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Bangladesh's fast bowlers: from invisibles to match-winners

The team's quicks have come a long way in four years, and are now perhaps all Bangladesh can pin their World Cup campaign hopes on

Mohammad Isam
Mohammad Isam
Ebadot Hossain, who took six in Bangladesh's epic win over New Zealand away earlier in the year, made a superb T20I debut last month against Sri Lanka, taking three wickets  •  Getty Images

Ebadot Hossain, who took six in Bangladesh's epic win over New Zealand away earlier in the year, made a superb T20I debut last month against Sri Lanka, taking three wickets  •  Getty Images

Ebadot Hossain found inspiration from team-mates in Mount Maunganui. As he laboured through a spell late on the fourth day, Bangladesh needed to break a crucial partnership. They had done the hard part against New Zealand, a side they had never beaten at home, but Ross Taylor and Will Young stood in their way. Finally Ebadot skidded one past a pull by Young. The off bail went for a spin.
Ebadot, who averaged 81.54 in Tests then, bowled the most memorable spell in Bangladesh cricket history. His 6 for 37 in the second innings sank New Zealand, the defending World Test champions, to an eight-wicket defeat
A couple of months later in South Africa, Bangladesh's fast bowlers scripted another miracle. Taskin Ahmed took 5 for 35, this time in an ODI, to fire the visitors to their maiden series win in South Africa. Until then, Bangladesh had lost all 19 matches in the country.
These were not one-off performances but rather the culmination of two years of hard work on and off the field, not least in convincing Bangladesh cricket's bosses, the architects of a spin-only policy, that fast bowling is back.
Now, going into the T20 World Cup in Australia, Bangladesh are in woeful T20 form, having won just four of their 16 T20Is this year. Still, assistance from the conditions down under will help, and also the confidence from the tremendous 2021 their fast bowlers had in the format. Also, they are fit, and most crucially, for once they have the trust of the captain and team director.
A year for bowling fast
Bangladesh's best cricket this year involves fast bowling. Taskin bowled with intelligence and maturity either side of his injury layoff in the middle of the year. Ebadot will walk away in possession of the greatest moment for Bangladesh in a Test in 2022. And Khaled Ahmed finally came of age, with bursts in South Africa and West Indies. Shoriful Islam, initially dropped from the World Cup squad, only to be reinstated later, took the most wickets in all formats among the fast bowlers. Hasan Mahmud has looked sharp in between his injuries.
Russell Domingo, the side's head coach, has enjoyed this, being the first establishment figure to want to break away from Bangladesh's spin-only policy at home. He has had to be more pragmatic since then, but his backing of pace has never wavered.
"There has been great progress by Bangladesh's fast bowlers," Domingo said. "They have developed into a really good bowling unit in the last two years. They will be dangerous [in the T20 World Cup]. If they can get good scores on the board, guys like Taskin, Ebadot, Mustafiz [Rahman] or Hasan Mahmud can put any batting line-up under pressure. The fast bowlers are going to be central for Bangladesh.
"Better fast bowing has definitely made our side more competitive when we go away from Bangladesh. In all formats. No doubt about that. But they are still a work in progress, a long way to go.
"There's a good group now: Hasan Mahmud, Shoriful Islam, Taskin Ahmed, Ebadot Hossain and Mustafizur Rahman. There's also Khaled [Ahmed]. They have become good international bowers, but we want two or three of them to become some of the best in the world. It is their next big challenge."
That aspiration is a sign of how far fast bowling has come in the last two years. In Domingo's first Test in charge, in September 2019, Bangladesh didn't play a single fast bowler. Afghanistan stomped all over a one-dimensional attack, trouncing them by 224 runs.
Domingo wasn't the one taking decisions in that game, and every decision-maker back then was so hypnotised by the spin-only policy that not having a fast bowler was normal. Nobody batted an eyelid, except when looking at the result.
Death valley
For years Bangladesh pretended they took fast bowling seriously. Batters ruled Bangladesh cricket - either in the form of the team's senior players or of former batters taking administrative decisions in the BCB. And given the evidence that Bangladesh batters couldn't cope with visiting fast bowlers, the pitches started to go lower and lower.
Still, the likes of Mashrafe Mortaza, Shahadat Hossain and Tapash Baisya emerged. When Mashrafe became white-ball captain in 2014-15, he pushed for a bowling attack that was pace-heavy. Results were immediate, with consecutive ODI series wins against Pakistan, India and South Africa at home. Mashrafe imparted the lessons of his long experience to Mustafizur and Taskin, while Al-Amin Hossain was great against left-handers, and Mohammad Saifuddin was fast-tracked from the Under-19s.
It was a bit of a false dawn, though. A year later, coach Chandika Hathurusingha and captain Mushfiqur Rahim decided to go all in with spin again. Kamrul Islam Rabbi, who played seven Tests during Bangladesh's pace-lean years, did not bowl a single over during the England fourth innings in Mirpur in 2016, only his second Test. Just 31 overs of pace were bowled by Bangladesh in that series, fewer than 10% of all the overs bowled.
Against Australia the following year, fast bowlers bowled 14.5% of all overs, and a remarkably small 2% against West Indies during the 2018 home series. And in the one-off Test against Afghanistan mentioned earlier, Bangladesh didn't pick any fast bowlers.
"The hardest thing for me was the lack of faith in me," Rabbi said. "Captain, vice-captain, coach or the fast-bowling coach, nobody had faith in fast bowling. For example, nobody would even bother to shine the ball carefully. You know, one might get reverse swing if the ball is taken care of. The moment I bowl a bad over, a spinner comes into the attack."
The ripple effect was felt on the domestic scene. Around this time, most domestic teams mimicked the national team. Already, clubs or divisional sides mostly picked fast bowlers only as token gestures, and as each season wore on, they would point-blank pick line-ups full of left-arm spinners. When the few fast bowlers there were went abroad, they didn't know how to bowl there, and often were short on bowling experience, having sat out of most Tests earlier in the season.
"It is a whole host of things," says Domingo. "Conditions, backing them and giving them confidence, and them being more secure. We have been so reliant on spinners that fast bowlers weren't really looked at as big threats for Bangladesh. Now, the captain is looking at Ebadot, Taskin and Shoriful to get those breakthroughs. This confidence that the captains have will also help the fast bowlers get better."
A corner turned
Some point to two domestic tournaments in late 2020 as having changed things. Eight of the top ten wicket-takers in the BCB President's Cup that year were fast bowlers. In the Bangabandhu Cup, that number was nine out of ten. Fresh pitches and rusty batting, as players emerged from lockdowns and biosecurity bubbles, played a part. But it certainly helped that the fast bowlers were the fittest they had been for a while.
This was around when the changing attitudes of the likes of Taskin, Ebadot and Khaled became noticeable. The wickets reinforced the faith that they could keep doing well. Khaled, who has had a complicated career though he is only nine Tests old, returned after a knee injury and finally took his first wicket - three years into a disrupted Test career.
"Everyone thinks that only taking wickets means good performance," he said. "Nobody notices good bowling. Only wickets get noticed.
"I saw that people started blaming me. I tried hard to play regularly at the highest level. I think it is important to bowl for long in a Test match, so that you can get the idea about how you can actually take wickets."
Soon after the knee injury, Khaled said he started to think about how to avoid injuries. The pandemic meant a lot of free time at home and he worked on his fitness in Sylhet. A few hundred kilometres west, in Dhaka, Taskin was doing the same: he would run on sand, find local parks in which to bowl off a full run-up when the garage of his apartment building fell short, and even forced his gym owner to open during the height of the pandemic.
"When you are healthy, you will have a great mindset," Khaled said. "When you are tired, your brain doesn't work. The moment I recovered from my injury, the pandemic happened. I had a lot of time. I focused a lot on running and gym work, as I had bought equipment for my home. I tried to bring my body into a shape.
"When I got that first wicket against Pakistan after almost three years, I felt boosted. I thought I could do it. I didn't get to play in New Zealand, but I had a target of doing well in the next opportunity. Sujon sir [Khaled Mahmud] helped me a lot in the South Africa series. He encouraged me a lot, told me to think hard about how I wanted to bowl. He supports all the fast bowlers," said Khaled, who was impressive in South Africa and West Indies this year, both otherwise difficult Test series for Bangladesh.
Rabbi, who continues to play in the National Cricket League for Barishal Division, said fast bowlers have been handled better in the senior set-up over the last two years or so. "Nowadays a fast bowler isn't just discarded after one bad Test. Ebadot has been traveling with the team for a long time and he is reaping the rewards. It was different six years ago. Then, if you did badly in one game, you'd be dropped for the next game. If you did badly in two games, you'd be forgotten for the next series.
Domingo, who will return to Bangladesh duty after the T20 World Cup, said he is looking forward to a more robust fast-bowling unit. "A year or two ago they were an inexperienced bowling unit. Now Ebadot has played 20 [17] Tests, but we want him to learn and not make the same mistakes. I want them to become more consistent. I know what I am going to get from Taskin. The other fast bowlers are not quite there yet with their consistency.
"They just need to have less bad spells than in the past. I am not looking for continuous match-winning spells, I am just looking for consistent spells where they are able to hold the game, and keep control of the run rate. I think it is their next phase. They have the ability to take wickets, but they should have the ability to stay in control against world-class batters."

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84