November 15, 2010

Ten tough years in Test cricket

To dwell on Bangladesh's failings would be inappropriate on such a notable anniversary, especially at a time when they are awash with the sort of optimism not seen since those heady first moments

Ten years ago this week, the Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka played host to an event that the then-president of the Bangladesh Cricket Board, Saber Chowdhury, described as the third-most important in the nation's brief but troubled history. Such hyperbole may be standard in the self-aggrandising world of sports administration, but incredibly, on this occasion, it was hard to quibble with such an assessment.

As a squad of paratroopers drifted into the stadium to deliver the flags of each of the ten Test-playing nations - including, to massive acclaim, the red-and-green colours of the newest recruit - realisation dawned among the 40,000 spectators who had gathered to witness the opening day of Bangladesh's inaugural Test match against India. Less than three decades after a bloody war of liberation had left the nation traumatised and face-down in the global gutter, Bangladesh had secured entry into a singularly elite club.

The elation of the occasion lasted for roughly three-and-a-half days, which was time enough for Aminul Islam to etch his name into folklore with his country's maiden century, and for Bangladesh's then-coach Eddie Barlow, immobilised by a stroke but sharp in all other respects, to be vindicated in his belief that the team would reach 400 at the first attempt. India, however, reeled that total in before edging into the lead, whereupon all resistance crumbled - 91 all out and a nine-wicket defeat set the agenda for the decade of beating that would follow.

To dwell on the minutiae of Bangladesh's failings would be inappropriate on such a notable anniversary, especially at a time in their history when they are awash with the sort of optimism not seen since those heady first moments ten years ago. Their four consecutive wins in last month's ODI series against New Zealand mean that, for what it is worth, Bangladesh can lay a spurious claim to being the form team in world cricket. With the 2011 World Cup now just three months round the corner, cautious expectation is the order of the day, especially with the prospect of six home games from which to press for a quarter-final berth.

But regardless of how they fare in February and March, there is no escaping Bangladesh's past, and nor should there be. With privilege comes responsibility, especially in Test cricket, a form of the game that Bangladesh have consistently (if inadvertently) undermined through the paucity of their returns. In fairness, they've made impressive strides in recent months, taking a succession of games deep into the fifth day as they first learn how not to lose before translating that knowhow into a pursuit of victory. But a tally of 59 defeats in 68 Tests tells its own story, as do a trio of victories against under-strength opponents.

It is a state of affairs that has cheapened the record books and undermined the USP of five-day cricket - namely that it is the toughest test of skill that any player could wish to encounter. Instead, in one of their more humiliating early outings in 2002, two Sri Lankan batsmen chose to retire bored after reaching their hundreds. Even the team's most ardent supporters now accept that the country was promoted before it was remotely ready, lacking as it did a viable first-class structure and even such basics as proper practice facilities for the national squad.

To blame Bangladesh for that initial failing, however, is like punishing a toddler for flunking its A-levels. Had the ICC felt it necessary to set a time-frame for Bangladesh's accession, instead of rushing their application through on the strength of a solitary (and extremely dubious) dead-rubber World Cup victory against Pakistan at Northampton in 1999, they might well have decided that a ten-year development programme and a November 2010 promotion was a more realistic date for which to aim.

Had they done so, they might well have encountered a battle-hardened squad boasting the sort of world-class players that Tamim Iqbal and Shakib Al Hasan have become, as well as a cast of reliable sidekicks such as the wicketkeeper Mushfiqur Rahim, upon whom expectations can be heaped without any fear that he will crack.

But of course the ICC did not. Instead India, whose support for their fledgling neighbour is so underwhelming that they have never yet hosted Bangladesh in a bilateral contest of any length, gladly took receipt of an extra ICC vote, and with a four-square Asian Bloc behind them, set about transforming the priorities of the world game. When Bangladesh's quest for self-worth collided with India's pursuit of self-interest, a marriage of expediency ensued, and an erosion of the game's traditional values has been in evidence ever since.

To blame Bangladesh for their initial failing, is like punishing a toddler for flunking its A-levels

Nevertheless, the passion that Bangladesh puts into its cricket cannot be under-estimated, and nor indeed can the country's sheer volume of support. Those who have witnessed the unfettered joy that accompanies every rare victory will confirm ad nauseum how much potential lurks within the country, and as the standards of the national team have begun to rise, so too have the levels of interest and participation among the average punters on the street, many of whom had never paid any attention to cricket prior to 2000.

There is so much more that can and needs to be done to broaden the net within Bangladesh when it comes to international recognition. There are too few clubs with any links to the BCB, and hence no way for talented youngsters to make themselves known other than through luck, but overall the graph is heading upwards for the country, in a way that cannot be said for too many of the other Test nations.

The future looks especially bleak for the internecine West Indies and the exiled Pakistan; New Zealand is experiencing a crisis of relevance in the modern game, and if Zimbabwe's rehabilitation is finally in full swing, then South Africa's search for an heir to Makhaya Ntini could be the story of their coming decade.

By contrast Bangladesh - with their massive population and saintly levels of internal goodwill - could be said to have it easy. What that says about the game of which they are a part, however, is another question entirely.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.