Burke in 1951), 10, including WG Grace and Ranji, never managed it again; seven did so just the once; and only George Headley and Bill Ponsford added more than three (Andy Ganteaume, admittedly, was never given another chance). Contrast that with the Blobs R Us debutants who ducked and lucked out: Victor Trumper, Len Hutton, Allan Border, Majid Khan, Ken Barrington, Gundappa Viswanath, Glenn Turner, Graham Gooch, Saeed Anwar, Richie Richardson.

Only over the past decade has this trend been arrested: between February 2000 and October 2004, Younis Khan, Thilan Samaraweera, Virender Sehwag, Andrew Strauss and Michael Clarke took turns to march to 100 on debut. Helpfully, the days are gone, more or less, when a player could be plucked from obscurity, whether on a whim or a hunch or to boost gate receipts, or simply because he happened to be on honeymoon in the right place at the right time (Tony Pigott, come on down). Apprenticeships tend to be longer, more searching. Board contracts curb selectors' excesses.

Overall, nonetheless, for every Abbas Ali Baig, Praveen Amre or Yasir Hameed, all victims of selectorial inconsistency and neglect, and other unfortunate debut centurions such as Len Baichan - who had the not-inconsiderable task of disrupting the two-decade stranglehold exerted by Roy Fredericks, Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes atop the West Indies order - there have been flatterers and deceivers: Mohammad Wasim, John Hampshire and Frank Hayes, Rodney Redmond, Matthew Sinclair and Ali Naqvi. Either bowlers worked them out or they fell on their own swords, undone above all by an absence of inner certainty.

Nor are bowlers exempt from this unripening. The only two men to take 16 wickets on debut, Narendra Hirwani and Bob Massie, wound up, respectively, with 66 and 31 in toto. Of the 11 who have harvested 11 or more first-up, only Clarrie Grimmett and Alec Bedser prospered for long. Midway through his third Test, Laxman Sivaramakrishnan had spun his way to three consecutive six-fors, but nailed just seven opponents thereafter. Not that that deprived him of a comfy seat in the commentary booth.

 
 
Shahid Afridi won Pakistan the World Twenty20. Yes, he has continued to give us sessions and passages when there is nobody on the planet we would rather see flinging a bat or tossing a ball, but he was born to exasperate, to remind us that unadorned talent can never be enough
 

First impressions can be the father to all manner of illusions. Marlon Samuels and Dwayne Smith have taken turns to infuriate the Caribbean. Albie Morkel began his plummet as soon as South Africans started hailing him as the new Klusener. Yes, Shahid Afridi won Pakistan the World Twenty20; yes, he has continued to give us sessions and passages when there is nobody on the planet we would rather see flinging a bat or tossing a ball; but he was born to exasperate, born to remind us that unadorned talent can never be enough, not without mental strength and undivided attention.

When it comes to divining the future, Under-19 World Cups are more hindrance than help. Three long-term achievers out of 11? You'll be lucky. The nearest Australia, the first winners, came was Stuart Law and Alan Mullally. The next, England in 1998, produced half a dozen teenagers who would fly the flag as men, but only Owais Shah and Graeme Swann have shone against the best. Of the Australian squad that year, only James Hopes and Marcus North have made it from footlights to Broadway. Of the victorious Indian XI of 2000, only Mohammad Kaif and Yuvraj Singh have gone on to discernibly greater things; of the beaten Sri Lankan XI, only Jehan Mubarak and Thilina Kandamby have done much besides.

Patience doesn't always reap its own rewards in a world of brittle bodies and dazzling spotlights. Too many spot the pot of gold at the end of their rainbow too soon, cannot re-focus or recalibrate their ambition. Most senior teams are stocked with those closer to 30 than 20. Cygnets take time to become Swanns.

Yet still, like parents, we saddle the young with our excessive expectations, buffet them with our unreasonable demands, deny them our easily tried patience. All the more reason to admire Mitchell Johnson for possessing the fibre and determination to withstand the pressure and become an overnight star at 27. And all the more reason to feel compassion for that sudden loss of radar in England last July. Pietersen deserves no less.

SHAKIB HAS A COUPLE of additional hoops to jump through. For one thing, he is one of the youngest captains in Test annals. He is also the first world-beater to emerge from what was once East Pakistan, all but alone in his capacity to bring his benighted land a modicum of joy. Pressure, pressure, pressure, everywhere he looks. Witness that photo of him on one knee, purportedly begging forgiveness from Mustafa Kamal, his board president, after a loss to India. Somehow, he is still walking the walk and talking the talk.

Next week's first Test against England ought to see him gather the 23 runs he requires to become the 91st member of the 1000 runs-50 wickets club. In 17 matches he has taken five wickets in an innings six times, one fewer than Mohammad Rafique, Bangladesh's most successful bowler, managed in 33 outings. Only Mahmudullah (16 at 27.68) has aggregated more than one Test scalp for Bangladesh at a lesser cost than Shakib's 58 at 30.66. And only Tamim Iqbal (33.57) has averaged more for the Banglas than Shakib's 32.56 with the bat. But for the want of two more boundaries - he's made a 96 and a 96 not out - he would also be one of only three countrymen to score three Test hundreds.


JP Duminy tried to leave a swinging delivery from Stuart Broad but it cannoned into leg stump off the inside edge, South Africa v England, 2nd Test, Durban, December 29, 2009
JP Duminy: mortal again © PA Photos
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In ODIs, the quality is undiminished. In his first 82, going into Sunday's opening scrap with England in Dhaka, Shakib has totted up 2226 runs at 34.78 and 90 wickets at 31.12. Only the ignorant and churlish would scoff at that. Among those who have claimed 90-plus ODI victims at under 32, in addition to four figures' worth of runs, only Lance Klusener (41.10) and Shane Watson (40.83) have averaged more with the bat.

Only a couple of knights, Garry Sobers (1966-69) and Ian Botham (1981), have ever done such double duty, serving as their side's best batsman and best bowler simultaneously (though in recent times Daniel Vettori has been almost as put-upon). Pressure, pressure, pressure. Then again, maybe he copes with it all because he knows, by comparison with 99.9% of his 150 million compatriots, how kindly fate has treated him.

The immediate question is not so much whether Shakib can build on that but whether he can keep it up. Graeme Smith had it tough, sure, but not even he had to keep so many eggs in the air at such a tender age. And at least he had a clutch of world-class players at his disposal.

Calm and collected at the toss in Dhaka, even as England eased towards victory he looked preposterously relaxed, another broad, toothy, guileless smile never far away, at one with his lot but maybe too obviously resigned to his fate. This annoyed one local commentator, who urged him to adopt "a meaner look". Given that so many of his charges appear satisfied merely to be occupying the same field as the Tendulkars and Pietersens, the occasional growl or double-teapot might not hurt.

With the ball in his hands he was cool, canny and curmudgeonly. At the crease, having maintained an impressively sober disposition for nearly 40 minutes, he charged Swann, with the job not even quarter done. In the second ODI he flamed and burned, again charging the offspinner. Right now, keeping head above water and legs kicking may be the most realistic aim.

Cyril Connolly defined promise as "the capacity for letting people down… a dark spider". At present, as ever, there is no shortage of promising young things attempting to disentangle themselves from that sticky web. To those wobbly worthies cited above you can add Tamim and Mahmudullah, Suresh Raina and Stuart Broad, Eoin Morgan and Adrian Barath, Kemar Roach and Mohammad Aamer. Shakib's efforts to pull his people up could well prove the most fascinating of these growth graphs. And much the most inspirational.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

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Posted by fanacric on (March 6, 2010, 7:43 GMT)

Undoubtedly a very good piece of writing and thanks very much Rob. I really appreciate your analytical ability as a sports writer. Waiting for more in future. Also, it is good to see that some people are burning ........welcome to hell guys! All the best for Shakib.

Posted by sanjeevmukherjee2006 on (March 5, 2010, 22:23 GMT)

@Xolile r u nuts, tendulkar has never struggle in Aus or SA look at his stats that is why india won in Perth, India drew the series in Aus in 2003 1-1, lost the series in 2008 2-1 , close series but won the VB series and by the way look at Laxman, dravid and Sehwag how they love the play in Aus and Sa look at the stats then say

Posted by honeyb on (March 5, 2010, 15:58 GMT)

Great Article Rob. For an Englishman, your knowledge and take on 'International' cricket is very impressive. And well done for highlighting a bright young talent in world cricket regardless of the glamour associated with the country/team they play for. If England,Australia or for that matter India had a 23 year old with the same ability in their ranks they'd already have their face all over glossy magazines! The fact that one of the best limited overs players in the world has been twice overlooked by the IPL franchises further illustrates my point! Oh by the way I have no connection to Bangladesh or their cricket. Just an honest opinion.

Posted by sabbir_ahmed_sajib on (March 5, 2010, 12:15 GMT)

make no mistake about it ; Sakib is the real deal . he is the first world class cricketer from Bangladesh. Ashraful who averages an embarrassing 23 after 54 tests is no more than Mark Ramprakash version 2.

Posted by Chaity on (March 5, 2010, 10:20 GMT)

As a bengali, I really am proud of Shakib. The 1st problem is we really need BCB to stay out of the game. 2nd, we badly need consistency (duh). It is true he will be facing lots of pressure, bt wish him all the best to tackle them & for a fantastic carrier. Cheers.

Posted by BellCurve on (March 4, 2010, 19:21 GMT)

Again a fine piece of writing Rob Steen on a worthwhile subject. Shakib may have played many ODIs against Zim, but he has only really struggled with the bat against Aus in Aus, SA in SA, NZ in NZ, and, bizarrely, Ireland. But then again, so has Tendulkar and most other sub-continent batsmen.

Posted by Sohellcc on (March 4, 2010, 19:15 GMT)

The brilliant cricketer Shakib will be the legend no dout about it. He is performing consistently at only 22. He can handle the pressure very easily, And he is the top allrounder in world cricket except india. He should continue this excelence without IPL (if they called). Because it will damage him in the future.

Posted by KevinJJJ on (March 4, 2010, 18:08 GMT)

I saw a comment from ignorant guy saying Shakib can do what Arajuna did in 1996.! This is too over ambitious statement. Although some could say Bangladesh have a inexperienced but very talented & passionate side as Sri Lankans had in 96. Main differences for sri lankans winning 96 world cup and Bangladesh not winning 2011 world cup could be;- when you look at it Sri Lankans always been inventors to cricket playing style than followers. Just before 96 world cup Lankan openers Kalu & Jayasuriya introduced a hard hitting playing style in first 15 overs, where other teams had a more conservative approach. That is the main reason for inexperienced Lankan team to come out on top of other experienced teams. All I am saying is for Bangladesh to have any chance doing well in 2011 world cup, they should stop trying to compete with big guns in the usual ODI playing style. Bangla boys need to come up with an innovative unique idea and surprise the big teams in their own way...! Dream on tigers.!

Posted by HeruKumar on (March 4, 2010, 15:27 GMT)

He is a good bat and ball also. I feel Bangla tigers must use him depth(this guy is capable of).and a gud captian. who knows he might create history in 2011(rembember ranatunga 1996).

Posted by jaininkashi on (March 4, 2010, 12:40 GMT)

There is no doubt that Shakib is their best player (over all & all time). Also consider some other - mahamadullah, mushfiqur rahim, mortaza rakibul hasan. These four invariably perform. Add to that Tamim, Aftab ahmed who are inconsistent. Ashraful looks a gone case, does not adapt at all. Bangla shud form a team keeping these as their base players & filling in other spots. The potential of these players shud be maximized like mahamadullah, rakibul, shakib, mushfiqur all need to be promoted in the batting order. If mahamadullah & mushfiqur score a hundred at no 7 & 8, just think about the possibilities if they were sent in at 4,5 or 6. Ashruful plsys in top four & puts pressure on the other batters. Ashrul shud be played at no 8. This will be leeson for him.

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Rob Steen Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton, whose books include biographies of Desmond Haynes and David Gower (Cricket Society Literary Award winner) and 500-1 - The Miracle of Headingley '81. His investigation for the Wisden Cricketer, "Whatever Happened to the Black Cricketer?", won the UK section of the 2005 EU Journalism Award "For diversity, against discrimination"

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