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Couch Talk

'If I'd stayed captain, Bangladesh would have done better'

Former Bangladesh captain and current selector Habibul Bashar talks about the team's early days, landmark wins, and the current squad

Subash Jayaraman: When you grew up playing cricket, Bangladesh wasn't a Test-playing nation. So what was the motivation for a youngster choosing to play cricket for Bangladesh in the 1980s and '90s?
Habibul Bashar: For me it wasn't easy, because my parents never wanted me to be a cricketer. They wanted me to complete my studies. Most people used to play cricket as a second option. Also, the cricket season used to start in October and end in March. Then there was no more cricket. I just loved this game. That was my only motivation. I was quite lucky, because when I had to choose cricket as a career, Bangladesh had got Test status. I had played in school and college.
SJ: Who were the batsmen you modelled yourself after?
HB: We didn't have all the TV channels at that time. We didn't get a chance to watch a lot of cricket. When the World Cup was on, we got most of the games live, and because my hometown is Kushtia, which is close to India, we used to get Doordarshan [India's public broadcaster]. I have seen Mohammad Azharuddin a lot. He is my idol.
SJ: When Bangladesh got Test status in 2000, you didn't have a well-developed first-class system in place. So how did you guys cope with it?
HB: It wasn't easy for us to play Test cricket, that is a fact. Before we got Test status, I had only played a couple of first-class seasons. For us, playing Test cricket we had to learn. But [getting the Test status] changed Bangladesh cricket. We started getting modern facilities. Before that there was nothing in our days - no training facility, no indoor facility, no trainers. We weren't prepared to play Test cricket. We just had training sessions.
SJ: But if you look at the current generation of Bangladeshi players - Mushfiqur Rahim, Shakib Al Hasan, and all these guys - they grew up watching international cricket played in Bangladesh. What sort of impact does it have on the upcoming generation of players?
HB: When we played cricket, we didn't know there would be a chance to play Test cricket in our lifetime. These guys knew they are going to play for Bangladesh. The facilities are a lot better and they got everything [they needed] when they started playing cricket. They were more prepared than us.
"I think this [current] team is a lot better, because they have batsmen till No. 8 in the order. Because of Shakib and Mushfiqur, the team has the option of playing an extra batsman or an extra bowler. That makes it a big difference from the team we had"
SJ: Should Test status be expanded to include more countries?
HB: I think it should. I can say that from our experience. If you don't get the Test-class facilities at home, it is tough. If you get sponsors, you actually start to get everything. The difference in cricket between Test-playing countries and non-Test playing countries is big. We only can reduce the gap if you keep playing them continuously. We should play active members regularly, because else we will find it very hard to compete against very good teams. If you get Test status, even if you don't get many Test matches, when you start playing other [Test] countries, your cricket will definitely improve. And that is better for cricket all around the world.
SJ: From when you started playing in 2000 to when you retired in 2007, what was the change you underwent as a Test cricketer, as a Test batsman, and Bangladesh as a team?
HB: Huge! I got my identity as a Test cricketer. When I started playing, I didn't know if I could survive at this level. After playing for a year or two, I understood that I can survive and perform.
I have seen the changes in Bangladesh. The facilities are getting better. There are new cricketers coming up, the whole country is interested in cricket. In my days if 100 players came forward to play cricket, now there are 1000.
SJ: You scored your maiden Test hundred against Zimbabwe in Chittagong. Could you take us through that innings?
HB: I had scored a few half-centuries before that. In the inaugural Test match against India, I had scored 70-odd. I was quite happy getting that 70-odd runs. I was playing against my role model. For me, that was enough. I had scored four to five half-centuries before my first hundred. When I got there, it was a relief. I felt very happy.
I remember every shot in that innings. But I remember that Test more because in the second innings I got a chance to score back-to-back hundreds, but I just tried to hit Grant Flower over his head and got caught at long-off. That, I remember the most.
SJ: Bangladesh went through a long streak of Test losses. You had won only one of the first 50-odd Test matches you played. What sort of psychological effect does it have on the team? As a captain, how difficult is it to motivate your players loss after loss after loss?
HB: It was very difficult for us. You don't like to be questioned about your ability as a Test cricketer. Some people said, "No, these guys are not ready for Test cricket and got the status too early and they are not good enough." People forget that when we got the Test status, the other Test-playing countries had played almost 100 Test matches. They had more experience than us.
In ODI matches, if you have one good day, you can win an ODI. In Test matches, you have to bowl well in two innings and you have to bat well in two innings. Test cricket isn't easy. But the bottom line was that we weren't playing well.
It was difficult to motivate everyone to play well to win Test matches. So what I did was motivate every player about their own performance. If everyone focused on their own game, it might help the team. If we get the experience and get individual performances, some day we will start we will win as a team - that we knew from the beginning. That is what I told the team.
SJ: When Bangladesh finally won that first Test match against Zimbabwe, what was the mood within the team?
HB: That series against Zimbabwe, we were playing at home. Before that we were very close to winning a Test match, against Pakistan in Multan. That innings from Inzamam-ul-Haq was really something people will remember. That is something from which we could learn so much. We were not an experienced team. That is why we lost that Test. In some of the other Test matches also we played well.
So when we played Zimbabwe in Bangladesh in 2005, we realised this was the chance for us. We started preparing and told ourselves that if we stick together, this is the opportunity for us. We are not going to lose this and we will do anything to win a Test match. There was pressure on us. We had to win one Test for Bangladesh.
We started that Test match very well by winning the toss, because, in Bangladesh, batting in the fourth innings is difficult as its starts to turn. We won the toss and batted first because we knew there were higher possibilities to win the Test. Throughout the match, we had the momentum, and when we finished it, people had gone crazy, we all had gone crazy. We started celebrating from the ground and we didn't stop till late morning.
"The difference in cricket between Test-playing countries and non-Test playing countries is big. We only can reduce the gap if you keep playing them continuously"
SJ: There was this other Test match that you should have definitely won, against Australia in Fatullah and that would have been an even bigger win, perhaps. Bangladesh had a big first-innings lead but the game got away from you.
HB: Well, that is because of not having the belief in winning. We didn't win many matches, we didn't have that winning experience. We just lost the flow. If we had a little bit more in the second innings, it could have won us the game. They didn't bowl that well, just that we didn't believe we could do that. If we play that match against Australia now, I am sure we would win it. We didn't have the confidence to do well in both innings. It was mental barrier for us.
SJ: There is a question from a listener, Arun. He says that you captained Bangladesh to a historic win against India in the 2007 World Cup and in the second round you beat South Africa as well. But you would have thought that Bangladesh would have gone on to be a team that beats other teams more regularly. But it is still just one-off. Why hasn't that change happened?
HB: I think we are winning more games lately. If you see our [performances from] 2011 to 2013, I think we won more games than what we used to do. The team actually has been doing well. It is in 2014 that we haven't won much. That is because some of the guys lost their form together. It doesn't happen quite often. You always have someone in bad form in the team, but that would be one or two. But there were five players or so out of form together. But as you saw in this [Zimbabwe] series, they have started performing and scoring lot more runs. I think we will do better in 2015.
SJ: In that 2007 World Cup, even when Bangladesh did well under you, your captaincy was under threat and you were made to give it up soon after. What went on between the team management, the selectors and you?
HB: In the 2007 World Cup, we played well. We were based in Barbados for the second-round matches. Barbados has a bit of pace and bounce and is a bit different from our conditions. If we had been based in Trinidad or somewhere else, I am sure we would won a few more.
But ultimately, I didn't perform well in the 2007 World Cup. After that, the coaches wanted me to consider playing only Test matches. I think that was a wrong move. Our team was still young. If I would have stayed captain for one more year, I think Bangladesh would have done much better. When I left they had to go through the learning and winning process again. Mohammad Ashraful was a young captain. When you change the captain of the team, sometimes you have to start again. In 2008-09 that is what happened.
SJ: You are a selector now. So are you willing to give more time and chances to the players now than the selectors did back in your time?
HB: Yeah, I can understand that. I have two more selectors with me - Minhajul Abdein and Akram Khan, the former captain. They know and I also tell them, "Let's not make it easy for someone to come in to the side". Someone coming in has to work very hard to get in. If someone gets into the side, he will get enough chances to play himself in. If he is good enough, he performs. If he is not good enough, he does not. If he comes, there will be enough opportunities, not just one or two or three or four.
SJ: How do you compare the current team under Mushfiqur Rahim's captaincy to the one that you captained from 2004 to 2007?
HB: I think this [current] team is a lot better, because they have batsmen till No. 8 in the order, isn't it? Because of Shakib and Mushfiqur, the team has the option of playing an extra batsman or an extra bowler. That makes it a big difference from the team we had.
Talent-wise, this team has some world-class performers. Shakib started in our time, but he is more mature now and he is a world-class performer. Tamim [Iqbal] is playing well, Mushfiq is performing, and we also have Mahmudullah and Nasir Hossain - even though he is not in the team now, he might make a comeback - and Mominul [Haque].
In our time, our line-up wasn't strong. After five batsmen, we were out of time.
SJ: Clive asks: What is your long-term plan for Bangladesh cricket? And what is your blueprint to see Bangladesh win more consistently?
HB: We have to work very hard with our school teams and age levels. We have a lot of participants, but these schoolboys need proper coaching. I have suggested to the board that we look after schoolboys and age-group cricket more and more. We have the passion for cricket. Every boy wants to play cricket. They just need a platform to play well. I think we need to play a lot of four-day games, and [only] then ODIs, at age level. At age levels, they play a lot of 50-over, 30-over games, but I think we should put more longer-version games. We have talent. They just need the platform so that we get more and better international cricketers for Bangladesh.