'I don't think about much more than cricket'
Shakib Al Hasan has played non-stop for the last three years. When not representing his country, he has played club cricket in Dhaka, county cricket in England, and in the IPL or the BPL. Three days after an emotionally draining Asia Cup campaign, Shakib turned out for his club, Victoria Sporting Club, in a crucial phase of the Dhaka Premier Division Cricket League. Nursing a bruised right elbow, he sat down earlier this week to talk about his growing up years, his ambitions, and why children adore him.
You have many firsts to your name. How does it feel to be the first Man of the Tournament from Bangladesh, in the Asia Cup?
It is great, though it didn't seem so big at the time. But now that I think of it after a few days, this is a great achievement from a personal point of view. I think it is one of the best things I've done.
Do you keep an eye on what allrounders like Shane Watson or Jacques Kallis are doing?
No, never. Sometimes I see someone bat or bowl on television but that's about it. I have not looked at another player with the purpose of wishing he fails.
We hardly see pressure on your face despite so much trouble around you when you come to bat. Do you meditate?
It's not that I am not under pressure. I don't let anyone see that it's affecting me. Of course, I am under pressure in certain situations. I think for a big player, handling pressure is the biggest challenge. Whoever can handle pressure will be good in his career.
I don't think about much more than cricket. My life is all about this game, so I am not worried about anything else.
How do you keep away from the pressure?
I don't think about anything else. (Smiles) There are moments, but since this is a good time, the thought process has been quite different. But there are times when there are no good thoughts, when a good word doesn't feel like it is worth hearing. I have crossed such a phase, so I understand what it is. I have been playing in the national team for five or six years now and I have seen a lot. So I know what is coming at me and I know how to handle it.
Do you have a normal life now? How do people react when they see you on the street?
The last time I went to a shopping mall was before the World Cup. I don't think I have gone to such a place after that. I can only go to a restaurant.
When kids, while they are going to school in a van or a bus, see me on the streets, they start screaming and shouting. I like such things but I don't like it when people surround me. If I'm going somewhere and someone says hi, I think that's fine.
I haven't gone anywhere in the last one year so it's hard to say how they will react. I have to go out one day and find out. (Laughs)
The journey from Magura, where you were born, to here - has it been a difficult one?
I don't think it was difficult. There was a difficult time after I got into the national team but before that I didn't have to struggle at any stage.
By Allah's grace, I played Under-15s, U-17s, U-19s and got into the Academy team. Imagine, I started playing cricket in 2002 and I was in the national team four years later.
After the 2007 World Cup and the India series, I struggled for eight to nine months. I learned a lot during that time. After that I haven't had to struggle much in my career so far.
Did the time spent at the BKSP [Bangladesh's national sports institute] help you to handle things better?
I always think that if I had come directly from Magura, it would have been difficult, probably impossible to get this far. So BKSP was an important element for me. I think I learned 5-10% of the bad stuff but the 90-95% of the good stuff that I learnt from BKSP has really helped me in life.
Did you ever think you would become the most-recognised face in Bangladesh?
No. (Laughs) Who knew this would happen? I do see the news and read newspapers, but never really went too deep into reading what is written in the sports pages. I don't think about such things. And to be honest, if the news is about me, what is the point of me reading it?
I used to study, spend time with my friends, practise cricket. That's how I was in my BKSP days.
In the Asia Cup final, you reacted violently after getting out. Later you cried with some of your team-mates. How is it that you reacted so emotionally?
I do react but in the dressing room. This was different. I was disappointed because I expected the team and those coming to watch us depended on me. The whole country was thinking that way, so I felt bad.
There wasn't a game when I didn't start well. I won two Man-of-the-Match awards, and if we had won the other two [matches against Pakistan], I would have done the same in those games. So to get so close and not finish it well was a disappointing factor.
World-class players are slightly better in these situations. At the end of the series, I believed that I am a very good player but still have a little left. If I can do that extra bit, I can help Bangladesh win many matches.
The day after the Asia Cup final, one newspaper had a front-page picture of you crying. Some people said that seeing you and Mushfiqur Rahim get so emotional made them cry too.
(Laughs) I have received 500-600 SMSes, so that's what the situation was after the final.
After I woke up the next day and went to the breakfast table, [Enamul Haque] Bijoy brought me the paper and said, "Look at the picture." I was like, "Again this crying?"
Tell us how you score fifties so quickly. You don't go for the big shots all the time.
I start playing quite normally, according to whatever situation I'm facing. Even some of my team-mates tell each other, "He will get to 20 before we realise anything." I think I start well because maybe I pick a lot of singles. My strike rate is good, and with the odd boundary, it improves every ball. I play very few dot balls at the start.
In the final against Pakistan, my body was not awake to the situation. I told someone, "Pray for me, brother, I am feeling very sleepy." I went in, first ball I pulled and it went to the boundary. So it is like that, when you don't think much, it still happens.
Can you quickly get into the zone when you are batting?
I have found that I can bat normally at the start of the innings. Sometimes I can bat in this way, sometimes I am under pressure. It entirely depends on the situation I am in. But as I have said before, handling the pressure is the hallmark of a good player.
How important is professionalism, overall, to you?
It is very important because without professionalism, becoming a proper cricketer is difficult. I got emotional one day, but after a day I changed. I have to change. The next match I play is a totally different ballgame to me. Such emotions do not matter. If I sit with that emotion, my life won't run in the right direction. I have to improve my game. I think all this falls under professionalism.
Have county cricket and IPL changed your perception of professionalism?
It has mainly happened by playing county cricket. In the IPL there is a lot more travelling and matches so it is difficult to get an opportunity to practise a particular area of your game. In county cricket you get to stay at one place for a while. There's a lot more opportunity to work on yourself. If I want to improve, there's a lot of scope in the county game. This is where professionalism kicks in: to bat an extra hour or to bowl or to do some extra work on the field. It depends on how honest I am with my work.
Do you find it missing in Bangladesh?
I don't think it is missing. I think I am the laziest person in the national team. Everyone else works harder than me.
I do my bit, whatever it is that I need to work on. I might spend the least amount of time in the gym, but when required I will do it.
Your actions have been questioned before. Are you comfortable with the media now?
Now I am very comfortable. A person learns from the mistakes he or she makes.
The media praised you after the Sri Lanka win. You think they are sometimes inconsistent?
(Laughs) It's quite natural. An Indian TV channel, before the Bangladesh-India game, was saying India will score 450 runs and whatnot. That same channel says the opposite thing after the game. There's no doubt they are inconsistent. I think the journalists won't disagree with me. (Laughs)
In this country there are thousands of youngsters who want to be like you. What would you like to tell them?
Stay honest, disciplined and be fully determined to reach the target you want to achieve. A lot of difficult phases will come but stay determined. Sachin Tendulkar was saying in an interview after his 100th hundred that your dream will come true if you are single-minded about it.
I didn't know there was something called U-13s or U-15s cricket before I played it. When I started playing age-level cricket, I was hell-bent on touring Siliguri or Kolkata, where the usual tours were. Only I know how hard I worked to get into those tours. I don't think I have ever worked harder for anything else other than playing in the U-15 team. What didn't I do! I did it all.
If one can be this determined, anything is possible. To stay in this frame of mind, you have to be honest, do a lot of hard work and be dedicated to the cause.
You are very popular with children. What do you think they see in you?
(Laughs) The other day [after the game against Sri Lanka] there was a five-year-old girl who came near the dressing room and started making faces at me. I did the same to her, pulled faces. After the final, I saw her again. Her dad said jokingly that she wanted to propose to me. She got so shy. (Laughs) I told her, "Okay, I will propose to you."
You are a hero to many kids. Who is your hero?
When I was a kid I loved watching Saeed Anwar bat and Saqlain Mushtaq bowl. I liked Wasim Akram a lot, also liked watching Daniel Vettori and Rahul Dravid, and I liked [Shivnarine] Chanderpaul's approach. I pick the small things from everyone but there's no one in particular that I see as my hero.
Have you made it this far on your own or has there been some help on the way?
There are several people who have had an impact on me. First of all, my family. When I got into the BKSP, I had to take a two-year break. In Bangladesh, such a break in education is totally unthinkable. "What will happen to the boy now? Will he get a job in the future?" That was a very natural concern for a middle-class family like ours.
We had a coach in Magura called [Ashraful Islam] Bappi, who is now working in Myanmar. He told my father to let me go to the BKSP. Bappi sir was the one who taught me how to hold a ball and a bat when he held a one-month talent hunt. After he asked for me, my father and mother had to take a decision about my future. It was a hard call on their part, I understand now.
When I talk about BKSP, everyone and everything has made a contribution to my development. From the tree leaves to the field, the athletics track and swimming pool, it has all contributed.
Every coach thereafter helped me - Sri Lankan coaches, Australian coaches, and whoever was in charge helped me. Otherwise it wouldn't have been possible to come so far.
Have you always been a leader of the pack?
My leadership was very good when it came to playing football and cricket. When we played football, I was the first to be called up so I had some kind of responsibility. I used to fix who would play where. It was the same in the cricket field. So it doesn't matter to me whether I am a captain or not. I used to set fields, decide who should bowl when and where someone should bat.
It has happened since BKSP, though it took me a while to adjust. I was independent in the BKSP, from putting up the mosquito net to cleaning my clothes to polishing my oxford shoes, I had to do my own work.
When you used to bat in the nets at the BKSP, players said you were the next big thing. Did that ever put pressure on you?
I never thought of such things. When I played U-15 that was what I thought about, nothing else. It's the same now. After I got into the hotel, that's when I started thinking about the Asia Cup, not before. I don't set targets that are still far from me, because I know all this will come if I do the job at hand properly.
How will you handle this load?
The county cricket [offer] hasn't been confirmed yet. I still don't know whether I will play even if I am fit. I haven't stopped for the last three years, so I think if I get 15-20 days to rest after the IPL, I will go and play in England after that. If they tell me to go the week after the IPL, I won't. That's what I have planned.
I have played a lot of cricket, I need a break. I have some stuff of my own to take care of. To play good cricket one needs to stay away from cricket too.
Do you think about Bangladesh cricket's future?
This [Asia Cup performance] has helped us set new goals. It is important that four or five people are performing. I feel at home we can handle teams a lot better.
India still has trouble away from home, so I think we should become tough competitors at home, and in the next year or two, no one can come and whitewash us easily. We may not win Tests because we haven't got the attack to take 20 wickets. We need genuine bowlers to take 20 wickets, but we will win one-day games.
What's your next ambition?
Personally, I want to improve by finishing matches. My bowling isn't going that well. It's difficult to keep both going - batting and bowling. I feel it is hard to concentrate on both in training. I have seen that if I take one discipline and work on it, it gets better. But to work on both is a bit difficult. So you have to let one go at times. It is a problem at times [as an allrounder]. There's a lot of room to work hard. I told you, I am a lazy person.
How will you sustain this good run that you've had since last December?
If the IPL goes well, I would think it will be a good way to continue. I think it is possible to sustain. I have to play in this manner and stay fit.
Mohammad Isam is senior sports reporter at the Daily Star in Dhaka