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Legspin to leadership

Khondaker Mirazur Rahman traces the rise of a nets boy to captain of Bangladesh

Khondaker Mirazur Rahman

Mohammad Ashraful's rise from nets boy via legspinner to Bangladesh's best bat was swift © Getty
In the winter of 1993, at Dhaka's Siddheswary cricket ground, the breeding ground of many Bangladeshi national cricketers, the local Amarjyothi club was holding its practice sessions. Several higher-level cricketers, including Mohammed Rafique, would-be international Khaled Mahmud and Bangladesh A opener Imran Hamid Partho, were part of these sessions.
Also a regular was a lean nine-year-old in oversized whites who would dutifully perform the mundane duties of a ball boy. Once the season ended, however, he disappeared, only to reappear the next season, and once again turn up regularly.
One day Mahmud, the club captain, asked him if he wanted to be a cricketer. Pat came the reply: "Yes. I can bowl some legspin. If you allow me, I can show you."
Mahmud decided to give the youngster a chance to bowl. The first batsman to pad up was Partho, a dashing left-handed batsman known for his mastery over spin bowling. The boy began his run-up with all eyes on him. To everyone's utter disbelief the ball, instead of being hit out of the small ground, deceived Partho with turn and bounce. Partho completely missed the ball and shook his head in disbelief.
Throughout the session, the boy caused all sorts of trouble for the Amarjyothi batsmen and was plainly thrilled at being a part of the practice after long dreaming of participating.
Realising they had a special talent on their hands, the club's officials signed him up the next day and, a day before the season's first game, gave him his first opportunity to bat in the nets. He despatched the ball to all parts of the ground with consummate ease. Later, the boy said," I am a bowler who can bat a bit."
Come match day and everyone was amazed to see a ten-year-old take the field. After ten overs, Mahmud tossed the ball to the boy who, when asked by the umpire what his name was, said confidently: "Mohammad Ashraful". He announced his arrival by winning the match for Amarjyoti with his legspin.
What made Ashraful's dedication and sincerity to cricket even more astonishing was that, in those days, football was a far more popular sport in Bangladesh
At that time , Wahidul Gani, an offspinner, was a mentor of sorts to young cricketers, especially spinners. One look at Ashraful and Gani realised that he could play a major role in the future of Bangladeshi cricket and used all his expertise to polish Ashraful's game.
From here, Ashraful was on the fast track. Under the tutelage of Gani, he moved to first-division club Victoria Sporting. By the age of 15 he had played in the ICC Under-19 World Cup, the Under-17 Asia Cup, the National Cricket League (for Dhaka Metropolis) and for the Bangladesh Cricket Board XI against the Australian Academy XI.
Ashraful's dedication to cricket was astonishing given that football was, at that time, a far more popular sport in Bangladesh. The national cricket team was not even a Test-playing nation, still playing in the ICC Trophy without tasting much success even at that level.
Having proved himself at each of these levels, he made his ODI debut against Zimbabwe in April 2001. The historic Test debut came three months later against Sri Lanka when he scored a scintillating 114 to become the youngest player to score a Test century.

Throughout his international career, Ashraful has produced some brilliant innings yet failed to live up to the enormous expectations of his supporters more than once © AFP
By now he had also improved his batting skills to the extent that he was the batting mainstay of every team he played for. Yet the legspin never really left him. In the Dhaka Test in May 2003, Bangladesh had South Africa at 63 for 4 before Jacques Rudolph and Mark Boucher put up a 107-run partnership. Mahmud, who was then the Bangladesh captain, turned to Ashraful, perhaps remembering those sessions ten years previously. Ashraful immediately produced the breakthrough. He lured Rudolph out of the crease and wicket keeper Mohammad Salim did the rest. It was almost an action replay of eight years before when Mahmud, as Amarjyothi captain, had turned to the unknown ten-year-old.
On Wednesday, Ashraful makes his debut as Bangladesh captain, completing a long journey from the second division club nets session at the Siddheswary ground. It hasn't been an unqualified success; he has produced some brilliant innings but more than once failed to live up to expectations. Yet if he can draw on the dedication of his Siddheswary roots - he was back at the ground the day after being named Bangladesh captain - he will have taken a huge stride towards laying those ghosts to rest.

The writer is the editor of banglacricket.com