August 7, 2015

The making of Mustafizur

The Bangladesh bowler has had a dream start, but he's not going to let that change the person he is

"I want to serve the country for at least 10 years. But I just want to be like I am right now" © AFP

As a child, Mustafizur Rahman didn't trouble his parents or his three older brothers. He was a quiet kid. Contrary to the custom in Bangladeshi households, however, he used to eat with the fingers of his left hand. So one day when he was very young, his mother took him to someone to correct the habit.

"I was always a left-hander, for everything. My mother took me to a place in the village. After returning from there I couldn't eat left-handed but everything else was left-handed," he said. "No, really. I couldn't eat with my left hand again. The other things remained the same."

Thankfully it remained the same. Who knows if he would have been able to bowl the same way with the right hand as he does with the left.

Mustafizur's stories have the ring of truth about them. For example, he knew his first international wicket, Shahid Afridi's, was down to luck. "He didn't hit it but my job was to appeal. Neither of us realised what had happened," he said.

He doesn't sledge, even when a batsman speaks to him in the heat of battle. He doesn't like to go off the field, like other pace bowlers during longer-format matches; he thinks this helped him get the wickets of Hashim Amla, JP Duminy and Quinton de Kock on his Test debut.

"Pace bowlers like to go out during Tests. We are not machines, you know. But I don't like going out. I like staying in the field, even if I feel bad. When I got Amla's wicket, I got fired up. I always like bowling at the stumps to new batsmen.

"I don't sledge. I don't like this thing. Some people tell me that a pace bowler has to do it, but I think the batsmen will do their job, I will do mine. I didn't get [Virat] Kohli's wicket, but it would have been great to have it. After hitting me for a four or six in one of the matches he asked me, 'Why do you bowl so slowly?' I didn't say anything," he said.

He starts to fidget, fingers lightly tapping his phone, sometimes tugging at his sleeve, sometimes drumming on the sofa. We are seated in the foyer of the National Cricket Academy building in Mirpur, a mural of Shakib Al Hasan to our left, and Mustafizur, the same bowler who froze in front of the camera after his five-for and six-for against India, spoke animatedly.

Like the rest of the Bangladesh team, he is on holiday after a gruelling few months. He hasn't left Dhaka to be with his family in Tetulia village, on the edge of Bangladesh's south-western border with India. He has had to stay behind to shoot a commercial alongside Soumya Sarkar and Mashrafe Mortaza.

Mustafizur has taken 25 wickets in his first 11 international matches. He is the only cricketer in the world to have won Man-of-the-Match awards in his debut Test and ODI. He has taken the most wickets of anyone in their first three ODIs, and single-handedly crippled India in the ODI series in June. Against South Africa, his spells were pivotal in the ODIs. In the Chittagong Test, he took his first three wickets in four balls.

He wears a white T-shirt and black training trousers. The hair is cut stylishly, not unlike that of Nasir Hossain, Sabbir Rahman or Liton Das, the younger brigade of the Bangladesh team. Phone calls pour in; he takes a few and ignores the rest.

Mustafizur is not just the youngest in his family but also the youngest in his club and first-class teams, and in the Bangladesh team. Someone asks him if he needs a printout of his air ticket to go back home. An older staff member sits with him, asks about his family.

Play 02:47
Aakash Chopra: Mustafizur and the art of the cutter

Al-Amin Hossain asks, in jest, if the boys from Satkhira (Robiul Islam and Soumya Sarkar are also staying at the academy) are not going to leave the building. An Under-19 player walks by.

"What are you doing here?" asks Mustafizur.

"Why, do you own this place?" he shoots back. Both laugh.

Fourteen months ago I met Mustafizur here, along with another journalist, when he was a surprise call-up to the Bangladesh A team for their tour to the West Indies.

"Allah has given me this good time. You need to have Allah on your side," he says, when I ask him compare between May 2014 and August 2015. "When I used to bowl in the national team's nets, I wasn't near their level. I tried to bowl like them, thinking: if I do well in the nets I might get an opportunity somewhere."

He was fast-tracked into the Bangladesh A team for that tour in May 2014 but didn't get to play any matches. Chief selector Faruque Ahmed said at the time that he needed to learn about the team environment and training.

"When I played in the Under-16s, the late Sheikh Salahuddin sir was always special to me. He has passed away. Sir once brought out his laptop to show us videos of how the national players do their training in Mirpur. I used to see them and think, 'When will I play in that place?' When I came here after being chosen in the pace foundation [in 2012], I could see myself in that place, what I had seen on TV or in sir's laptop."

Mustafizur's life in cricket was shaped at home. His father, Abul Qasem Gazi, loved watching cricket on TV, and used to make sure his four boys didn't miss much. Mustafizur joined his brothers in front of the TV and soon in the field.

"My father used to love seeing Wasim Akram bowl, and also Saeed Anwar and Mohammad Yousuf. I didn't see much cricket back then, but dad used to wake us up from sleep when the matches started early in the morning," he says with a laugh.

"So I started to play cricket. Actually I played football too in the schoolyard. Cricket was with the Five-Star [tennis] ball. I was a batsman but I couldn't hit the big ones. I could bat long. If it hit me here [points to his thigh], it didn't hurt - the ball was so light."

Mustafizur was introduced to the cutter by Anamul Haque © AFP

Mustafizur's brothers used to register a team in the local TV Cup, a ritualistic cricket tournament in rural Bangladesh where the trophy is a television set. The Rahman boys would fork out up to 20,000 takas a tournament (to hire players from district town Satkhira), for a shot at a prize of a Tk 3000 TV set. Mustafizur stayed on the fringes of the festivities because he wasn't big enough to play. Until one day, like in many cricket stories, someone spotted him.

"When the well-known cricketers turned up for our team, I used to bowl to them," he said. "There was one good batsman called Milon. After I bowled to him, he told my brother that I bowl well, and then he told me that he will call me when there's age-group cricket in Satkhira.

"I didn't even know Satkhira at the time. So when the age-group tournaments came along, they called me. I went. They checked my teeth [to test his age], then I gave a trial in the Under-16 nets. That was also the first time I had seen a real cricket ball. They called 51 boys for trial, then trimmed it down to 14. I survived. I played in the district tournament, and then went up to play in the divisional tournament as well."

Mustafizur had no idea how to bowl with a cricket ball, nor did he know much about fielding. But he was shortlisted by scouts from Dhaka nevertheless, and picked for a pace bowlers' camp in 2012. While in Mirpur, he was recognised as a talented bowler and picked in the Bangladesh U-19 side in 2013, and he later played in the 2014 Under-19 World Cup in the UAE. A few months later he was picked to play for Bangladesh A.

"Back then, I didn't bowl like I do now. It used to go everywhere. The other foot fell in front in the delivery stride, not the one that is supposed to land. I didn't do well in the divisional tournament. I didn't get a single wicket in three matches. I couldn't get hold of the ball while fielding.

"I worked on my bowling in the divisional team. Then I came to Dhaka for the pace foundation. Taskin bhai and others were camping in the Under-19s. I bowled in their nets and then played for Under-19s and Bangladesh A," he said.

One of those days, Anamul Haque was batting against him, and he threw Mustafizur a challenge - or at least that's what the bowler took it as.

"I learned the cutter after he said to me, 'Can't you bowl the slower one?' After hearing this, I started to try on my own and I came up with this delivery." he said.

Anamul's words worked as magic for Mustafizur, who quickly discovered he not only possessed a slower one but he could deliver it like an offcutter.

"I didn't know the cutter. When Bijoy bhai asked me that, I bowled a slower one and saw it turn and bounce. As I got him out the first time, I thought I should be working on this. If I hadn't got him out a couple of times that day, I wouldn't have bowled it, I guess.

"I can bowl two types of cutters: one that goes at around 130kph and another that's 120kph. Both work for me," he said.

While the offcutters delivered at varying speeds gave him wickets against India, he worked on the basic left-arm pace bowler's deliveries with Bangladesh bowling coach Heath Streak.

Mustafizur has had the knack of bowling yorkers from his Under-19 days. Against South Africa, it was a handy skill, particularly when Bangladesh were planning to keep de Kock in his crease.

"Coach was saying he moves too much at the wicket, so I should bowl him the yorker. I tried to bowl it but it turned out to be a full ball on his legs. The breeze coming from the opposite side made it bend and it ended up being that delivery in the third ODI in Chittagong," he said.

Mustafizur knows that he has to keep improving to survive in international cricket. In the same breath he points out that he hasn't changed much as a person and isn't looking forward to changing his attitude.

"Since last year I have been playing in all the domestic tournaments and then the international matches. Some off-time helps you do homework on your skill. I hope to use this break to work on my bowling.

"Nothing has changed. Mustafiz is what he was before. I still talk to everyone the same manner, if it is a friend from my village or from here. I like being this way. I don't think it is hard to be like this. The thing I enjoy the most is playing cricket," he said.

Robiul Islam, the Bangladesh pace bowler now training at the NCA, sees Mustafizur being interviewed and joins us in the foyer with a big smile on his face.

"I heard there is a flood of sweets in Satkhira awaiting your arrival," he needles Mustafizur, who calls Robiul "deshi" [because they are from the same region] and "bhai".

"I will go on Saturday. I will stay at home for 10-12 days. I have heard people from my area will come to the airport," says Mustafizur.

He says he doesn't want to be a different person now that fame has touched him and he has seen the brighter side of life.

"A lot will happen if I keep playing. I want to serve the country for at least 10 years. But I just want to be like I am right now. I want to be this person," he says.

Mustafizur will have much to deal with in the coming months and years. His is the sort of story that could end up as a cautionary tale. There are many such in Bangladesh cricket, so he is probably forewarned.

His innocence as a cricketer remains. He will clap when he takes a wicket, and still wonder what would have been had the man who changed his eating hand changed a bit more.

Call him simple - though Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina and de Kock might not agree - but he has shown the world what a youngster right from rural Bangladesh can do when asked a simple question: "Can't you bowl the slower one?"

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84

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