A smile flashed across Taskin Ahmed's face after he took the last West Indies wicket in the Chattogram ODI in January this year. Bangladesh had won by 120 runs and clinched the series 3-0. Ahmed, bowling with a more stable action than before and hitting decent lengths consistently, topped 140kph for the most part in his 8.2 overs. That smile, albeit fleeting, might have been an expression of relief more than anything else, after three years of torment.
It was a phase during which he said he "felt like I was in depression". So much so that Ahmed, still only 25, had to consult a mental-health expert. But that's not all he did.
'He is done, he is finished'
Ahmed's last international appearance before that was a wretched one, as he went for 40 runs in three overs. The Sri Lanka batsmen feasted on his mild, hit-me pace and inconsistent lines. That was the last straw for the team management, which dropped him for the rest of the Nidahas Trophy. The national selectors then didn't turn his way for the next three years.
From the poster boy of Bangladesh's pace attack, Ahmed was reduced to a cautionary tale. His domestic performances were being ignored too, as the men who matter focused on other bowlers. Bangladesh's spin-based approach in home Tests didn't help either.
Ahmed cajoled a trainer into opening his gym for a couple of hours every day. He contacted real-estate company owners to let him run in their dusty and sandy under-construction plots of land. He called up his bowling coach and mentor for help, contacted a nutritionist to find a better diet, and, when he realised the problem might really be between his ears, he sought a mental health expert.
"People said things like 'he's done, he's finished'. They said that I have nothing more to offer, that I have a bad lifestyle and am always injured. You know, the usual things people say when you are not successful," Ahmed told ESPNcricinfo. "At one stage, I felt like I was in depression. Speaking to a mental-health expert definitely helped me. It really cleared my mind up. I was motivated to do more in terms of fitness and my bowling. I am still in touch with him, and the rest of the people who helped me get fitter and bowl better."
The time away from the Bangladesh team made him realise what he was missing, and it hurt. More than what was being said or written about him. The solution was to make sure he did his best, not look back years later with regret at what he could have done better.
"I think more than what anyone around me is saying, the most disappointing aspect is not being able to play for your country. I achieved my dream to play at the top level in 2014, but I lasted only three years. It is never a good feeling to be left out of contention, and I don't want it to happen again. I want to become the main bowler in our pace attack, be consistent. For that, I will have to keep working hard."
A photograph of Ahmed running in the sand with two tyres tied to his body surfaced. It was a welcome sight - he was trying. He was among the first to return to full-time training when the Shere Bangla National Stadium opened for use in June last year. Then, Ahmed was among the top wicket-takers in two domestic tournaments during the pandemic, enough to earn selection for the ODI series against West Indies at home, and he is now among seven pace bowlers in New Zealand.
Complacence, or something like it
Around the time he had been dropped, Ahmed was struggling to be taken seriously. He had lost much of his pace; he chugged in off a long run-up, but didn't seem capable of making it to the end. In the space of a year, from March 2017 to March 2018, he had gone from a bowler with an ODI hat-trick to one that couldn't be trusted to bowl four overs in a T20I.
"At the start of my career, everything was happening for me - I was playing well, I was becoming famous. Things like following up on fitness and skill work never crossed my mind. I assumed everything will go well, I wouldn't get injured. But when a player relaxes even for a moment in international cricket, this is what happens, they get to the back of the queue."
After he took only two wickets in the 2017 Champions Trophy, Ahmed had a torrid tour of South Africa. He took only two wickets in six matches, averaging 188.50. He was dropped for the ODI tri-series at home a few months later. Once he bombed in the Nidahas Trophy, where he was picked to provide extra pace, that was it. For Ahmed, the good things might have been that he finally had an opportunity to look hard at himself.
"When a cricketer is with the national team, the trainers take care of everything. But I think it's critical what we are doing at home and during our off-time," he explained. "Every fast bowler should have a personal trainer, bowling coach, mind trainer and nutritionist to maintain their standards at the highest level. A young player who hires these people is going to be in better shape when he is not training with the national team."
Big decisions, three of them
The uncertainty caused by the pandemic last year pushed Ahmed into taking three crucial decisions.
First, he decided to improve his fitness, for which he requested Debashish Ghosh, a reputed trainer in Dhaka, to open his gym for a few hours every day during last year's Ramadan. Struggling to find a ground where he could run, Ahmed called up a couple of people he knew, people who owned land. And he went back to the basics in terms of his bowling.
"I was struggling for fitness and form. During the early days of the lockdown, I called the trainer Debashish Ghosh and convinced him to open his gym, which had shut because of the pandemic. He was kind enough to open it for couple of hours every evening after Iftaar. After Eid ul Fitr, I started running on sand twice a week for agility and to strengthen the lower part of my body. I used to go to one of the real estate projects in the western outskirts of Dhaka."
For technical help, Ahmed called up his childhood mentor, Mahbub Ali Zaki, a BCB bowling coach with a growing reputation, and former Bangladesh captain Khaled Mahmud, the BCB director who is also a coach.
"Zaki sir was my coach since the Under-15s, while Sujon sir [Mahmud] had been giving me opportunities since I was a kid. They gave me a few technical pointers, on which I started to work in my garage. Cricket grounds were still not available then, due to the pandemic, so I used to call up everyone to tell me where I could bowl with a full run-up."
In an interview with ESPNcricinfo in January, Zaki had pointed out that to become a more explosive bowler, Ahmed needed more balance at the crease. For that, he needed improved muscle-build and a leaner physique.
Ahmed followed Zaki's advice to the last letter. "To improve my fitness, I was also strict on my diet. I don't do cheat days. I sacrificed my favourite biriyani. My mother and my wife now prepare my food separately at home. I also spoke to a mental-health expert. Being out of the national team for close to three years was weighing me down."
'My pace is back', but that's not all
Along with Ahmed's personal transformation, another interesting development was taking place: fast bowlers were leading the wicket charts in the BCB President's Cup, a three-team one-day tournament to kick off cricket after the lockdown, and the Bangabandhu T20 Cup that followed. It was explained as a result of unused pitches and batsmen being out of cricket for a long time, but pace bowlers like Ahmed, Rubel Hossain and Mustafizur Rahman were among the top wicket-takers in both tournaments. It was a massive change than the last two decades when left-arm spinners ruled the roost.
Ahmed and newcomers Shoriful Islam and Hasan Mahmud were picked in the Bangladesh ODI side. That, however, didn't change Ahmed's mindset.
"No matter how tired I am these days - and national team training can be quite tough - I keep doing my personal drills. I haven't reached Mushfiq bhai's [Mushfiqur Rahim] level of discipline, he is a role model, but among the fast bowlers, I believe that if I maintain myself properly, I can stay ahead.
"By Allah's grace, my pace is back. I touched 146kph during the Chattogram ODI. I can't be Brett Lee in one day, but I want to deliver on the potential that Allah has given me. I have to be fit, and stick to my process. I don't want to have any regrets that I didn't give my best."
But pace isn't everything. "In this day and age, a bowler cannot just rely on his pace. The wickets are batting-friendly even in countries like Australia, England and South Africa. There will be times when I have to bowl a lot of slower balls and then there will be times when I have to rely on pace. By playing more matches, I can be ready for every situation."
Ahmed is a young cricketer who has learned an important lesson at an early stage of his life and his career, and is better for it; he isn't taking anything for granted anymore. And he is fully aware that if he shells this chance, there may not be another one.