'People need to believe in Bangladesh'
Khaled Mahmud looks no different now, overseeing Bangladesh training ahead of the second ODI in Dhaka, to how he did throughout his international career. Short and squat, and possessed of a physique that is undeniably "cuddly", Mahmud became a byword for underachievement in his six years at the top. At one stage he boasted a Test bowling average of 406 and a Test batting mark of 11.25, the worst combined figures for an allrounder in Test history, and his final appearance as his country's captain, against England in 2003, was drowned out by a cacophony of boos.
And yet, in the same instance, Mahmud is an untouchable hero to his people, a player who epitomises the paradox of Bangladesh cricket. Eleven years ago in Northampton, his wobbly seamers claimed 3 for 31 to follow up a hard-hitting 27, as Pakistan were sensationally toppled at the 1999 World Cup - a result that led directly to Bangladesh's elevation to full Test status. And two years before that, he also played his part in the ICC Trophy victory over Kenya in Malaysia, a triumph that transformed the standing of the sport in his country, with upwards of 100,000 people mobbing the team on its return to Dhaka Airport.
"Other players may get the same experience in their careers, or maybe not, but in those two years we saw without any doubt the people's love for the game," Mahmud told Cricinfo. "When the prime minister received us in the old airport in 1997, I'd never seen a gathering like it. It was fabulous. Our car moved at 5kph from the new airport to the old. After those two moments, cricket really took off. It was a real change in our game and our history."
Except, of course, it was not. The real change has yet to arrive, more than a decade on from the two matches that promised such a bright future for the country. A succession of captains and coaches, including Jamie Siddons and his predecessor, Dav Whatmore, have repeatedly appealed for their "inexperienced" charges to be given time to prove themselves, and yet in 64 Test encounters since November 2000, Bangladesh have lost 55, including 33 by an innings, and won a measly three - all against weak opponents: Zimbabwe and a strike-hit West Indies. How much longer can the excuse be expected to wash?
Mahmud, however, is living proof of the distance that his sport has travelled in the past decade, and as Bangladesh embark on an era of apparent consolidation, the knowledge that he has gleaned starts to take on an added importance. After all, the one thing he has in abundance is experience - experience of exquisite highs, deep and depressing lows, and all the maddening expectations that get piled onto the shoulders of the lucky few who are chosen to represent their success-starved country. And as he stands at the back of the nets, watching the class of 2010 go through their paces, he is better placed than most to judge just how far the country has come.
"This team, they are mentally tough, even though they are kids," said Mahmud. "They don't get bothered by what people say, in the way that we often did. They know what will happen if they don't perform, and if they fail they feel the shame for themselves, but they don't react that much. Our media has changed too. In the early days if you did something wrong it was big news, and it was all over the papers straightaway. Now things are much more healthy, and the crowds have changed as well. They now understand that international cricket is not that easy for the boys.
"I was 26 when we won the ICC Trophy, and 30 when we played our first Test," he added. "Media expectation was very high, but it was tough for us, because our structure was not up to standard. Our wickets were slow and low, so we weren't prepared for proper fast bowling. We didn't have a physio, so for small injuries we had to wait for weeks to make sure they had healed. And when we brought in Robert Hunt from Australia for the 1999 World Cup, it was the first time we had had a proper trainer.
"Half of our lives for three or four years were spent at training camps at the BKSB [Bangladesh Institute of Sport], when we would get maybe one day a week to see our families, and though we tried our best and bonded well, our infrastructure simply wasn't up to standard. It stopped us every time. On an early tour of USA and Canada, our daily allowance was $5 a day with no match fees, and even buying proper Kookaburra balls for practice was expensive."
Money is not so much of a problem anymore, with lucrative endorsements topping up the fees of the country's elite players, while the game at grassroots level has significantly improved since Mahmud was accidentally discovered during a park tournament at the age of 12. Cricket has long since ousted football as the No. 1 sport in Bangladesh, so there is a much greater pool of talent from which to choose, while the gradual development of regional and age-group levels has taken the game beyond its traditional hub in Dhaka.
Nevertheless, when it comes to the top level, there remains a mental hurdle that the country seems incapable of overcoming, as demonstrated by the recent 3-0 whitewashing in the ODI series against England. Despite spirited individual performances in all three contests, the collective gameplan collapsed when put under pressure. The reason, in Mahmud's opinion, lies in the team's failure to identify a core of senior players and stick with them until they were battle-hardened.
"There's no way to teach a game sense without experience in the side," he said. "These guys have played more in the past three years than I played in 12, which is a good sign, but their age is still a big factor, because they haven't got any seniors to teach them the ropes. They haven't learned what to do in a particular match situation, how to react quickly, what to do in the crunch times. A few of the players have found some level of consistency, but you still find them failing for maybe three or four matches after one big score."
The eternal boy wonder, Mohammad Ashraful, is the closest thing to an omnipresent player, having featured in 53 of his country's 64 Tests to date, but for all manner of reasons, he stands out as an anomaly - Bangladesh's flickering beacon of promise, if you like. The next most-capped member of the current set-up is the wicketkeeper, Mushfiqur Rahim, who made his debut as a 16-year-old at Lord's in 2005, and has featured in 19 Tests since then. Somewhere between those two figures there is a yawning gulf of experience, and one that Mahmud believes could and should have been filled by the boys he played alongside at the tail-end of his own career.
When England last toured Bangladesh in 2003, Rajin Saleh, Alok Kapali and Enamul Haque jnr were all still teenagers. All things being equal, those three ought to be approaching their prime right now - not least Rajin, who captained his country during the 2004 Champions Trophy and was talked up by the former coach, Dav Whatmore, as the most dedicated professional in his set-up. Instead, they have barely featured under the new regime of Siddons, whose focus has been every bit as youth-orientated as that of his predecessor.
"Players like Rajin, Alok, even Hannan Sarkar, they were really raw talents, and they played but never settled," said Mahmud. "None of them played for a long time, and why was that? Something is wrong, definitely. What are our foreign coaches doing to them? I was old when I started, I couldn't take the changes they were imposing, and I couldn't sustain my place, fair enough. But these are raw talents, so why couldn't they come up to the mark? It's a big question for us. These guys should be in the team right now. Instead they have been lost."
Since joining the Bangladesh set-up in October 2007, Siddons has been credited with instilling greater discipline to his squad, and when naturally free-flowing players such as Tamim Iqbal talk of adhering to "team rules" in the wake of a century as excellent as the one he scored against England in Dhaka last week, you know he's making some progress. But Mahmud believes that the true extent of Siddons' influence will only be judged in hindsight.
"Jamie has been here for two-and-a-half years, and he is doing a fantastic job. But he'll probably only be here for another year, maybe two, and after he has left, we need to see whether the players like Tamim, Shakib and Mushfiqur are all still around when he goes. He's had them from the beginning, he's helped them through their problems with techniques and the ups and downs of international cricket, but it's important as a professional coach, and as a batting specialist, that he leaves us with five or six successes."
As and when that time comes, Mahmud believes he is ready to step into the role . In September 2009, he stepped up to become Siddons' official deputy, having achieved a Grade 3 coaching certificate from Cricket Australia, and while he is not angling to instigate a coup, he believes that the time is fast approaching when the Bangladeshi style - for better or for worse - needs to be allowed to re-emerge from the rigid structures that Whatmore and Siddons have put in place in recent times.
"I feel very lucky and happy to have this new position as assistant coach, but people need to believe in us," he said. "It's now 20 years that I've been in the Bangladesh national set-up, and it's not just my bread and butter, it's my love. I am always proud to say I'm a Bangladeshi player, but the board needs to believe in us more, and as a local guy, I believe they would give me support.
"From my childhood I've always loved coaching," he said. "I talk a lot, and I love to help. People come from different places, and a lot of them are kids who are afraid to talk, so they don't get the best benefits from the clubs. I'm not saying we don't need help from outside - we need specialists, we need everything - but I believe I can make the changes because I know the attitude of our players. I can understand their feelings, which foreign coaches rarely understand.
"I feel like I'm a parent of the team," he added. "A lot of the boys have a lot of things to say, but they would never tell it to the coach, because they might think he would get upset if they said that. They come to me instead, because I've known a lot of these boys from childhood, and I know what their motives are. I can see it in their faces when they are confident, when they are not, and what they are thinking."
The bottom line, as far as Mahmud is concerned, is that Bangladesh has to be accepted for what it is, not what it should be. The chaos, the culture, the desperate political problems - none of these can be overcome with a purely textbook approach to the country's cricket development, not least because it requires a personal touch to coax the best out of the often shy young men who enter the national set-up.
"I've always believed that you cannot coach a boy, you have to motivate them and support them in what they are doing, that's the main thing," said Mahmud. "This is our culture and our system, and we cannot change it. We have to be like Australia or India, who develop their own cultures, and produce players in their own image.
"Skill-wise we have a lot of good players, but strength-wise we cannot perform at highest level for long enough, because our everyday routine is not great. Whenever a boy comes to the national team, we have to look after him and tell him what to eat and when to sleep and when to go to the gym, whereas an Aussie boy will get that straight away."
Mahmud should know. He was that boy not so long ago.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo. Go to http://twitter.com/miller_cricket to follow him on Twitter through the England tour of Bangladesh.