Too much Jekyll and Hyde

It was the most trying year in international cricket for Bangladesh - and, curiously enough, the most successful also in their own limited way.
Performance-wise Bangladesh were like Jekyll and Hyde - unexpectedly brilliant one moment, but painfully amateurish the next. Their inability to sustain the fight after initially pushing their opponents did not help their cause in the eyes of a sceptical international media. Too often they threw away advantages in dramatic circumstances.

The year came to an end with Dav Whatmore, their coach, and his three fellow selectors seeing fresh hope ... but still without answers for the continual chronic top-order collapses.

Bangladesh played eight Tests and 19 ODIs in 2004, and while five of the six Test defeats were by an innings, they could have won at least half of those one-dayers, rather than the eventual tally of three victories.

On the domestic front, lively green-top wickets were prepared for the Dhaka Premier League, and the better quick bowlers were having a ball. This bold step was also helping to sort out genuine articles from flat-track bullies among the batsmen.

Off the field, Bangladesh had to fight constant criticism and minnow-bashing by the foreign press and other experts, before closing the year with a bang when they beat India by 15 runs in a one-day international on December 26.

The year had started with controversy for Bangladesh after Khaled Mahmud, who had captained them in three series, was left out of the 16-member Test squad to tour Zimbabwe. The captaincy went to the dashing batsman Habibul Bashar. A devastated Mahmud announced his retirement from the game, only to be "pressurised" back, and has only been used as a one-day specialist since.

In February, Bangladesh embarked on a tour of Zimbabwe, where hopes of success did not seem unfounded. But Zimbabwe won the first Test by 183 runs, then most of the second Test and the first two ODIs were rained off, meaning that the best chance of making an impression rested on the three remaining one dayers. On March 10, Bangladesh recorded their first ODI victory since gaining Test status in 2000 when they overcame Zimbabwe by eight runs. It was also their first triumph in 47 matches since the 1999 World Cup. The next two matches also brought close results, and only some allround heroics from Zimbabwe's then-captain Heath Streak separated the sides.

Buoyed by that one significant win, Bangladesh arrived in the West Indies in May, and bothered a Brian Lara-less home side before eventually going down 3-0 in the one-day series. However, the first defeat was by just one wicket, and for most part the series was anybody's for the taking.

Lara returned for the first Test at the Beausejour Stadium in St Lucia, but it was Bangladesh who made all the running, with Bashar and the No. 9 Mohammad Rafique both slamming hundreds. West Indies conceded a first-innings lead, but threatened to take control by dismissing the top order quickly in the second innings. However, Khaled Mashud, the ever-energetic wicketkeeper, carved his maiden Test ton from No. 7, to permit Bashar to become the first Bangladeshi captain to declare a Test innings. The match ended in a draw - but for Bangladesh it was a victory of sorts, as their previous two Test draws had been rain-assisted.

Unfortunately, St Lucia's luck did not accompany Bangladesh to Jamaica, and after some first-innings resistance, they was a familiar collapse at the second attempt, and West Indies won by an innings in the end - saving the captaincy career of Lara, who had said he would stand down if they didn't win. That started a worrying sequence of batting debacles, and Bangladesh passed 200 only once in seven ODIs in the Asia Cup in Sri Lanka and the ICC Champions Trophy in England.

The batting blues carried over to the home series against New Zealand, who coasted to innings victories in both Tests. Bangladesh never even passed 150 in the ODIs, and the batting problems continued against India, the last assignment of the year. By now Bangladesh's confidence was at its lowest ebb and it seemed that something out of this world was needed to reignite the passion. And along came Mohammad Ashraful.

With one innings of absolute genius, Ashraful brought the belief back to his team. His undefeated 158 from just 194 deliveries on the third day of the second Test at Chittagong was the kind of defiance that transformed the team. Although they still lost that Test by an innings, Bangladesh had a different mentality when the ODIs started.

After falling short by 11 runs at Chittagong, Bangladesh made their 100th one-day international an occasion to savour. Throughout Whatmore's time with the team, his charges have given scattered examples of their collective potential, but on Boxing Day evening in Dhaka, Mashrafe Mortaza, a 21-year-old all-action fast bowler playing his first one-day game in 15 months, led the way as Bangladesh gave a near-perfect fielding and bowling exhibition to stop India's pursuit of 230 at 214. This was a massive statement of the talent on offer. Apart from the experienced quartet of Bashar, Mashud, Rafique and Mahmud, none of the other players was as old as 25.

With potential superstars like Ashraful, Mortaza and Aftab Ahmed in their ranks, Bangladesh look a much better side at the close of the year than at the beginning. Man for man they are a more exciting outfit than fellow minnows Zimbabwe, their next guests. For the first time Bangladesh begin a series as marginal favourites, after the positive vibes of 2004.

Top performers

Mashrafe Mortaza His return to international cricket after recovering for a year from a career-threatening knee injury was the best news for Bangladesh's cricket in 2004. His aggression, infectious enthusiasm and imposing presence gave a whole new dimension to the bowling attack.

Khaled Mashud Doesn't get the recognition he deserves, probably because of Bangladesh's status in world cricket, but you won't find a safer pair of gloves behind the wicket. Repeatedly saved his side from embarrassment with dogged, fighting batting throughout the year.

Rabeed Imam is a sportswriter for the Daily Star in Dhaka.