September 20, 2012

Mushfiq's year in office

Bangladesh's current captain took over at a tough time for the team and himself, and has managed to pull it off

The day Shakib Al Hasan was sacked as Bangladesh captain was the day Lionel Messi arrived in Dhaka to play in an international friendly against Nigeria. Considering the gloomy disposition of Bangladesh cricket that afternoon, the headline about cricket stealing football's thunder again doing the rounds in this writer's newspaper office, where the lead piece had to be changed at the last minute, was cringe-worthy.

The dismissal of the team's best player as captain was largely because Bangladesh had lost to Zimbabwe in a Test match and a one-day series the month before. It wasn't going to be easy for whoever filled the vacancy. That Mushfiqur Rahim, the man who was chosen, and was himself only starting a second life as a batsman in the team at the time of his appointment, has since completed a year in charge suggests that he has been able to steady the boat that had been rocking for two years.

Mushfiqur has, in that year, overseen, and at times influenced, dramatic wins in T20s and one-dayers against an assortment of international teams, looked helpless in Test matches, and survived the loss of a coach. His ability to dig himself out of the hole he found himself in in March 2011 has seemed to inspire the side, and his intensity and work ethic have helped him grow in the eyes of his team-mates.

He is, more often than not, the first to enter the Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium and the last to leave, his hunger for batting leaving net bowlers and the coaching staff with stiff shoulders each day. "It is not as if I have a 50-plus average in international cricket," Mushfiqur said to ESPNcricinfo. "I always try to do something extra, by half an hour or an hour. If everyone is doing six exercises in the gym, I have to do eight. If someone gives ten sprints, I will give 12. This is how I remain motivated. I will do the extra work so that when I need to do something extraordinary, my skills back me.

"I play 100-200 balls every day. If I stay behind after everyone leaves, I will ask the net bowlers to give me an extra hour. When I have to do extra work for wicketkeeping, I will request [computer analyst and former Bangladesh wicketkeeper Nasir Ahmed] Nasu bhai to give me an extra hour of catches," he said.

A few months before he took over from Shakib, Mushfiqur's place in the team was at stake after a poor run of form during the World Cup at home, where he seemed to struggle to get the ball out of the 30-yard circle. "I think since there were lots of expectations from me during the World Cup, I couldn't deliver," he said. "I tried giving 100% but it didn't happen."

Clamours within the BCB for him to be dropped grew, helped no doubt by the perception that Mushfiqur was merely a hard-working wicketkeeper rather than a natural one. After he made 40-odd against Australia in a one-dayer in Mirpur, it boiled down to one game. A selector was summoned by a higher authority within the BCB and it was made clear that Mushfiqur was on borrowed time.

In the next match, Mushfiqur clattered an unbeaten 81, which, though it was ultimately overshadowed by Shane Watson's record-breaking innings of 185, provided enough rope for the wicketkeeper-batsman. He further cemented his place in the team with a maiden one-day hundred, against Zimbabwe four months later, which provided the first signs of his growing comfort in the role of a finisher. He held the game till the very end in the evening gloom, only to hole out at long-on and end the day in tears in the dressing room.

"A Bangladesh captain has to deal with playing teams that are above us. So to keep competing against them over and over is a major challenge. Then, when we go to play against lower-ranked opposition, everyone expects us to win, so that's a different sort of pressure"

Mushfiqur, of course, was the 16-year-old Test debutant in Bangladesh's first Test at Lord's, in 2005, hanging on for 85 minutes against a bowling attack that won the Ashes a few months later. Former chief selector Faruque Ahmed, who plucked Mushfiqur out of obscurity, threw him in at the deep end in 2007 when he picked him over Khaled Mashud for the World Cup. All of 19, Mushfiqur batted like a pro in the win against India and has never looked back since, being a regular in the Bangladesh side except for a series in Australia during which Dhiman Ghosh replaced him.

Mushfiqur was considered captaincy material while he was at the Bangladesh Krira Shikha Protisthan academy, and also led the Under-19 side in the 2006 World Cup, so leadership wasn't new to him. His first innings in charge of the senior side was dramatic: a T20 in Mirpur in which he hit the winning runs, a six over midwicket off the penultimate ball bowled by West Indies' Ravi Rampaul.

Mushfiqur declared twice in the rain-interrupted first Test in Chittagong on the same tour, and sat in the dressing room fuming after Tamim Iqbal, Shakib and he threw away their wickets in the Dhaka Test.

It is clear that four Tests in charge are not enough to judge his captaincy by. In one-day cricket he brought the team together purposefully in the Asia Cup, where his unbeaten 46 against India drove Bangladesh into a frenzy. ("A hundred is a hundred, but I rate this innings highly," he said.)

He also found time to score 965 runs in the Dhaka Premier League, the domestic one-day competition. Though his batting has looked confident in the last 12 months, Mushfiqur's one-day average as captain is nearly four runs less than his career average; the overall improvement is a result of a better showing in Tests and T20Is.

Beyond the numbers, he has had to be sensitive of the presence of an ex-captain in the dressing room, which also happened to be low in energy after having the wind knocked out of its sails during the World Cup, and by the Zimbabwe tour. Those close to Mushfiqur were concerned he would potentially suffer a loss of self-confidence in the circumstances, but that's not how it has played out so far.

"A Bangladesh captain has to deal with playing teams that are above us. So to keep competing against them over and over is a major challenge," he said. "Then, when we go to play against lower-ranked opposition, everyone expects us to win, so that's a different sort of pressure. There are expectations from the team but I still think there's more opportunities, since we play more cricket than before. The challenge is not to just do it once but over and over again."

Mushfiqur sets store by family and education, which help keep him grounded in a world that could spin out of control at any moment. Not that he doesn't enjoy the attention. "The best part, I think, is that when I used to go anywhere, people used to call me Mushfiq, and now they know me as the captain. It is a huge responsibility but it is a great honour."

Bangladesh are going into the World Twenty20 as a quietly confident team. They have done the hard yards - literally so, travelling from southern Africa to northern Europe and to the Caribbean, getting their heads around T20 cricket. In the process they have defeated South Africa in Harare, crushed Ireland in their backyard, and played as if no one was looking in Port-of-Spain.

They have found what they are good at, and what they have to work on. Though it was hardly expected from a team that was in turmoil just a year ago when Shakib was sacked. Mushfiqur's appointment and his year-long tenure have, if nothing, brought stability in the form of the mantra of hard work and less downtime. That's how Mushfiqur does it, and so follows the team.

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Bangladesh