A changeover was afoot at the Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium at the end of the second Test match between Bangladesh and Pakistan. As the players shook hands and strolled towards the presentation ceremony, trucks rolled into the ground from its northwestern gate. They were loaded with artistes, models, sound systems and other paraphernalia attached to Bangladesh cricket's big "launch event" for the Bangladesh Premier League (BPL). It marked the first steps in the BCB's bid to join the worldwide Twenty20 market.
In a completely literal example of how Twenty20 cricket was encroaching on the game's most elite version, the arrival of this noisy troupe of trucks quickly pushed aside those attached to the Test match. This shifting focus in Mirpur was another reminder that Bangladesh will soon be returning to shorter cricket after playing only five Test matches following a gap that had lasted 14 months.
As captain Mushfiqur Rahim, Shakib Al Hasan and coach Stuart Law pointed out during the Test in Dhaka, this was not going to do Bangladesh any good. The schedule that lies ahead is heavily skewed against the team improving their Test credentials. Over the next three months, Bangladesh will be gripped by the country's most coveted 50-over competition, the Dhaka Premier League (DPL), and the newly formed BPL.
What this means is that the players will only be able to reintroduce themselves, their skills and mindset to Test cricket in four months, when they tour Pakistan in April, 2012. It is not as if someone like Tamim Iqbal must re-learn how to bat, but the concentration and endurance required for Test cricket is not served by a glut of 50-over or T20 cricket.
Tamim's lack of form in Test cricket this year can be directly attributed to the fact that he has not played first-class cricket for a long time. His last first class innings at home was in December 2008. Now that he feels less secure about his batting, he doesn't even have a match of any substantial length to help him sort out his troubles.
The BCB is too dominated by the Dhaka clubs so it is next to impossible for the body to decide on anything else, such as a few first-class matches against ICC Associates. Though England Lions are touring Bangladesh, they will only play five one-dayers and two Twenty20s. The entry of Nazimuddin and Elias Sunny are encouraging signs for Bangladesh cricket and much-needed boost for the National Cricket League that is often referred to as "picnic cricket" due to its slipshod make-up. But the pair have made impressive debuts, good enough to warrant a regular place when Bangladesh next play a Test.
Shakib, recently named the world's No1 all-rounder, talked about the disregard for first-class cricket in his newspaper column saying, "We will play the Premier League and BPL after the Pakistan series. But we won't play four-day cricket, the real area of concern. I don't want to say much about it because we all know the prescription, but we never take the antidote."
The absence of enough three and four day cricket, which helps cricketers elsewhere sharpen their skills for the long form, is perhaps the best reason why Bangladesh have been found short not merely against Pakistan, but Zimbabwe and West Indies too.
Bangladesh have shown a marked reluctance towards batting long, bowling with discipline or staying hungry through a fielding session. Starting from the extremely flat body language in the first session of the Harare Test to the six dropped catches in December, Bangladesh have been involved in one frustrating Test after another.
Test cricket's more subtle nuance has defeated them repeatedly. When they are faced with last-day survivals (three this year), they have attacked too early and fallen in a heap. When they needed to bowl negative, the fields have been spread out far too much. Sometimes they lack energy in the field and have very few specialists. While fielding coach Jason Swift can work on key players in specialist positions, he depends entirely on them delivering on their major skills regularly to hold their place in the team. Or he must start over again. Due to the lack of continuity in team selection, it is hard to have succession plans in order. The coaches and the captain have to work with whatever they have, regardless of individual capabilities.
In the last four months, there have been several batting collapses, some of which were predictable, while one came out of nowhere against the West Indies in the second Test. Too many batsmen have thrown their wickets away after getting starts. This is old news for Bangladeshi fans but to continue it through 2011 leaves the team without excuses.
During the second Test against Pakistan, Shakib had Shahriar Nafees as a willing ally to rebuild the first innings after yet another top-order implosion. Tamim, Nazimuddin, Nasir Hossain and Mahmudullah perished to tight lines as much as demanding conditions. Their second innings came with a similar tone of intent; despite Tamim and Nafees getting bad decisions, Mahmudullah and Mushfiqur's shots did not belong to the situation in which they were played.
Shakib was not immune to poor decision-making either. The final day in Harare produced one of his most disappointing performances for Bangladesh, with an ungainly swipe to end a short stay. In the second innings against West Indies in Dhaka, Shakib was stroking the ball perfectly and right when he looked good for a big, meaningful innings, he top-edged one to the wicketkeeper.
In the same vein, the catches dropped during the Dhaka Test weren't down to technique or lack of interest but flagging focus. Most of the players aren't used to fielding for long hours and it is the sort of appraisal that has come from one of the players. "I have played three games now where I have had to field for more than 150 overs so it is quite different from other formats of the game," Shahriar Nafees said during the Dhaka Test. He attributed the dropped catches to "breaks in concentration" coming as they did after lunch and tea intervals. "Nazim dropped his catch right after lunch break and Shahadat dropped his a few overs after tea. I think our concentration drops at times but it is natural for teams after coming back from breaks in play."
Bangladesh still have some fighting bowlers in their ranks, chief among them Shakib. He has often said that bowling in the longer-version requires a lot more skills. Shakib went wicketless against Pakistan in Chittagong, not due to a lack of effort but the demands made by long spells. Amongst the other bowlers, Rubel Hossain's improvement as a Test bowler contrasts with Shahadat and Shafiul Islam's lack of progress after promising beginnings. Shahadat was excellent in 2010 but since the Lord's five-for, he has lost pace. Shafiul's one-dimensional length has worked against him and the selectors believe he needs more variety in the Test format. Robiul Islam was a find during the Zimbabwe Test, but he too needs a lot of work on the pivot in his bowling.
Law would have preferred first-class matches to iron out the team's problems with enough time at hand. He will, however, have to wait till after the Asia Cup to arrange four-day games but again, that would totally be up to whether the BCB sees organizing such games as worth their trouble.
In fact, Law will be initiated into an understanding of the strength of club cricket through the DPL, which will give him a well-rounded view of Bangladesh cricket. The cry for more first-class cricket has so far only been on paper. While the players have pointed out the need for more longer-version games, their top players' bread and butter comes from the DPL. The BPL also promises much, including loud murmurs that many companies within the sub-continent are showing an interest in buying a franchise.
Amidst the call for another first-class tournament, it must be remembered that the BCB chief has often promised a franchise-based competition which is yet to materialise. In fact, the BPL has been given more priority, a decision that is laden with danger for a country like Bangladesh that cannot risk its form in Test cricket. It is a status it cherishes and has fought for, for far too long.
Mohammad Isam is senior sports reporter at the Daily Star in Dhaka