Bangladesh's disgraced boy hero

Mohammad Ashraful was thrust into the harsh glare of international cricket at a young age and given a long rope. There were several thrilling innings, but his career was dogged by inconsistency and ended in corruption

Mohammad Isam
Mohammad Isam
Mohammad Ashraful's sixth Test hundred  - 190 in Galle - was his last hurrah in international cricket  •  AFP

Mohammad Ashraful's sixth Test hundred - 190 in Galle - was his last hurrah in international cricket  •  AFP

In Matara in 2013, some Bangladesh players had gathered on the viewing balcony as Mohammad Ashraful neared a century. As he played loose shots against an offspinner, a team-mate cried out, asking Ashraful to be cautious.
"Shabdhaan ostaad (Be careful, master)."
Mahmudullah's warning was curious, and not meant to be heard by those in the gallery below. He wanted Ashraful to be careful, get to a century that would confirm his place in the Galle Test, and complete a comeback after a two-year absence.
The words rang true, especially after the events that unfolded two months later, when Ashraful told the ACSU's investigation officers that he had been involved in match-fixing in the 2013 BPL. A year later, after the investigation had run its course, Ashraful's was banned for eight years, bringing to an end a career full of unfulfilled potential.
Mahmudullah's warning had sounded stern at the time, but he is not the sort to act haughty with a senior team-mate for the sake of it. He had also addressed Ashraful as ostaad, the Bangla word for 'master.' They were probably the words that described most accurately what everyone felt about Ashraful, and what they wanted him to do.
Mahmudullah wasn't telling just any batsman to be careful that day in Matara. He was telling a cricketer who had played for more than two-thirds of the time since Bangladesh began their Test journey. He was telling the man who, for seven years from 2001, was the sole hope of a ship that had wobbled the moment it left the dock.
Most Bangladesh fans had not seen Ashraful become the youngest centurion in the world, but for the next eight years, the country held its breath when he batted. His mistakes were scrutinised by a growing group of critics, but when he hooked and pulled top fast bowlers, the natural response was to be awestruck. There was beauty to his off-side play too; his three types of cuts - each with its own bat speed and angle - the straight drive, the softly placed and the blasted cover drive. There were also scoops and dinks.
Ashraful was the first Bangladesh batsman their opponents planned for. He made batting look easy, as those around him struggled. He meant so much to Bangladesh because he was the beacon of hope in the only sport they were good at.
He did not give a damn either. Ashraful would throw away a superb start and the media would moan for a few days, but the public would remember how he had attacked the fast bowler. The boy who bullied bullies was adored. Ashraful could take on the world, but he did only occasionally.
The first of those occasions was in 2004, by when Bangladesh's Test status had been questioned many times and they needed a substantial performance. Ashraful made 158 against India, an innings many have said kept Bangladesh afloat in international cricket In June 2005, Ashraful dismantled Ricky Ponting's Australia - one of the greatest teams across sport - with a century in an ODI. It still is perhaps the biggest upset in cricket.
Mahmudullah's warning, however, also had its root in Ashraful's indiscretions: the wafts that offered catches, the ill-timed blasts, the glides he could not get past the keeper or the cordon, the cute nudges that looked ugly once they failed him, and the starts he wasted so frequently.
Ashraful failed as Bangladesh captain, and failed as a batsman during that time too. A while later he lost the leadership and the dressing room. It took only one cute shot in a Twenty20 game against Ireland in 2009 to erode much of the remaining belief in Ashraful. The extra rope he had always been given began to run out, and soon he was an outsider.
Ashraful did not contribute much to the Test wins he played in. He was a better ODI batsman, and all three of his hundreds in the format led to Bangladesh victories. Ashraful was the master who needed to be attentive, but he chose the other path. To explain the complexity that surrounds him, one has to look into his ample talent and how he frittered it away a chunk at a time.
Then, like in US congressional hearings, several key figures in Bangladesh cricket would have to explain their influence on Ashraful, a flawed cricketer and now blemished man. The list includes captains and coaches, a former board president, BCB directors, family members, friends and a mentor.
Ashraful would not be spared this imaginary hearing either. He must explain how this has come to pass - a fitful international career that was ended by corruption when it could have been ended prematurely by flawed strokeplay.
Bangladesh's most gifted sportsman has now been thrown out of the ring. He is deemed not honest enough to play the game for at least five years. Despite their on-field hardships since 1986, this has to be the lowest point in Bangladesh cricket. There is so much shame in cheating.
Despite how terribly it ended, Ashraful's career began in the same way that many subcontinent cricket stories did in the 1990s. A scrawny boy walks several miles from his house for cricket practice. One day his timing and the time he has to hit the ball catches the coach's eye, and he rapidly rises in a system that badly needs a star. He is thrust on to the biggest stage too soon, but a fairytale start masks the fundamental chinks in the make-up of the young man. And because of his talent, and the lack of it around him, he has to behave beyond his years.
Bangladesh also needed a poster boy at the time, and Ashraful was given a lot of rope. He often tested patience but repaid faith when his team was struggling. His most famous scoring sequence was the two days in the UK, where he sank Australia and toyed with England for 64 minutes the next day.
Ashraful might not have heard Mahmudullah, but he batted dutifully, made it to the Test team to score 190 in Galle, his career-best score. Later that afternoon in Matara, Ashraful said how taking a boat into the Indian Ocean had become a matter of pride for him, after he saw how comfortable Sohag Gazi and Rubel Hossain were in rough water.
"It just looked odd that I was standing in the beach," he said, followed by a loud giggle. Ashraful laughs wholeheartedly and he sometimes laughs at his own joke. Like he did fleetingly when he told the media of his involvement in match-fixing.
Ashraful's eyes were watery that day in Matara, an allergic condition that often bothered him during his playing career. His eyes were watery, and red, in the darkened garage of his home in Banasree too.
It was hard to read Ashraful as he contemplated a comeback in Sri Lanka. It was hard to read Ashraful as he laughed in that hot garage and confessed his wrongdoing. When a reporter asked him to speak off the record, he said, "Speaking off camera got me into trouble in the first place," and laughed loudly again. The sentence hung in the air as he took the elevator to his apartment, surrounded by three friends.

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84