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Feature

Is it time for Bangladesh to move on from spin-first strategy?

Currently, there seems no permanent solution to give fast bowling any leverage and their pacers and batsmen are lacking preparation for playing overseas

Mohammad Isam
Mohammad Isam
09-Feb-2021
Taijul Islam celebrates a wicket, Bangladesh vs West Indies, 1st Test, Chattogram, Day 3, February 5, 2021

Bangladesh have been focusing on producing spin-friendly pitches since 2016, but have mostly seen one-off wins  •  BCB

Bangladesh's reputation as a strong home side suffered another blow this week when West Indies beat them by three wickets in Chattogram. The manner of defeat has put them under further scrutiny, as their much-vaunted spin attack - albeit minus Shakib Al Hasan - couldn't finish the job on the final day.
West Indies' debutants Kyle Mayers and Nkrumah Bonner dominated the spinners for most of the first two sessions on the final day, which started with the visitors requiring a further 285 to win. Mayers put the finishing touches with his double-century in the last session, in which West Indies scored the last 129 runs.
The defeat has evened out Bangladesh's win-loss home record over the last five years, a period that has seen unprecedented number of Test wins compared to the barren previous 15 years.
The winning spurt at home has come after an overt change in strategy in 2016 when the Bangladesh team management leaned on roughed up pitches that start breaking from the second or the third day itself. The strategy paid off in the very first series when they got their maiden Test win against England. The three spinners - Shakib, Mehidy Hasan Miraz and Taijul Islam - had ended up bowling 90% of the overs in the series for the hosts.
They used the same tactic against Australia in 2017, but Nathan Lyon's 22 wickets - including 13 for 154 in Chattogram - should have served as a warning that perhaps it was time to move on. The cracks in this strategy became even clearer against Sri Lanka in early 2018 when the Chattogram curator couldn't quite serve what they wanted, before the visitors' spinners crushed Bangladesh in Mirpur. Later in the same year, Zimbabwe beat Bangladesh by 151 runs in Sylhet and in 2019, Rashid Khan & co handed them a 224-run defeat.
Australia, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan all hit back with their own spinners, but it wasn't the case for West Indies in Chattogram this time. They chased the game for the first four days before their batsmen cashed in on mostly short and wide deliveries from the home spinners.
What became obvious was that the visitors, despite their lack of experience of playing on these pitches, didn't have to face many challenges as the three fingerspinners were not in great rhythm. Bangladesh had the highly skillful Mustafizur Rahman as their lone pacer, but he too was hamstrung by his problem with running onto the danger area.
Without a proper pace attack, Bangladesh tend to miss out on elements like swing, seam and reverse swing. The turning pitches don't allow pace bowlers to prosper and their own batsmen have had struggles as well. Since 2016, there hasn't been any home advantage for Bangladesh's batsmen, who also face difficult overseas conditions.
But none of that mattered. Beating England and Australia for the first time in Tests grabbed headlines, while the 2018 Test series win over West Indies - both wins achieved within three days - was a show of Bangladesh's might at home.
Their away form is an entirely different story and it is only getting worse. Bangladesh's pace bowlers are mostly under-prepared for places like South Africa, New Zealand, India and Pakistan. Even in domestic cricket, most first-class teams have been after better spin strategies, with very little support available for pacers. There is no getting away from this strategy though - not least against West Indies in the second Test in Dhaka.
Changes in pitches for home internationals is the only change that matters. There have been suggestions over the years to prepare domestic pitches that help fast bowlers so that they can travel overseas and be better prepared to bowl long spells. There hasn't been a lot of effort made in that regard, though.
In fact, nothing has been done to move away from this one-dimensional spin-first strategy. The BCB enjoys one-off successes, and since they are already well invested in ODIs and T20Is, there hasn't been much talk that suggests a change in intentions. There has been a lot of talk about the revival of fast bowling in the country, and a recent spate of good performances in the BCB President's Cup and the Bangabandhu T20 have been encouraging.
Currently, there seems no permanent solution to give fast bowling any leverage. As long as slow, low and abrasive pitches bring the one-off Test win, producing spin-friendly tracks looks like being Bangladesh's only strategy. Great batting conditions or a proper environment for fast bowling remains a distant dream, so when Bangladesh's spinners have bad days - like they did in Chattogram on Sunday - results will follow suit.

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84