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Omar's stickability, Enamul's guile

Mominul Haque is among Bangladesh's most solid Test batsmen, but he slips in and out of public consciousness since he hardly ever plays the shorter formats AFP

Athar Ali Khan oozed style, in game as much as appearance. Tall and immaculately dressed in an ironed white shirt and his trademark wide-brimmed hat, Athar's defensive push had everything in place, with the front foot protruding and the elbow high. Javed Omar, who appeared to jump while playing his version of the stroke, made for quite the contrast. Where Athar played a proper shot, Omar's was more a stop.

Athar was admired during his career, though in key moments - such as the ICC Trophy final in 1997 - he wasn't asked to bat as Bangladesh needed quick runs. Omar was appreciated at least a decade into his international career. He wasn't understood, he felt. Both were called "Test" cricketers, but in Omar's case, it was as if he was being mocked for his inability to score quick runs. He was no Minhajul Abedin, Akram Khan or Aminul Islam.

Not much has changed since in the life of a Bangladesh Test cricketer, especially the ones that don't play much beyond the the long format. Mominul Haque, despite all his skills with the bat, only plays a few times a year, and has to perform constantly. Mehedi Hasan and Taijul Islam are his latest "Test-only" partners, while others like Robiul Islam and Enamul Haque jnr are now on the scrap-heap.

It is interesting to note how batsmen with a comparatively better defensive technique and willingness to open the innings and bowlers with the rare quality of bowling well for long spells have been looked at condescendingly for most of their careers. A lot of it has to do with how Bangladeshis grew up on one-day cricket, and even Test status didn't change that outlook.

It wasn't so for an earlier generation. Former Bangladesh captain Raqibul Hasan came close to making the Pakistan Test side in the late 1960s. He was an opening batsman of much promise in Dhaka's domestic circuit, but was mostly ignored by selectors who sided with players from West Pakistan. According to senior journalist Arifur Rahman Babu, Raqibul was one of the few cricketers from this region who merited a place in the Pakistan Test team. But he also tells the story of Asaduzzaman Misha, who played for Bangladesh as an opener in the late 1970s.

"Dr Misha used to be a solid opener during those days when others like Yousuf Rahman were more dashing batsmen," Babu says. "Among those who watched league matches, he was sometimes regarded as someone quite solid, who could have been a Test opener."

As the Dhaka Premier League one-day competition gained importance and popularity, so did the need for free-scoring batsmen. Athar broke into the Bangladesh team during the 1986 ICC Trophy, and made his ODI debut two years later. When he became a regular opener, starting from the 1994 ICC Trophy, his classic technique, patience and strokeplay made him look like a Test opener, and made him stand out among many from his generation.

"I wasn't lucky enough to play Test cricket, but it was always a dream," Athar says. "I started my Bangladesh career as a lower-order batsman. I had opened in the 1986 ICC Trophy, but only became a regular when, in 1994, [the then Bangladesh coach] Mohinder Amarnath told me that I was good enough to open the batting again. He said I had the technique to play fast bowling.

"The first idea was to keep playing in the V, by presenting the full face of the bat. I tried to watch the moving ball as close as possible, and leave it to the keeper if it is not as close to the off-stump. I was happy to open the innings for Bangladesh."

The first time Athar opened in ODIs was with Omar during the 1995 Asia Cup. At the start of his career, Omar looked like someone who needed to work very hard to stay abreast of his more talented teammates. For the next five years, he was only brought back after other openers had failed.

For kids in the 1990s, anyone batting slowly or even defending a ball was trying to be "a Javed Omar". He was one of the most misunderstood cricketers of his generation. There weren't many Omar fans, because his style of batting didn't suit what Bangladeshis saw and played at the time - one-day matches. But, while he was ridiculed for batting slowly, his stop-start international career ran into some good news: Bangladesh were given Test status in 2000. There was no doubt that Omar would go on to play Tests.

On his Test debut, against Zimbabwe in April 2001, he carried his bat through the second innings. Omar would play 40 Tests until July 2007, a period during which he was among only four cricketers who were Test regulars. Through trial and error, he learned to leave deliveries that would tempt him to drive, and once he had mastered the technique, he survived for long.

He averaged 22.05 with a century and eight fifties, but regards a rearguard 43 against Zimbabwe in the 2005 Test at the Bangabandhu National Stadium as his most rewarding innings. Until AB de Villiers made 43 off 297 balls over 354 minutes against India in December 2015, Omar's 43 was the slowest sub-50 innings in Test history in terms of balls faced (258) and minutes spent at the crease (340).

"I made 43 having batted for more than five hours to ensure the second Test in 2005 was drawn, and which enabled us to win our maiden Test series," Omar says. "There were lots of scoring opportunities on a really flat wicket that day, but I played that way so that no one could complain that I didn't live up to my Test specialist tag that day. It is one of the slowest 43s of all time and an innings that still makes me proud."

For years, Omar was the subject of jokes about his batting, arising out of a failure to notice how effective he was for Bangladesh, whose overall aggressive approach to Test batting didn't pay too much dividend.

"I could survive a long time at the wicket, though I suffered for it at the time because people teased me for batting slowly. But I really feel proud now when people tell me that I was a genuine Test player."

There wasn't much he could base his work on, as long-form cricket only became regular in the domestic scene in 1999. "I had to make many technical adjustments. Our first-class level in the early days was picnic cricket," he says. "When we went to New Zealand to play first-class matches in 1997, it was an eye-opener for us. And we had virtually no idea what Test cricket was all about in those days."

Once batsmen like Tamim Iqbal emerged through ODIs, Bangladesh once again ditched Omar in mid-2007, and this time for good.

But for years till then, Bangladesh's ODI and Test XIs looked similar with only a few changes in personnel. One of the first players to be labelled a Test specialist was Enamul, who, in his third Test series, took 18 wickets in two matches to destroy a new-look Zimbabwe. It was pivotal to Bangladesh's first series win, much like Omar's effort on the final day of that 2005 series.

With Mohammad Rafique playing both formats and Abdur Razzak also emerging as an ODI specialist, Enamul's left-arm spin began to be considered only for Tests. He was picking up wickets by the bagful in first-class and A team cricket, but they dried up at the international level, as did Bangladesh's Test schedule. After 2009, he had almost permanently lost his Test spot, only returning for a solitary match against Zimbabwe in 2013 when he bowled at a much quicker pace.

In that same series, a Bangladesh fast bowler won a Man-of-the-Series award for the first time. Robiul, who bowled classic outswing, had slowly developed the one that darted back in, and troubled Zimbabwe. He bowled 110 overs, the most by a Bangladesh fast bowler in a Test series, and most of his 15 wickets were brilliant to watch.

Robiul was living his childhood dream, which was slightly different from that of many cricketers of his generation, who tended to want to bat or bowl spin: "I wanted to be Bangladesh's No. 1 Test bowler."

Growing up in Satkhira, he saw the Abahani-Mohammedan league derby on TV and was instantly attracted to the players' whites. Soon, he realised all cricket was played in whites, and once he entered professional cricket through the first-class system, his love for the whites became ingrained into his system.

"I was just mad about Test cricket," he says. "Coincidentally, I also started my cricket career at the top level with first-class cricket, so the two got connected. I developed a habit of bowling long spells and had a lot of fun working out batsmen. I was always too focused about Tests, more than one-dayers, which is why maybe I was good in it and then got only considered for Tests."

A leg injury after his epic performance against Zimbabwe and a dislocated shoulder the following year pushed him out of contention. Now, he doesn't find a regular place in domestic first-class cricket either. But he is a hard trier, and has been for more than a decade in some of the toughest conditions for seamers.

Enamul and Robiul are early examples of how players with the "Test specialists" tag suffered due to confinement to a single format. In the last five years, it has been predominantly bowlers who have been given Test-only tags - Taijul, Mohammad Shahid, Jubair Hossain and now Mehedi.

Left-arm spinner Taijul, who took a hat-trick on ODI debut, and legspinner Jubair have at least been tried a few times in shorter formats, but Shahid and Mehedi are yet to be considered for anything but Tests. Taijul has made steady contributions, but Jubair has lost his place.

Mehedi could still make the limited overs team, given the value he adds with his batting and fielding, but Mominul, who started so well batting at No. 4 in Tests, has been asked to move to No. 3 and focus on it permanently. While it is a move that Bangladesh feel will enable their most talented Test batsman to concentrate on a tough job, what Mominul feels is also important and must be considered. He hadn't done too badly in ODIs, but hasn't played one since the 2015 World Cup.

During the New Zealand tour of 2016-17, he sat around for nearly three weeks before getting to play Tests. It is to his credit that he performs quite consistently. How his or even Mehedi's recent drop in form in Tests is seen is going to be critical. If they are not given a longer rope, they could disappear quickly, and replacing such talented cricketers takes a long time.

But without these specialists, Bangladesh's Test team will be half-cooked, like it was for years when it contained no Javed, Mominul or Robiul.