Mash looks on the bright side
One of the more difficult tasks for a reporter sitting in the press box at the Shere Bangla Stadium, the highest point of the arena, is keeping track of players as they get in and out of the dressing room. The numbers on the players' backs help a bit, but with someone like Mashrafe Mortaza, it is a disagreeable chore. You don't want to be the one telling everyone that he has hobbled off, again.
In the Asia Cup game against Sri Lanka there were tell-tale signs of distress; he held his calf, bent down a few times, trying to get the blood flow going in his knees, and walked off once or twice. If he couldn't complete his full quota of ten overs, Mushfiqur Rahim would have the chore of finding another option. But Mashrafe trudged back from the viewing area with some more strapping on his right knee, bowled two spells of two overs each, and finished with a two-run, two-wicket final over as the innings closed with a ball to spare.
Mushfiqur asked Mortaza to talk to the side during the break. It was the game that would take Bangladesh into what was only their second tournament final. On a day when inspiration is needed, who better to give the team a boost than a man who has had seven operations on his knees and three on his ankles?
Bangladesh's surprising run at the Asia Cup had a few unsung heroes, and while Mashrafe was one of them, the fact that he had recovered enough to play was startling in itself. Not many would have thought it possible when he sat with journalists between fitness sessions late last year, when Bangladesh were preparing to play West Indies and Pakistan.
What followed was a meticulously achieved recovery that went against the grain of what Mashrafe is like as a person. "I was wild back in the day," he told ESPNcricinfo during a break between fitness sessions in Mirpur. "Never gave two hoots about injuries. I didn't give any importance to proper time to recover.
"I think such positivity helped me. Some might think I'm crazy, but I think if I am not this positive, I wouldn't be able to come back every time."
Trust Mashrafe to come up with such a pearl. Over the years he has been among the team's characters, a man who is always comfortable when he is himself: devil-may-care out in the field (he once dived head-on towards the boundary though there was a roller standing just beyond), and impetuous off it.
But the strain of a seventh knee surgery (three on the right knee, four on the left) and the strenuous 11-month rehabilitation that followed seem to have altered his brisk ways. Or has it been fatherhood? "Maybe I am changing," he says, "though I cannot express it to you. I spend a lot of time at home."
Everyone who has played with him knows there are no half-measures from Mashrafe. After playing in the ODIs against Australia last year, he went under the knife in May, fully intending to play for Bangladesh again. It wasn't going to be anything less for him, and with lots of help from Vibhav Singh, the team physio, and trainer Grant Luden, encouragement from the coach, Stuart Law, and adjustments by Shane Jurgensen, the bowling coach, Mashrafe gingerly became match-fit. His appearance in a Dhaka Premier League game for Bangladesh Biman marked the final stage of his recuperation.
Late in January this year, Mashrafe's strapped-up knees took the heat of batting low down the order, bowling four overs and fielding inside the circle. As is his wont, he hammered a huge six, and slid and dived around - though at least he didn't ask the captain to be allowed to bowl more, as he had been told to strictly watch how much load he put on his legs.
He slowly graduated to bowling more overs in the 50-over competition, and tested his new limits during the Bangladesh Premier League T20s, where he played 11 games in 19 days. There were no more hiccups before the Asia Cup, a tournament he had set his sights on the day he and Vibhav sat down and decided when he would like to return to international cricket.
As he sat inside the viewing area and looked out, Mashrafe spoke about how happy he was just to walk out and play for the country again. "I remembered thanking the Almighty several times that day as I walked out, but more than that I was feeling very proud of myself. I have worked 11 months for this. I wanted to hold on to this.
"Sometimes I feel it is an addiction, love. It changes with time. We are professionals but when we walk out together and stand for the national anthem, such a moment can't be bought with money. Cricket now has IPL, BPL and many other things, but there's no comparison to this. Money has no place in this. I sometimes feel that I would play for Bangladesh without money," he said.
Having said that, one of his previous returns from injury, in March 2010, wasn't exactly happy. "It wasn't a dressing room like it is now. I have played for ten years, so I can say what's happening in a dressing room as soon as I step in. At the time there was a lot of self-centred behaviour. The difference was like chalk and cheese, with the same group of players.
"I feel the dressing room is the mother of cricket. If the home is not in shape, cricket won't be good. If we can't enjoy each other's company… I felt it was missing at the time. But this positive spirit was present in this tournament," he said.
At times Mashrafe is the only cricketer working in the small gym in the empty stadium. He doesn't want to throw away what has been his best recovery till date.
"Our next challenge will be to prepare him for Test matches," said Vibhav. "I think when we started off, I looked at his history and realised that with a proper recovery programme, he still has five-six years of cricket left in him.
"It was not just the fitness side of things - someone like Shane Jurgensen, he made sure Mashrafe's run-up and follow-through were streamlined and corrected."
"I have never had the perfect physio or the best guideline," Mashrafe said. "I was misguided early on during this injury but I had a very good understanding with Viv. I have worked with him for the last six months.
"I am not used to my body so far. I need to gain better fitness for one-day cricket. I haven't played Tests for two-three years and I've had three operations to play limited-overs. I have that in mind, so I am estimating a return to Test cricket further down the line," he said.
The original Bangladeshi tearaway, Mashrafe has missed 32 Tests, 94 ODIs and five Twenty20 internationals over the last 11 years. The image of Grant Flower jumping while facing Mashrafe is still fresh in the minds of those who watched him on debut at the Bangabandhu National Stadium all those years ago. One remembers also the sight of him with a fully strapped up leg, taking lessons from Mohsin Kamal on the correct way to pivot, a year later, after his first knee operation went bust due to a subsequent fall. Both are classic Mashrafe images: he doesn't give a damn about his body when he's fit, but when he gets hurt, he will do anything to put it back in shape. It has made him the quintessential symbol of a daring Bangladesh side.
Mohammad Isam is senior sports reporter at the Daily Star in Dhaka