Kings of the crèche
Two of Bangladesh's most exciting young prospects were watching a Dhaka Premier Division league match in progress on the eve of the tri-nation Under-19 tournament final last month, when they were asked who, in their opinion, was the best U-19 side in the world at the moment. Sakib al Hasan and Tamim Iqbal took about half-a-second each to decide and then replied almost in the same breath: "I think we are."
The next day Sakib turned in an outstanding allround show while Tamim, an opening batsman, unleashed some trademark fierce shots as their side rolled past Sri Lanka in the final at the Bangladesh Institute of Sports (BKSP). It completed a highly successful year for the youth side, who lost just three matches and won 13 in all U-19 competitions. They played in Australia, India and at home and their list of conquests included the reigning U-19 world champions Pakistan, as well as Australia, Sri Lanka, England, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
The results haven't gone unnoticed and, as a result, a serious challenge is expected when the U-19 World Cup gets underway in February. The fact that almost the entire squad possesses first-class experience, places them right at the top of the list of favourites. While interest in youth sides can be casual at best in most Test-playing nations, here in Bangladesh it is a little different. Young blood is seen as the harbinger of all the beautiful future cricket dreams of this success-starved nation and the present U-19 side has managed to spark genuine enthusiasm in this regard.
After winning their last three matches of the Afro-Asian competition against Zimbabwe, Pakistan and South Africa, the Bangladesh side then made went on an eight-game winning spree with victories over England (thrice) and Sri Lanka (twice) in the league phase of the tri-nation event in Dhaka. This was the longest winning streak by any Bangladeshi national side and, by the time the toss of the final was in progress, Tamim, Sakib and a couple of other names had already evoked enough curiosity in some 20-odd cricket journalists to dash down to the BKSP. They didn't want to miss a single ball. For a few who had followed their progress it was more a case of being there while Tamim batted.
Tamim is the younger brother of the Test opener, Nafis Iqbal, and comes from a cricket-oriented family. Their uncle Akram Khan is a living legend of Bangladesh cricket while another uncle Afzal once represented the Bangladesh U-19s. However, the youngest of the lot is a bit different. He bats left-handed unlike the others and to put it bluntly, he is a butcher with the willow and is probably the hardest and biggest hitter of the ball in domestic cricket. Dav Whatmore, Bangladesh's coach, was there when he blasted a 71-ball 112 against England in the tri-series and was heard uttering approvingly, "outrageous". The happy-go-lucky teenager also reportedly has fans in Sri Lanka where he had toured with the High Performance squad last year. To call him exciting would be an understatement.
While Tamim is the crowd-puller, the undoubted star of the team is another left-hander, Sakib. I had taken Wisden's youth special, where his name featured in the elite list of 21 to shape the future of world cricket, to the ground. I wanted to give it to him before the final so that he could understand the responsibility he has to shoulder on wearing that green and red cap but I could not hand the magazine over in time and looking back, I'm glad I didn't. He took three wickets with his left-arm spin, pulled off a run-out and a catch and then strode in imperiously with Bangladesh on 51 for 1 chasing 217. In his next 86 balls, he pulled, drove, cut, swept and cleared the fielders to notch up exactly 100, never looking in any hurry and departed four runs shy of victory. The boy who nonchalantly sings to himself before going out to bat is as natural as cricketers come and apparently doesn't need reminding what is expected of him.
Despite Tamim and Sakib's presence, what makes this unit a formidable one is its balance. The calming influence in the team's top order is provided by Raqibul Hasan and Mehrab Hossain (Jr.) while Shamsur Rahman and the captain, Mushfiqur Rahim, the only player with Test experience in the side, are there to fall back on any time. There is no real tail with a host of allrounders battling for a promotion up the order. The pace bowling department is not the team's strength but both Dollar Mahmud and the left-armer, Kamrul Islam, have the pace to hurry opposing batsmen.
Once the shine is off the new ball, then the spinners take over and here Rahim has a real headache because there are around eight blokes with one hand up and wanting to bowl. Mind you, all are proven wicket-takers. If you are looking for left-arm spin, then there is the enviable choice to make from Sakib, Nabil Samad, Sohrawardi Shuvo and Mehrab. For a bit of offspin there is Rezaul Islam to turn to. Close fielding is an area where they can excel also.
They head for the World Cup with performances behind them. All the players have been given the chance to experience the pressure of the Dhaka Premier Division and all have been among the runs and wickets at every level they have been exposed to. They have played non-stop cricket around the world over the last 12 months and have trained in earnest under the fatherly tutelage of their coaches, Allister de Winter and Nazmul Abedin Fahim. Their body language exudes the spirit and confidence of a winning team. While watching the Bangladeshi run-chase in the final, a relaxed fellow journalist remarked: "I don't feel any tension. The only thing possible and certain is a Bangladesh win. How long before we feel as comfortable with the main side in action?"
When Bangladesh beat Australia in the Plate final of the last World Cup, it was viewed as a major upset. The present team, which does not have a single face left from the 2004 tournament, have emerged as one of the teams to beat going into this year's competition by virtue of their on-field exploits and not through any emotional analysis. If they don't make it to the last four of the Cup phase, consider that an upset.
Rabeed Imam is editor of Tigercricket.com