A Bangladesh Test line-up that included Mashrafe Mortaza, Mustafizur Rahman and Taskin Ahmed would have been ideal against any team in any conditions. Against England in the Dhaka Test, the inclusion of these three bowlers would have meant the country's most experienced, its most skilful and its fastest bowler playing in an attack that already has the stability of Shakib Al Hasan and the exciting Mehedi Hasan. But when it comes to Bangladesh's Test team, the reality isn't kind.
Instead, Bangladesh are likely to field one of the least-experienced pace attacks in recent memory, whether or not Subashis Roy makes his Test debut. Kamrul Islam Rabbi, who made his debut in Chittagong, was far from convincing as a viable option with new or old ball. Captain Mushfiqur Rahim said in Chittagong that he wasn't "that bad", which was hardly a glowing endorsement.
Ahead of the second Test in Dhaka, Mushfiqur said that the newcomers will still be backed regardless of their performance. "It is hard to maintain a pace attack since we play after long gaps," he said. "Some of our pace bowlers only play Test cricket, so the gaps become hard for them. We are missing a few bowlers due to injuries. We have to look for the right combination in our bowling attack. If the outcome isn't positive, we still have to back the newcomers."
Still, Bangladesh could go into the second Test with one seamer and four specialist spinners by including Shuvagata Hom to replace the "rested" Shafiul Islam. They also have the option to include Soumya Sarkar as a second seamer, while being asked to bat as low as No. 8 in the line-up. But these are not really great options to consider. Shuvagata doesn't have a Test record that would make England afraid while Soumya doesn't bowl regularly even in the nets.
Such a dearth is stark contrast to the ODI attack that based its planning on pace since the 2015 World Cup. Mashrafe and coach Chandika Hathurusingha formulated the plan, to be used even in home conditions where wickets are often slow and flat. Rubel Hossain and Taskin were great foils for Mashrafe, before Mustafizur came into the scene and further strengthened the pace attack. Bangladesh did well in 2015 because of their quicks but the same bowlers haven't been prepared for the longer format.
Mashrafe hasn't played Tests since 2009, though he remains the highest Test wicket-taker among Bangladeshi pace bowlers. Mustafizur is recovering from shoulder surgery and Taskin's participation in the Dhaka Test was briefly considered before Hathurusingha settled the argument with a dire warning. Taskin's last first-class match was in 2013, a year before his international debut, while Mashrafe has played only four first-class matches in the last seven years.
"Even when a long-term view is taken on Mustafizur, it is hard to imagine him being used heavily in Tests"
That Mashrafe has been discussed in this equation says much about Bangladesh's woeful stocks in pace bowling in Tests. He hasn't played for the last seven years due to several injuries that were followed by fitness limitations that only allowed him to prepare for ODIs and T20s. Mashrafe is fitter than he has been at any time in the last ten years, and it is true that periodically there is the odd report of the selectors thinking about bringing him back to Test cricket. It could still happen but it shouldn't have been because Bangladesh couldn't put together even a two-man pace attack.
Even when a long-term view is taken on Mustafizur, it is hard to imagine the talented left-arm bowler being used heavily in Tests. Already, the load of playing ODIs and T20s as well as domestic T20 tournaments has taken a toll on Mustafizur, so Bangladesh may have to look elsewhere.
Robiul Islam was perhaps the last pace bowler who looked the part in Test cricket, with his ability to bowl outswingers for long spells. He was the first and only Bangladeshi to win a Man-of-the-Series award, in Zimbabwe in 2013. A major reason why he faded away was that he was pigeon-holed as a Test specialist, which meant that he hardly got matches at the highest level. Plus, his fitness levels have dropped significantly since 2014, which affected his confidence as a bowler too. Mohammad Shahid was an encouraging presence last year though he lacked the pace and movement while Shahadat Hossain's career has taken a nosedive since he was bizarrely injured during the Dhaka Test against Pakistan last year.
There was also hope that the likes of Rubel, Al-Amin Hossain, Shafiul and Abul Hasan would come good in Tests but none of them have shown even a single encouraging performance. Rubel has played the most of the four, but averages 75.90 in 23 Tests. Shafiul has played nine Tests in six years while Al-Amin, to put it mildly, has been a good T20 bowler. Ziaur Rahman took four wickets in his only Test in Harare three years ago but has long been out of favour.
While many of these bowlers didn't perform to expectations and there is always the problem of Bangladesh playing Tests after long gaps, there has hardly been any focus, in the last decade or so, on sending pace bowlers abroad for learning the trade from experts. Bangladesh also doesn't have A-team tours regularly, which means that upcoming or struggling pace bowlers are stuck in the domestic grind, which only allows them around 15 overs per innings, at best.
Neither has there been focus put on the particular skills of pace bowlers like Mohammad Sharif and Sajedul Islam, two pace bowlers who have taken more than 200 first-class wickets since 2005. Sharif and Sajedul are considered nothing more than a punch-line because of the obscure nature of their performance in the National Cricket League or the Bangladesh Cricket League. Had their causes and efforts been championed, they could have brought their resilience to the top level and come of use to the senior side, which now finds itself struggling to put together a two-man pace attack.