The No. 3 problem - Bangladesh's never-ending search for an answer

Soumya Sarkar again pushed up the order in latest of his many roles in the team

Mohammad Isam
Mohammad Isam
Soumya Sarkar walks back after getting dismissed  •  AFP via Getty Images

Soumya Sarkar walks back after getting dismissed  •  AFP via Getty Images

There have been two contrasting views about Soumya Sarkar. Among Bangladesh cricket's decision-makers, he is believed to be the solution to many of the team's batting problems. In the first ODI against New Zealand in Dunedin, Sarkar was sent in to bat at No. 3 in place of Najmul Hossain Shanto, who has been recently talked up as the batsman to be given a fair run at this position. Shanto made only 38 runs in Bangladesh's last ODI series, but today Sarkar lasted just three balls before playing a strange dinky shot to be caught at cover. The other view about Sarkar is that he gets far too many opportunities as he is fitted into every gap that appears in the Bangladesh side. For much of the last 18 months, this group has been mostly correct.
After he lost his regular place as an opener around 2018, the team management insisted on having Sarkar as a back-up option. He was flown into the middle of the 2018 Asia Cup campaign as a middle-order batsman. Against Afghanistan during the 2019 Test in Dhaka, Sarkar first opened the innings and then batted at No. 8.
A few months later, the Bangladesh team management declared that he was their finisher in T20Is. However, he is yet to play a convincing innings in that position. More recently, his sudden inclusion in the second Test against West Indies sparked a major debate.
In Bangladesh's last international game, the second Test against West Indies last month, Sarkar was suddenly included in the side in place of Shakib Al Hasan even though the regular opener Saif Hassan was in the squad already. He ended up making only 0 and 13.
The big - and generic - argument in favour of Sarkar is that he can play pace but it has become a bit hit-or-miss lately. Often the team management has failed to address that Sarkar hasn't worked out his battles against deliveries outside the off stump.
If the plan was to surprise the New Zealand attack, it was with a batsman who hasn't dominated a pace attack in two years. In this game, Sarkar was walking into a cauldron of swing in the fifth over. Trent Boult had given Tamim Iqbal a memorable working over with unplayable, late-moving outswingers. Iqbal countered with a slashed six and started to look comfortable against Matt Henry at the other end, but Boult lulled him into missing an unsuspecting inswinger. Sarkar lasted all of three balls when he jabbed at one - rather softly - only to be caught at cover.
" Soumya was our sixth bowling option and he was well suited to bat at No. 3 in today's team. He had played at No. 3 in New Zealand before."
Tamim Iqbal after the first ODI against New Zealand
It was a dismissal reminiscent of how he had missed a Tim Southee inswinger in the third ODI in Dunedin in 2019. On that occasion, Sarkar's feet were stuck as he tried to waft at the ball that hit the top of off stump. In that game, Bangladesh were reduced to 2 for 3 in the third over, and despite a middle-order revival, went down by 88 runs. This time, they were bowled out for 131 to lose by eight wickets.
After the match, Iqbal said that they had to pick Sarkar to be their sixth bowler, and from the XI they chose, only he had the capability to bat at No. 3 as he had done that before in New Zealand.
"I know I had said that we are seeing Soumya at No. 7 but if you look at our combination, we didn't have a sixth bowler," Iqbal said. "[Mahmudullah] Riyad bhai isn't bowling because of his back injury. Soumya was our sixth bowling option and he was well suited to bat at No. 3 in today's team. He had played at No. 3 in New Zealand before."
Bangladesh's top three had scored only 65 runs at an average of 7.22 in the ODI series two years ago. Their top order has struggled in New Zealand, averaging between 19 and 32.22 in the three ODI series since 2007. Iqbal has made three fifties in 13 innings while only Imrul Kayes has scored a century. There have also been only four 50-plus stands for the first two wickets.
But it is in New Zealand that Bangladesh's top three should have batted with more discipline. As batsmen used to pitches that offer almost nothing to new-ball bowlers, their real test is on pitches that are often lively - at least in the first hour. New Zealand have also consistently had one of the best bowling attacks in the world in the last two decades, and with Bangladesh's only foray to that part of the world limited to New Zealand - having hardly ever played in Australia - doing well here should have always been on the top of their agenda.
Instead, they have often promoted big-hitters like Aftab Ahmed, Mohammad Ashraful, Sabbir Rahman and Sarkar at No 3. The plan is to blast through the new-ball, but it has almost always failed to give them a good platform.
Since early last year, Sarkar has been considered as a big-hitter down the order. He has made a name for himself - even if inconsistently - for his attacking play against fast bowling. One of his most memorable knocks was a 149 against New Zealand in the Hamilton Test during the 2019 tour. But since then, he has had several roles in all three formats, enough to confuse him about his actual job.
Ahead of their previous ODI series against West Indies in January, the Bangladesh team management were at pains to explain why they were giving Shakib's batting spot to Shanto, a left-hander who was yet to transform his great domestic record to the highest level.
Shanto, however, has made only 73 runs in five ODIs at No. 3 in the last 12 months. His most recent failures against West Indies - 38 runs in the three ODIs and 40 runs in two Tests - got him dropped for the first game in Dunedin. But Bangladesh have been quite impatient with their No. 3s over the last ten years, with not a single batsman having played more than 23 innings from that position. The biggest example of this impatience was how they ignored Shakib's tremendous run of form at No. 3 during the 2019 World Cup.
Certainly, Shakib's 606 runs while averaging 86.57 played a major role in Bangladesh winning the three games in the World Cup. It gave their top order not just a settled look, but also consistent aggression with Iqbal and Sarkar often firing alongside Shakib. And in the past decade, overseas ODI series have often hinged a lot on how the top three have batted. When they have done well, it has had a positive effect on the team's overall performance.
The visitors may have to do a rethink about their top three, but how would even going back to Shanto, a young batsman who is yet to play a breakthrough knock, help a team that has already been battered in the first game?

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84