Persevering Bangladesh finally grab the spotlight

From humble beginnings in small towns to international cricket, Bangladesh's women's team has had a storied journey to superstardom

Mohammad Isam
Mohammad Isam
Bangladesh women pose with the Asia Cup, India v Bangladesh, women's Asia Cup final. Kuala Lumpur

Bangladesh women pose with the Asia Cup  •  ACC

From humble beginnings in small towns, struggling for several years in international cricket and waiting for proper recognition even on the home front, Bangladesh's women cricketers have certainly come a long way. In the last two months, they have shown significant improvement by winning the Asia Cup in June and, earlier this week, qualifying for this year's Women's World T20.
They were unbeaten in the qualifying tournament in the Netherlands, even garnering support from Bangladeshi expatriates who drove hours to attend their matches. New coach Anju Jain, who was appointed only in May, said that while the players reached the playing potential they had developed over the years, it was also important for them to accept the mental challenge of not just being participants but getting over the finish line in the Asia Cup.
"It wasn't a surprise because they had the potential," Jain said. "The girls are also very hard working. In the team meeting before the Asia Cup, we asked the girls to make their presence felt. It wasn't just about participating and having potential. They needed to start converting that into performances."
With the goal-setting working in the Asia Cup, Bangladesh have now set a slightly more advanced goal for the World T20 later this year. "Our target [in the World T20] is to ensure that we don't have to play the qualifiers anymore. The girls are fed up of playing qualifiers," she said with a confident smile.
Salma Khatun, the T20 captain, said that the performance in the World T20 qualifiers was proof that their Asia Cup performance wasn't a one-off. She said that the shift has come through the batsmen's confidence in scoring runs.
"We fulfilled our target to play in the World T20," Salma said. "By winning the qualifying tournament after the Asia Cup triumph, we have shown signs of improvement. A lot of our recent improvement is due to the batsmen doing better. Previously, only one batsman would do the scoring while the others struggled. Now we are seeing more batsmen making runs. With a bigger total on the board, our bowlers and fielders are more confident."
Panna Ghosh, who was the Player-of-the-Match in the final for her five-wicket haul, said that experienced players like herself and Salma are going through a new phase with the Bangladesh women's team. Still, she sticks to some old practices: she said that in the final against Ireland, she tried to follow her lifelong rule of trying to keep the batsmen quiet, which ultimately produced the wickets.
"I don't bowl for a five-wicket haul. If you keep the run-scoring to a minimum, the batsmen are bound to make mistakes, which is what happened in my case. I try to follow what the coaches tell me.
"I feel great that our performance has started to improve. It wasn't like this previously. Salma, Shuktara and I started with the national team right at the beginning. I think all of us feel about this success in the same way," she said.
Panna is a professional in cricket and volleyball, a rarity in modern international cricket. She has been pursuing both careers side-by-side. But it is cricket, which she picked up during childhood while playing alongside her elder brothers in Rajshahi, that takes up most of her time. Volleyball came to her through her job at Bangladesh Ansar, a paramilitary auxiliary force.
"Volleyball is the main sport in Ansar, where I am working for the last 10 years," she said. "I started playing in 2002. I joined Ansar in 2008 and I was with BJMC from 2003 to 2007. I am a smasher in volleyball, but I feel cricket is a tougher sport.
"I loved cricket from my childhood. I used to play with my elder brothers in our neighbourhood. One day, when I heard there was a girls' training camp, I instantly joined it. I learned my basics from that camp."
Panna is one of the pioneers of women's cricket in Bangladesh. Her journey to international cricket has directly or indirectly inspired many of her team-mates, who made similar journeys to Dhaka to learn the nuances of the game.
Panna said that her family had always encouraged her to play, but for someone like Fahima Khatun, the legspinner who took Bangladesh's first hat-trick in T20 internationals during the Women's World T20 qualifiers against UAE, the start of the journey from her hometown Magura wasn't always smooth.
"It was my elder sister Asma Akhi who used to take me to training," Fahima said. "She was the one in the family who inspired me to play cricket. My brother and mother wanted me to focus on my studies since I was a science student. They never said cricket was bad, but I guess they felt cricket takes up a lot of time from studies.
"One day there was an announcement in our area that there is going to be a women's cricket tournament. I told my sister and she said I should definitely join training. I never looked back since then."
Fahima's road to becoming a legspinner began courtesy an astute bit of talent-spotting by a local batsman, who recognised her knack for gripping and turning the ball like a legspinner, though she herself was completely unaware of what legspin is.
"I used to play with the boys in our local stadium. I was a slow medium-pace bowler but, one day, someone saw me twirling the ball and asked me to bowl that way. I honestly didn't know what legspin was at the time, but when he saw me turn the ball, he said I should do it. 'Have a look at some Shane Warne videos,' he told me. I liked Shane Warne, but I didn't know he bowled legspin. That is really how I started bowling legspin. I started bowling legspin in the regional tournaments, and then stuck to it."
Bangladesh women's progress has been getting long-overdue attention at home and, now, it is finally getting noticed abroad too.
Former Australia vice-captain Alex Blackwell said that Bangladesh's improvement is a mark of progress for women's cricket as a whole. "To see Bangladesh women improve so massively is great for the women's game," Blackwell told ESPNcricinfo. "By the looks of it, a lot is going right there because defeating India twice to become Asia Cup champions is a big feat, and now the Qualifier... It's great promotion for women in cricket."
With contributions from Annesha Ghosh

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84