Bangladesh at the crossroads

A senior Indian journalist, who's been covering international cricket for two decades, was among the bunch of (largely) rookies sent across the border to cover India's tour of Bangladesh. He was excited at the prospect, and it wasn't because Indian cricket was undergoing a tumultuous phase. "I want to see the dawn of a new era for Bangladesh cricket," he said.

On the evidence of the two Tests, what he saw was anything but the announcement of a new dawn for Bangladesh cricket. The drawn Test at Chittagong was shaped largely by the weather but the crushing defeat at Dhaka - by an innings and 239 runs - exposed the harsh reality of Bangladesh cricket as it stands today: Miles to go.

In a way it was good because this series has lifted the illusion created by Bangladesh's World Cup performance and forced us to accept the need to look at our cricket with greater objectivity. But why are we mixing the World Cup and Test cricket? It's true that Bangladesh cricket must travel a long way to be competitive in the Test arena but what the World Cup proved was that you can never treat Bangladesh the same way again.

Like that veteran Indian journalist, many thought that the Caribbean performance was an indication of where Bangladesh cricket was heading. A team that had gone five years without a win had beaten India, entered the Super Eights and beat South Africa too, for good measure. Talk of a false dawn was not an exaggeration - but Bangladesh is still on the cusp of a new era.

With this India series the Dav Whatmore era comes to an end. And, on the last day of Whatmore's reign, a battered Habibul Bashar gave in to criticism of his captaincy during the World Cup and stood down as the one-day captain. His replacement is Mohammad Ashraful, and whether that's just for ODIs will depend on whether the Bangladesh Cricket Board wants separate captains for the two forms of the game. They are likely to have separate captains, though what purpose it will serve - with every possibility of loyalties having to be divided - remains to be seen.

Indeed, it was Bashar himself who once said: "It doesn't really matter who captains teams like Australia and England, it's no big deal. The players are like soldiers, who follow the orders of their commander (the captain) without question. Our subcontinental players are far more emotional; here, who is the captain is a big thing."

Bangladesh are standing at the crossroads and their next step will be of great importance. One false step could set them back quite a bit. For instance, the choice of the next coach. I've heard from a lot of Indian journalists who came here that the Greg Chappell era set their country's cricket back by two years. If true, Bangladesh too is familiar with this experience. In 2002, Mohsin Kamal and Ali Zia came from Pakistan to take charge of the national team; the year they spent at the helm was an entirely forgettable time for Bangladesh cricket.

Regardless of what Ian Chappell and Imran Khan feel, the coach of a national team has a huge role to play in modern cricket - and even more so in the case of a developing team like Bangladesh. Much will depend on who is chosen to succeed Whatmore as the national coach.

Regardless of what Ian Chappell and Imran Khan feel, the coach of a national team has a huge role to play in modern cricket. Much will depend on who is chosen to succeed Whatmore

Whoever is the coach, the priority for Bangladesh will be to improve on their Test record. And one key factor in that is increasing the number of first-class domestic games. If you look at the profiles of Bangladesh's Test players, you'll see they have played far fewer first-class matches than their counterparts in any other Test side.

The busy international calendar doesn't allow players to play too many domestic matches and, in any case, domestic cricket here is of very low intensity. On paper things look good, with six divisional teams playing each other on a home and away basis. It sounds like Australia; in reality it's a farce, with a picnic-like mood at most games.

There is no proper structure; often, the regional teams are picked by national selectors because there are no local selectors. The money isn't much, the arrangements even less and overall the conditions are not really enticing for international cricketers.

Whatmore has often spoken of the need for other Test-playing countries to help improve Bangladesh's Test skills. They can do this, he said, by playing tour matches when they come here. But the hectic scheduling usually rules out such side matches, so the only way of judging whether young players are ready for Test cricket is by playing them in Tests.

After the World Cup, Bangladesh has cemented its one-day credentials with an encouraging performance in the home series against India. To keep progressing on that learning curve, the next step must be to be competitive in Test cricket. Whether we can do it or not depends on many factors - new coach, new captain. Bangladesh is at a crossroads; the days ahead will be most interesting.