From Magura to No. 1

The world's top-ranked allrounder is a Bangladeshi who has oodles of self-belief to go with his undoubted talent

Utpal Shuvro

Shakib picks up yet another match award © AFP
It's one of cricket's ironies that one of its best allrounders of the moment might have been lost to football instead, but for several turns of fate. Like every other boy in the provincial town of Magura, 170 miles from Dhaka, Shakib al Hasan was a regular on the playing field whenever he got a chance but the big draw was always football. His father had played the game for Khulna Division and a cousin had gone on to represent Bangladesh, so football more or less ran in the family.
Cricket was on the sporting curriculum though, and the fashion among the youth was "tape-tennis" cricket. Shakib was fairly proficient and was often "hired" to play for different villages. One such game changed his life.
A local umpire called Saddam Hossain was impressed by the kid's prowess and called him to practise with the Islampur Para Club, one of the teams in the Magura Cricket League. Shakib turned up and, as was his wont, batted aggressively and bowled fast. That was what he knew best. Then, suddenly, inexplicably, he began bowling spin - and had the batsmen totally flummoxed.
He made the cut for the Islampur team and picked up a wicket with the first ball on his Magura Cricket League debut - his first-ever delivery with a proper cricket ball.
It could sound a bit too pat but Shakib's journey from Magura to the top of the ICC rankings for allrounders - the first Bangladesh player ever to top any ICC ranking - hasn't happened overnight, nor has it been the result of any one dramatic or magical moment. It's been a long journey, with its share of ups and downs, happiness and sorrow, laughter and tears, since he first held a bat eight-odd years ago.
Shakib's eyes drift away as he narrates his story, building up a tapestry of images and defining moments. Throughout, there is surprise that a boy who didn't play a proper game of cricket till he was in his teens could be the world's top allrounder.
The talent-scouting camp at Bangladesh Krira Shikkha Protishtan (BKSP) comes first to his mind. His ability had been noticed at a one-month camp in Narail before he was chosen for the six-month training course at BKSP. He remembers his father warning him about neglecting his studies, as well as the persuasive tactics of the BKSP coach, "Bappi sir" (Ashraful Islam Bappi). "Uncle, let him go. He has a future in cricket," Bappi pleaded with Shakib's father.
Life at the BKSP camp was good, with Shakib managing to enroll himself in class eight under special consideration. His skills with bat and ball helped him overcome the adversities of a new environment.
His next break came when he was called up in the absence of one of the regulars in a domestic Under-15 fixture. His century off 52 balls was enough to earn him a place in the national U-15 team, followed by, with metronomic frequency, steps up to the U-17, U-19 and Bangladesh A levels, and then to the national team.
And then one day last month he got a phone call from a journalist. "You are the world's No. 1 allrounder, according to the one-day rankings published today. Can I have your reactions?"
What could he possibly say? Such emotions cannot be put in words. From the day he seriously took up cricket, this had been his dream: of reaching the top - not just himself as a player but his team as well. His job was only half done, but it was a great leap forward.
You can imagine Shakib talking to the journalist - "I'm just so happy. My dream's come true, etc etc," he would have warbled in a quivering voice. But if you thought that, you really don't know Shakib very well.
Of course he was delighted, and said as much, before adding: "What reactions do I have? Well, it hasn't quite sunk in. Can I think on it through the night and let you know tomorrow?"
It's this quality, of not getting carried away, of being in control of his emotions, that made him stand out among the other boys at BKSP, a trait noticed by the coach Nazmul Abedin Fahim as well. "A lot of people say that Shakib has little emotion, but he is quite an emotional lad. He just possesses this remarkable ability to control his emotions."
Fahim remembers the day he first recognised Shakib's immense talent as a cricketer. Fahim was in charge of the Bangladesh U-15 team touring India. The first match, against the Bengal U-15s, in the industrial town of at Kalyani, was played on a brand new pitch. The tourists lost early wickets but Shakib stuck around to score a match-winning 69. It became a habit on the tour - early dismissals followed by a rescue act by Shakib.
Shakib has repeatedly been asked one particular question at press conferences: "Are you a batting allrounder or a bowling allrounder?" The reply is part laconic, part genuine uncertainty: "I am a cricketer
Fahim was also in charge of the Bangladesh team - of which Shakib was a member - at the U-17 Asia Cup in India in 2004. Those around at the time recall vividly the occasion when, asked by a journalist to name the team's best bowler, batsman and fielder, Fahim replied "Shakib" to all three.
Theirs was a long-standing relationship. Fahim, a veteran coach at BKSP, had mentored several generations of Bangladeshi cricketers but he always believed Shakib was in a different class. "He may not be the most technically gifted of the many students I taught. But he's the best when one considers the total package. At cricket's topmost level the game is played more in the mind, and from the mental perspective he is way above everyone," says Fahim.
Habibul Bashar, who was the Bangladesh captain when Shakib made his international debut on the 2006 tour of Zimbabwe, seconds Fahim. "He [Shakib] is mentally very tough and he can deal with success very simply as well. This is why he is so consistent," says Bashar.
It's not just about dealing with success and failure on the field; Shakib has a very simplistic view on matters away from the game as well. "I don't brood over issues. The more you think about it, the more complex it becomes. I want to keep everything simple. And I don't mean just the game. Matters off the field may not be within my control as well, so why lose sleep over things you can't control? What I can do is to give my best every time."
Backing up his clear understanding of what he can do is a firm belief in the ability to do so. Together they set him apart from the other players in the team. "His biggest strength as a cricketer lies in backing his own ability. Criticism and analyses have never stopped him from playing his own game," says Fahim.
Maybe it's "a high degree of self-belief" as the current Bangladesh captain Mohammad Ashraful says. "Though he [Shakib] doesn't bowl too much at practice, he always delivers during a match. Now that's only possible if you have tremendous belief in yourself."
More than the self-belief, perhaps, is Shakib's resolve to be the best. "Whenever anyone outperforms me, whether in academics or sport, I tell myself that if he could do it, so can I. Whenever someone from the team is adjudged Man of the Match, I feel the honour could have been mine as well, It's not jealousy - my team-mates' success obviously gives me a lot of joy - but one basic question: 'If he could, why couldn't I?'"
So he's got the self-confidence and the determination. What more do you need for success? Hard work? Shakib will definitely work as hard as he can. But Mohammad Salauddin, his bowling and mental-strength guru - another teacher from his BKSP days, and the current Bangladesh assistant coach - doesn't consider hard work a key element in Shakib's success. "I wouldn't call Shakib a hard worker. His biggest talent is that he picks up things very easily. He has a very logical brain."
Salauddin remembers an incident from Bangladesh's tour of South Africa last November. "On the first day of the first Test, at Bloemfontein, Shakib didn't get a single wicket. I told him to flight the ball but he was apprehensive, thinking he'd get hit all over the park.
"But I know him. So the next day, in the bus on the way to the stadium, I started reading a chapter on flight in spin bowling. He asked me what I was reading. I told him it was just some points on the usefulness of flight in spin bowling.
"Shakib immediately picked up what I was trying to say. That morning he gave the ball air and flight and got his wickets." After ending the first day with no wickets from 25 overs, his day two figures read: 13 overs, 35 runs and five wickets."
That spell sums up Shakib's bowling over the past four months - the best of his career, the most successful and, at times, magical. It was also a bit of a surprise. He began his one-day career as a No. 4 batsman, and in his 60 innings till date, he has batted lower than five on only a handful of occasions. In Tests he has batted mostly at No. 7, but all along, he was always known as a batting allrounder. That was till the home series against New Zealand in October last year.

Start as you mean to go on: Shakib gets the first of his seven wickets in the first innings against New Zealand in Chittagong last year © AFP
Just before that two-Test series, Bangladesh coach Jamie Siddons suddenly announced that Shakib would be playing as a specialist spinner - and that's the role he has been fulfilling since then. In the first innings of the first Test, in Chittagong, he picked up 7 for 37, the best bowling figures by any Bangladeshi player in Tests. That was the appetiser; the main course came on the tour of South Africa.
His five- and six-wicket hauls in the two Tests against South Africa were a significant milestone, considering greats like Shane Warne and Anil Kumble had failed to do as much against those opponents, and even Muttiah Muralitharan achieved it just the once. Shakib's performance drew the praise of former Australian legspinner Kerry O'Keefe, who said he was the "world's best finger spinner at the moment".
Another five-for followed in the next Test, at home against Sri Lanka, which gave him five or more wickets in an innings in three successive Tests, an accomplishment Bangladesh's old spin spearhead Mohammad Rafique would have been proud of.
Those recent successes - and, no doubt, his ascent to the top of ICC rankings - have led to his being repeatedly asked one particular question at press conferences: "Are you a batting allrounder or a bowling allrounder?" The reply is part laconic, part genuine uncertainty: "I am a cricketer."
Asked where he sees himself at the end of his career, he replies: "I never go by records, statistics and rankings. I believe one must take into account all aspects of the game. I want the world to remember me as proficient in all three categories - batting, bowling and fielding. Bowlers will think twice when I bat, similarly batsmen will be wary of my skills with the ball, and they will hesitate to take runs when the ball comes my way on the field."
The realisation of his dream will no doubt require Shakib to keep his feet firmly on the ground despite all the adulation and acclaim. Will he be able to? He breaks into a wry smile. "Cricket is not just my profession, it's the only way I can realise my other dreams. If I shine, everything will fall into place - the ranking will be good, the rewards will flow in."
Self-satisfaction does not feature in Shakib's dictionary, though he is proud to be officially acknowledged as among the world's best. It is not just the personal achievement that is important to him but proving that someone from Bangladesh can become the world's top performer. The sky's the limit, Shakib al Hasan says, and he's started his journey.

Utpal Shuvro is the sports editor at Dhaka daily Prothom Alo