'I don't want fifties, I want hundreds'
Tamim Iqbal was eight years old when he learnt what it means to be a national hero. The occasion was the final of the ICC Trophy in Malaysia, in April 1997, and Tamim's uncle, Akram Khan, was leading Bangladesh in a tournament that would reshape the country's sporting history.
With a berth at the 1999 World Cup already secured, Bangladesh were playing Kenya for the right to be considered the best non-Test nation in the world - a member of the world's top 10, no less. A six from the wicketkeeper, Khaled Mashud, brought a fraught, rain-affected contest down to the very last ball, but a scampered leg-bye sealed a groundbreaking victory, and young Tamim's eyes were opened to the possibilities his future could hold.
"I believe that if Bangladesh ever won the World Cup, the scenes we saw that night could never be repeated," he said. "At the moment we won, thousands of people came flocking to my uncle's house and threw colours at our walls, mixed with water, like something you'd see at our Holi festival. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it had happened. But I wanted to be Akram Khan that day. I wanted people to shout my name."
It was one thing to have such a role model to look up to (and in terms of pure stature, few men in Bangladesh stack up quite so physically as the imposing Akram). But the real drive to succeed emanated from Tamim's father, Iqbal Khan, who died in 2000, before either Tamim or his elder brother and fellow Test centurion, Nafees, had come close to fulfilling their destinies.
"It was my father's dream that I'd become a cricket player," said Tamim. "He was an amputee - he lost a leg in an accident when I was young, but he always used to stand in the 40-degree heat and do the umpiring with his fake leg, and urged me to bat for as long as I possibly could. When I was really small, I'd play with the big boys and get out cheaply all the time. But he believed in me, and it was he who really wanted me to play for Bangladesh."
Almost exactly a decade on from Akram's hour of glory, and having working his way through from the Bangladesh Under-13s, Tamim was given the chance for which he had striven. As a 17-year-old stripling with a penchant for lusty blows, he was thrown in at the deep end for the 2007 World Cup, with just four ODI appearances to his name, and a highest score of 30 against Zimbabwe. What happened next, against India in Trinidad on March 17, was arguably the most nerveless rookie performance since Inzamam-ul-Haq destroyed New Zealand in the 1992 semi-final.
Tamim didn't just click, he snapped the contest in two. Chasing a modest target of 192, he piled onto the offensive with 51 from 53 balls, swiping the momentum and setting the platform for his more measured team-mates, Mushfiqur Rahim and Shakib Al Hasan, to ease to a five-wicket victory. After 11 overs, Bangladesh were cruising on 60 for 1, as Tamim pulled off perhaps the single most audacious shot he will ever play, a contemptuous charge and swipe off Zaheer Khan that soared over long-on for six.
"I'm that kind of guy - if I hit a good shot early on and it goes for four, after that I don't care who's bowling at me and who is not," he said. "That's what happened in that match. From my fourth ball I played a cover drive and it went for four and I got my momentum. After that I felt very strong, because I was believing in myself and playing my shots, and the ball seemed to land where I wanted. Everything happened exactly how I wanted it."
Tamim's onslaught tore the World Cup wide open. India were eliminated and Bangladesh marched through to the Super Eights, where they spun through South Africa and ran England close. A defeat against Ireland in their private World Cup final tarnished the overall experience just a fraction, but when he returned home, Tamim had moved on from being the nephew of Akram Khan and was now a star in his own right.
"When my uncle played his innings it was only on the radio, so there were millions of people listening but none of them could see. But for me, they all saw it, and so everyone was talking about that Zaheer six. Even at practice today [before the second Test] they were talking about the same thing. It is never going to go from my life, which is good, but I need some more innings like it but bigger. I don't want fifties, I want hundreds."
He's getting seriously close to that ambition now. In his first six innings of the current England tour, Tamim responded with three outstanding performances - a brilliant 125 in the first ODI that deserved better support; a defiant 86 in the first Test in Chittagong that was ended by the ball of the series from Tim Bresnan, and then Saturday's agenda-setting 85 from 71 balls in Dhaka, an innings that could and should have secured him a century in the first session of a Test match, a feat achieved by only five players in history.
It is a common refrain in Bangladesh cricket - give us time and watch us develop. In Tamim, however, the country appears to have hit upon a frontline batsman with the talent and temperament to live up to that promise. Others have been called upon, but have found the burden of expectation too great, not least Mohammad Ashraful, whose prodigious debut as a 16-year-old in 2001 has stalked him for nine years and counting. Tamim, on the other hand, casts himself as an attention-seeker of the most positive type imaginable.
"Ash is one of the best cricketers Bangladesh has ever produced and I'm sure he'll come back strongly," he said. "But in that team, and at that point of time, he was the one everyone was looking for, and mentally he found it unsettling. But he and I are different guys, and I like to think I'd have loved the attention. If someone is clapping or saying something while I'm in the field, I'm like: 'Okay, I need to do something now!'
"In the Asian culture, if you don't perform, you're a dead man, but international cricket is all about guts. If you don't fear anyone, you will perform well, and you can see that this Bangladesh team is gutsy and confident. We've been saying we are improving for a long time now, but what we are thinking and what we are predicting will be achieved very soon.
Tamim speaks as confidently as he bats, with a fluency in English that hints at the sort of privilege that an uncle of Akram's stature would doubtless have bestowed. But, crucially, he also possesses the work ethic to build on his natural gifts, and the intelligence to incorporate new methods into his modus operandi.
"When I first came into the international arena, I had one or two shots that I always played, such as that down-the-wicket shot, but I was weak in other areas, and with all the computer analysts that the top teams have these days, bowlers got to know this in a click. I struggled a lot after the World Cup, with three fifties in my next 22 matches, which wasn't good enough. The selectors had faith and kept playing me, but I realised I needed to put in some seriously hard work."
Under the tutelage of Mohammad Salauddin, the national academy coach, Tamim spent hours and hours in the nets, working on his weaknesses and converting them into strengths, such as his flick through the leg side, which has now become one of his bread-and-butter boundary shots. And at the suggestion of the head coach, Jamie Siddons, Tamim widened his stance to improve his balance against quick bowling, a tip that has sent him soaring towards the top.
"Jamie didn't try to change me, he just suggested things that he believed would make me a better cricketer," said Tamim. "He said if I took a wide stance, like Graeme Smith for instance, I would be halfway to the ball already and I'd save myself time when getting on the front foot. If you see him at practice, he's a fantastic batting coach and a brilliant fielding coach as well, the best I've ever seen."
Although Siddons is not everyone's cup of tea within the Bangladesh Cricket Board, Tamim's endorsement is a testament to the success that his elite-focused methods have had since he took over as head coach at the end of 2007. In Tamim's opinion, most of the problems lie in the age-old issue of communication, but he believes it's a situation that cuts both ways.
"Bangladeshi guys are a little bit shy," he says. "But we need to understand that if you want to learn something, you have to go to the teacher, and ask them. You can't just sit on the back bench and do nothing, because if you want to improve, play well and do good for your country, you have to put in the effort yourself.
"Jamie, like many Australians, speaks a little bit fast, and when he first came in, some guys had a problem with that. But now he speaks to us very slowly, and though there are some guys who understand English very well, there are also some who don't, so I might translate, or Shakib, or Mushy. We have all been working well with him, and the results of what he's done are clear within the team."
One of the chief aspects of Siddons' reign - and that of his precedessor, Dav Whatmore, for that matter - has been an Australianisation of the dressing-room culture, a process that sits uneasily with those who believe that an alien environment merely makes it tougher for young players to assimilate to the requirements of international cricket. But while Tamim believes that the "work hard, play hard" ethic is a positive development, he admits that the team's emotions remain Bangladeshi at heart.
"It's really tough to suffer defeat after defeat after defeat," he said. "In the second ODI [against England], we should have won, but the luck wasn't with us, and after the game, six or seven of us came to the dressing room and cried. We felt so bad, because we love the game so much and we wanted to do well for the country, but we couldn't control our emotions. We just cried like babies.
"It's a big pressure in a country like Bangladesh, where the crowd don't care who you're playing against, they just want you to win. But then again, sometimes when we do win, like against Sri Lanka [in January 2009], when Shakib got 90 and we made it through to the finals, that day we also cried through happiness. It's funny, but if you're in the Bangladesh dressing room, you get to understand it."
Tamim knows he's one of the lucky ones. Through a combination of talent, drive and good fortune, he has bubbled to the surface of a cricket-crazy country whose limited infrastructure denies millions of young players a similar chance to show what they can do. Now that he's there, however, he's determined not to let up on any front. Last year he completed an A-level in accounting, and he's currently looking to enrol in university.
"Being educated is very important, especially in a country like Bangladesh, and I'm working hard to be an educated person, but it's not been easy," he said. "When I was at school in Chittagong, most of the best cricket facilities were in Dhaka, so I took three years longer than I should have done to do my A-levels because I've been on the road non-stop. But ask me today, which will it be, studies or cricket, and I'll pick cricket. Everyone in the country would pick cricket!"
For others, you sense, the pursuit of the dream has left them ruing their wasted sacrifices, but for Tamim his endeavours are paying the richest of dividends. He has agents sniffing around with a view to a county contract, and the IPL, one senses, won't be aloof to his talents for much longer. But whatever path his career takes from here, he recognises his role as a national trailblazer. Just as his uncle helped inspire the current generation, Tamim knows that his duty henceforth will be to stride out in front.
"I really don't follow others. I have no idols," he said. "I like the batting of Sehwag and Yuvraj, but I'm not going to try and play like them because everyone's a different person, with different techniques and different shots. I need to play like me, the way I know, and whatever the game, I want to attack the ball. Sometimes it looks odd to get out for 30 playing a stupid shot, but that is my way. If I'm going to be a hero, I'll be a hero the way I am.
"At the end of my career, I want to be remembered firstly as a good person. And secondly, I want people to remember that there was a guy who played cricket for Bangladesh. And his name was Tamim Iqbal."
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.