What Bangladesh could learn from Sri Lanka's success
Amidst the furore about the next World Cup - or glorified Champions Trophy as it has become - it's important not to lose sight of the perilous position of the game in some of the 10 supposedly established countries. Even putting aside New Zealand, a nation with a proud tradition of overachieving on the cricket field, and Pakistan, whose difficulties are in part out of their hands, an alarming number of the cricketing powerhouses continue to stumble from crisis to crisis.
Certainly the game's think tank cannot depend on the sustainability of the game in Zimbabwe and West Indies, or for that matter on the African continent. Meanwhile Bangladesh, a packed country with zeal for the game, is taking much longer than expected to add strength to its depth.
As far as the top 10 nations are concerned, it's easier to list the places where the game retains its hold than those struggling along. Accordingly authorities need to keep a close eye on developments in these lands. To that end they need to put self-interest and mutual back-slapping aside.
Certainly complacency is to be resisted. At present India has its strongest ever side and its greatest ever champion. Only the smug will assume that another Sachin Tendulkar and another Virender Sehwag wait at every street corner in every village in that vast and sprawling location. History indicates that these are exceptional talents and extraordinary entertainers. Quite possibly they are as irreplaceable as Brian Lara and Andy Flower. It would be folly to take even India for granted.
Of course the problems in the tottering nations vary and it can be left to the local experts to provide a compelling analysis. From a distance Bangladesh is the most disconcerting.
Admittedly the game's newest Test nation staggers under the weight of poverty and tragedy. As has often been mentioned in this column, cricket is not played by a bunch of affable and organised nations, but rather knows as much enmity as amity. Until that point is recognised and its implications accepted, cricket will continue to speak in many tongues.
By limiting investment and reducing accessibility - in the strongest nations the game has moved away from blue blood to red blood, but nowhere can it embrace empty stomachs - poverty has a profound effect on the well-being of a game. Even so Bangladesh seems to have enough talent at its disposal to make a bigger impact. Instead the national team remain lightweight.
Obviously a week's visit during the course of a World Cup campaign does not offer sufficient exposure to a community to form firm opinions, let alone to suggest possible remedies. So long as the ears are working as well as the eyes, though, much can be gleaned in a short period.
Two points stood out as the Bangladesh battled to give their huge contingent of supporters something to cheer. The first came from a headline appearing in a local paper a few days after the team had been knocked out. It was a story announcing that Shakib Al Hasan, the team's captain, was celebrating his 24th birthday that day. And he has been in office for quite some time.
Except for Alexander the Great, Pitt the Younger, Mozart, and a handful of other prodigies, 23 is not much of an age. Readers are invited to reflect on their own capacities at such a juncture. Can any amongst us emerge unscathed? By most reckonings cricketers, especially batsmen and spinners, reach their peak in their late twenties, when brain and feet are both working properly. Shakib is developing his skills and at the same time trying to satisfy a vast audience and maintain optimism in the dressing room. It is a tall order for anyone, let alone an inexperienced youngster.
Not to say that he was the wrong choice as captain. On the contrary the problem is that his nomination might very well have been correct. Examining the Bangladesh team, it's not easy to find an alternative. Simply the side is young and somewhat naïve. The results remind observers that ability alone is never enough.
Clearly the main problem in Bangladesh cricket is the lack of proven senior players, men to rely on in tough times. Give them the Husseys, for example, and in a trice the side might seem altogether harder to beat. No country can control the production of champions but a core of senior players ought to be possible. It is the lack of them that holds Bangladesh back.
And not that country alone. Successive West Indian coaches have complained not so much about the dearth of senior men as about their failure to set an example. The odds of all these coaches being wrong are long.
Bangladesh's inability to produce players in their thirties who are able to sustain the team while the youngsters learn their trade points towards a deeper problem. Evidently domestic structures are not producing, let alone retaining, the sort of professional players able to sort out the next generation, the cussed characters to be found in grade cricket in Australia (though less so these days, and thereby hangs a tale).
Plain and simple, Bangladesh's weakness lies not in the representative team but in the production line. Club cricket is neither rewarding nor competitive enough. Not even the prospect of having to give up playing for their country could prevent older players signing up for the rebel ICL. A generation was lost to that independent league. Although those players were eventually allowed back, they had lost their edge and none completely recovered his form. It's unfair to criticise them for spurning their country for money without knowledge of their predicaments. Perhaps they were motivated not by a fondness for Armani suits but by the need to build a future for their families.
But losses to the ICL and a lazy lifestyle alone cannot explain the weakness in the senior ranks of Bangladesh cricket. Clearly the domestic cricket is not sufficiently demanding, and so does not prepare players for the next step, let alone the highest challenges. Again the Bangladeshis might not be alone in that failing. Conceivably Zimbabwe and West Indies suffer from the same softness. Nor is it easily remedied. Indeed it takes a lot of hard work and investment in pitches, schools, coaches and so forth.
Perhaps Bangladesh and the other struggling countries might consider studying the experiences of more successful cricketing nations. In that regard Sri Lanka might be the most relevant community because it has things in common with Bangladesh and West Indies in particular. Notwithstanding its relative rawness at the top level and a small population (roughly 20 million), and never mind its documented complications and the numerous trials and tribulations in the cricket community, and the undue influence exerted by the politicians (not least recently - the row with the BCCI was reportedly engineered by an especially dense sports minister), Sri Lanka continue to compete with, and often defeat, the powerhouses.
Accordingly Bangladesh and the ICC ought to send a working party to report on the rise and retained virility of Lankan cricket. Failure is indeed instructive but success can also tell a tale. Nor is it sensible to let misgivings about one aspect of a country or its cricket prevent recognition of achievements in other areas.
Somehow the Lankans have managed to promote diversity and imagination and along the way to produce a steady stream of high-class performers. Like the Indians, they have been lucky with their senior players, but it cannot begin and end with them. No team in living memory, and none, it may be supposed, outside works of fiction, has contained as many original players and characters. Just to watch them bowl is to accept the point.
Plainly, too, the game has grown rapidly beyond its base of a few select Colombo schools into the hinterlands of place, faith and background. In part the old schools themselves have adapted to changing times by widening their reach. After all St Joseph's Catholic School, Chaminda Vaas' alma mater (by all accounts he was regularly thrown out of the commerce class; one local dryly observed that he has improved in that arena), still has representatives in the national squad. But though the matches between leading schools still dominate newspapers, attract big crowds and produce players, the base has widened considerably.
Increasingly modern players prove themselves not with the rudimentary facilities provided by even the top schools but in the adult exchanges of clubs and regions. Apparently, too, the Test men turn out domestically.
Whatever the causes - and doubtless several others could be mentioned - Sri Lanka's performance has been impressive and can serve as a model for those still striving to make their mark. Both the ICC and individual boards ought to take note.
My opposition to the ten-team World Cup is well known. But it might not stop at 10. Cricket in the Caribbean and Zimbabwe might continue to flounder. Bangladesh might remain immature in 2015. No one can forecast events in Pakistan. The IPL flourishes but the overall position is much weaker than it currently seems.
Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It