Wearing the burden lightly
I meet Shakib Al Hasan on a warm July day in London, at an event organised by former Bangladesh Under-19 coach Shahidul Alam for the charity Capital Kids Cricket. The venue is Stepney Green School where the majority of students are of Bangladeshi heritage. The playground is awash with excited faces as Shakib makes his entrance.
Bangladesh's captain is returning to Dhaka next week, and while his stint at Worcestershire has been short, he tells me he has enjoyed his time on the county scene. "Last year I played mainly four-day and Pro40 cricket for Worcester. This year I am playing mainly Twenty20 cricket. But because I've been here before I've been able to adapt quickly to the conditions."
Have the six months of non-stop cricket (straight from the World Cup to the IPL, then England) been fatiguing? "There are positives and negatives," Shakib says. "On the downside, if you're not playing well there's no time to work on your game. But on the upside if you are performing well you can keep your form going".
He has mixed feelings about his performances for the Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL. "I enjoyed my time in the IPL. Bangladesh and India have a similar culture, language and conditions so it was almost like playing at home. I think I bowled well. I didn't get many chances with the bat, but when I did bat I thought I had one good game and one not-so-good game."
When I ask about his team-mates at Worcester and Kolkata, he responds with a smile and says that there is a great dressing-room atmosphere in both camps, though if he had to choose he would count Manoj Tiwary at Kolkata and Moeen Ali at Worcester among his best friends.
In an age of increasing player power, I am surprised to learn that Shakib was not consulted on the appointment of the new coach. All the same, he is impressed with Stuart Law's credentials. "He has played county cricket in England and domestic cricket in Australia, so he understands what players need to do to perform. His experience with Sri Lanka too will be invaluable."
Shakib's admiration for Law's predecessor however, remains undimmed. "I think Jamie Siddons was a good batting coach and the boys really warmed to him. He was also a very hard worker."
Bangladesh's next assignment is a tricky tour of Zimbabwe, which includes one Test match. "In terms of results, obviously we want to win all the games," Shakib says, "although we know it won't be easy playing in their conditions. Also, we haven't played a Test match in over a year, so that's a concern. But then Zimbabwe have not played a Test in almost six years."
He is confident the Bangladesh squad are training hard in Mirpur under the guidance of Sarwar Imran, who has the reins until Law formally joins Bangladesh in Zimbabwe. "Sarwar Imran has coached the national team before, and has been the A team and Academy coach, so he has plenty of experience. The boys are in good hands".
Among the new players named in the preliminary squad training in Mirpur to face Zimbabwe are the likes of batsman Shuvagato Hom and spinner Elias Sunny, whom Shakib knows from domestic cricket. "They've performed consistently for the last two or three seasons. They are good lads and if they get an opportunity they will want to make an impression," he says.
He is generally happy with the squad that has been selected although he laments the loss of fast bowler Shahadat Hossain. "Shahadat was doing well in Test matches, but unfortunately he got injured. Without him I'm not sure who our third seamer will be. There are a few guys around - if they get the chance they will do well. Nazmul [Hossain], for instance, has been with the national team for the last four or five years. He's an experienced guy and could step in."
Shakib also thinks Robiul Islam could present a good option, despite a nervy debut against England last year "What I like about Robiul is that he can swing the ball. Hopefully he'll learn from the experience [against England] and do well in the future."
When it comes to extending the talent pool under the new coach, Shakib advocates a pragmatic approach. "We don't have a large [player] pipeline in Bangladesh, so we have to stick to those who can contribute to the team. I think that's the right way to do it. We're a very young side, so we're bound to make mistakes. The main thing is to work hard and to improve."
At first-class level, cricketers in Bangladesh need to play more cricket and on good wickets, he says. "That will greatly improve the standard of our cricket."
"All the guys who have played for the last two to three years have played well. They've contributed, and the main thing is, they're always working on their game." Shakib, perhaps predictably, names Tamim Iqbal as the cricketer who has improved the most, but he reserves high praise for Imrul Kayes and Shafiul Islam.
On his personal ambitions, Shakib is circumspect. "I don't like to set big goals for myself. I like to set small goals, series by series. There are some areas I can always improve."
World Cup apart, Shakib thinks Bangladesh have generally improved over the last two or three years. "We have been very competitive, especially at home," he says. That view will no doubt be put to the test when West Indies arrive to tour Bangladesh later this year.
Looking further afield, at issues in cricket in general, Shakib says he supports the Decision Referral System, which he thinks will improve the overall standard of umpiring and benefit weaker teams, who often bear the brunt of bad decisions. "It makes it much fairer. Umpires are less likely to make mistakes [with it]," he says.
Shakib believes the ICC's move to ensure there is no political interference in cricket governance is a positive step; an interesting position, given that to date the president of the Bangladesh Cricket Board has always been a government appointee.
After a quick net session with some schoolchildren, it is time for Shakib to leave. As he says his goodbyes, I am struck by how young he still is - an indicator of how quickly he has risen, from a virtually unknown U-19 player to one of the world's best allrounders.
Cricket is the only major sport Bangladesh plays at the highest level, and the expectations on Shakib and his team are immense. Those burdens, he thinks, had their part to play in Bangladesh's World Cup collapses against South Africa and West Indies. "We didn't handle the pressure well; that was the only problem. The expectations were too high and the media, especially, contributed to this."
Still, he goes about his business with a calm assurance; the responsibility sits well upon his shoulders. The looks on the faces of the students of Stepney Green reflect it.
Capital Kids Cricket is a charity that teaches and promotes cricket in inner London state schools
Abu Choudhury is a regular contributor to Banglacricket.com. He lives in London