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No Robiul, no bowling-attack leader

With Robiul Islam having regressed as a bowler, Bangladesh have been left in lurch to find an appropriate bowling-attack leader against Zimbabwe

Mohammad Isam
Mohammad Isam
Robiul Islam was the man of the series the last time Bangladesh played Tests against Zimbabwe  •  AFP

Robiul Islam was the man of the series the last time Bangladesh played Tests against Zimbabwe  •  AFP

Robiul Islam's banana outswingers regularly beating the bat, Brendan Taylor's runs and umpiring errors were the recurring themes of the last Test series between Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. While Taylor has remained at the helm in Zimbabwe's Test team and the BCB has added DRS to help the umpires, Robiul will be a mere spectator in the first Test in Dhaka.
The Bangladesh pace attack bowled at the Shere Bangla National Stadium's centre wicket on the first day of training (except Al-Amin Hossain, who was in Chennai doing his action test), but Robiul, on his 28th birthday, was in Fatullah, playing for the BCB XI against the visitors. He took one wicket, a beautiful inswinger that nipped through Vusi Sibanda's defence. In the last Test series against Zimbabwe, he dismissed the same batsman thrice; two times, he had Sibanda bowled - a yorker and a perfect outswinger that took the offstump - and caught behind once.
In that series, in April 2013, Robiul bowled 110 overs and picked up 15 wickets. It is the most wickets taken and most overs bowled by a Bangladeshi pace bowler in a Test series. Robiul was adjudged man of the series, another first for a Bangladeshi pace bowler. Mushfiqur Rahim kept throwing the ball at him, and Robiul kept beating the bat and picked up a wicket every 44 balls.
In the last 18 months, Robiul has regressed as a bowler and it is evident in the numbers. He has played only three Test matches out of a possible six, missing one due to injury, one due to a change in team combination and the last one for being a second option. Bangladesh's bowling coach Heath Streak has seen the downward trend. Streak said he wants Robiul to convince the selectors, who have hitherto backed him, that he is still hungry for a place in the team.
"I think he is a very talented player," Streak said. "I don't think his conditioning, execution of his skills and current form is the same as the Robiul Islam I saw in Zimbabwe. He has a big role to play in the future and we are looking at him. He has to work hard and show selectors that he is still hungry to play Test cricket. If we can get a fit and consistent Robiul Islam, it is a very big plus for Bangladesh cricket."
Soon after returning from Zimbabwe, he injured his hamstring and quadriceps, recovery from which took several months. He was half-fit against New Zealand last year, and was promptly sidelined in the second Test. In January this year, he was dumped after going wicketless in the first Test against Sri Lanka, bowling 29 insipid overs with few deliveries bending or curving past the batsmen.
Robiul picked up two wickets in Bangladesh's last Test match, against West Indies last month, after Al-Amin Hossain and Rubel Hossain were considered the first-choice. But when given the chance, Robiul was indifferent to the first day conditions, which were conducive to swing and seam bowling. He improved on the second day but by then he had done enough to warrant an "out of form" tag, which put him out of the selectors' favour for the Test starting in five days.
He has taken 20 wickets in nine first-class games since April last year. But while it is easier to blame the player for being out of form, the team management has shown less patience with Robiul than someone like Rubel Hossain who has always struggled to take wickets in Test matches. Having considered Robiul as the lead of their attack after his exploits in Zimbabwe, he has not been given due time to resurrect his bowling form in any of the three series since then.
Crucially, the three other pace bowlers who have played ahead and around him during this period, also haven't performed any better. Granted they were playing in unhelpful conditions for two out of the three series but Rubel, Al-Amin Hossain and Shafiul Islam can only be termed steady at best.
By not picking Robiul regularly and considering him as a second option, the team management perhaps unwittingly pushed the selectors to drop him from the Test squad altogether this time. Now, there is no longer a stability in the Bangladesh pace attack. No one is sure who is leading the attack.
Among those picked to play against Zimbabwe in the first Test, the numbers do not back Rubel as a bowling-attack leader, Al-Amin is still working on his bowling action, while Shafiul Islam is yet to leave a mark at the Test stage. Shahadat Hossain has returned after nearly two years and age and experience-wise, he should be leading the attack. Without Robiul, Bangladesh are a poorer side.

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84