Ash eyes a comeback
Mohammad Ashraful does not look a day older than 18. He is a small-built man with a youthful face, a thick crop of black hair and a childlike smile. When he says that he has "at least 10 years of international cricket" left in him, it's easy to believe. Then you think of how much cricket he has already played.
It's been almost a decade since Ashraful debuted against Sri Lanka, stunning the cricket world with a fluent century. He was nothing more than a boy then, and he remembers his exact age without prompting. "I was 17 years and 63 days old then," he said, recalling how he arrived on the scene and how, in the years since, he has squandered chances and been the victim of a struggling team.
Now he's clawing to get his career back. "I've played 55 Tests and 166 ODIs, so I have experience," he said. "Now I need support."
Ashraful has steadily slipped from being the darling of Bangladesh cricket, and perhaps the country's most popular sportsman at one point, to an outcast. He went from being a boy wonder to an ambassador for cricket in the country before he turned 21. In that time he was dropped from the team once, when poor form saw him left out of a series against England in 2003. At 22, he was handed the captaincy.
He had already showed his ability to command respect, during the 2007 World Cup, when Bangladesh culled two major giants, first knocking India out of the group stage with a five-wicket win and then tripping South Africa up in the Super Eights. It's the second victory that Ashraful recalls as his finest moment. "South Africa were No. 1 in the world then and I scored 87 off 83 balls. It was my best game," he said.
Unfortunately for him, that was as about good as it got. He failed to reach those heights in his captaincy, which was given to him soon after the tournament. Under him, Bangladesh only recorded eight victories in 38 ODIs. Ashraful's own form slumped, and when he failed to see Bangladesh through to the second round of the World Twenty20 in 2009 in England, he was stripped of the leadership.
"I was a little bit upset because I wanted to carry on as captain," he said. He scored two ODI half-centuries on the tour of the West Indies but couldn't keep it going. Save for a 75 against Sri Lanka early the next year, his highest ODI score since then against opposition excluding Zimbabwe has been 31. He was regularly out to careless strokes. Thus began a period of yo-yoing in and out of the side.
After one match in a home series last December against Zimbabwe he was dropped. "I was told I would get three games," he said. Against New Zealand, whom Bangladesh blanked 4-0, he was not picked. He then made the World Cup squad on the back of a hundred in a four-day match, and being named Player of the Tournament in the one-day league.
Again, the old familiar inconsistency came back to haunt him. "I played two games but I was batting at No. 7," he said. "After the match against West Indies [where Bangladesh were bowled out for 58], which was a bad game for everyone, only I was dropped. I spoke with the coach after that game and said that everybody fell down. I had even bowled well in that match and felt that I looked good."
Ashraful said it was never explained to him why he was being dipped in and out of the international side like a teabag, even though his relationship with then-coach Jamie Siddons was healthy. "When he [Siddons] first came to Bangladesh, I was the captain and we were good friends."
He had not been forgotten altogether, though. While his team-mates were playing against Australia in the aftermath of the World Cup, Ashraful was leading an A side to South Africa, the start of his bid to get back into the national team. The tour resulted in a 0-1 unofficial Test series loss and a 1-3 loss in the one-dayers. Ashraful was the standout Bangladesh batsman in the one-dayers, scoring 172 runs, including a match-winning century, with an average of 57.33 and a strike rate of almost 100.
His first hope is that a new coach will open the door for him again as Bangladesh look to enter a new era. "Jamie was working with us for four years so a new guy might be good for us," he said. Having worked under Dav Whatmore, who "always wanted to win and was a motivator," and Siddons who "always wanted to improve", Ashraful thinks Bangladesh should now make use of foreigners and former Bangladesh players to take real steps in moving up the world rankings. "There are local guys who want to come and help us, like Habibul Bashar and Khaled Mahmud."
While new guidance is the first route to change, Ashraful wants also to see a wholesale improvement in Bangladesh cricket, not just for himself but for the team. He said more cricket, and exposure to different conditions, are the main ingredients necessary for success in future, especially as far as batting, which he thinks is Bangladesh's biggest weakness, goes. "Our domestic cricket needs to improve. We play a maximum of nine first-class games in a season and that's too little."
Tours like the one he has just completed in South Africa could help to bridge that gap. "We should tour a few more countries for experience," he said. "It is not easy for us. The bounce is chest-high in South Africa and we are used to knee-high bounce at home. Our batsmen have to learn to leave the ball. In our conditions, we have to play the ball."
England is another place Ashraful would like Bangladesh's youngsters to play more in. "I played a season of club cricket in England and conditions are beautiful for batting in June and July. Bangladesh has a lot of uneven bounce because wickets are not prepared properly."
He's in favour of stints in the IPL as well, to broaden players' horizons. Ashraful enjoyed a stint with the Mumbai Indians in 2009, and current captain Shakib Al Hasan is contracted to the Kolkata Knight Riders. "I spent 45 days with Sachin Tendulkar, Shaun Pollock, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan and learnt so much about cricket," he said, "from watching them play to watching how they behave."
When he starts reeling off stories about the different places he has played in and people he has played with, it becomes evident that Ashraful still has a lot to offer Bangladesh cricket, on and off the field.
He knows a turnaround has to come. "For the last one and a half years, I have not been performing as well as I should be internationally, but I will do well again." He dreams of an average over 40 in Test cricket, which is not beyond a man of his skills.
If he wasn't a cricketer, Ashraful could have been a statistician, such is the precision with which he recalls numbers. He remembers all his own scores exactly - not just the big ones like the 158 not out against India but also the 11 against West Indies that was his last international game so far (and coincidentally also how much he made in his last Test, in England last year). The 10 years he throws out casually as a time frame for his future involvement with the Bangladesh national side sounds like a calculated figure and not a random number. Could it turn out to be the decade Bangladesh cricket needs?
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent