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The neglected asset that is a Bangladesh fast bowler

The team relies on using their batsmen and spinners to win Test matches, and that trend seeps into domestic cricket as well. How can a seamer improve in this scenario?

Mohammad Isam
Mohammad Isam
Mustafizur Rahman powers through his bowling action  •  AFP

Mustafizur Rahman powers through his bowling action  •  AFP

Bangladesh have picked four pace bowlers for the first Test against Zimbabwe. Mustafizur Rahman is the leader of the attack while Abu Jayed was their best seamer in their last Test series; Shafiul Islam has been around for eight years. The uncapped Khaled Ahmed is fresh off a first-class ten-wicket haul.
But during the pre-match press conference, captain Mahmudullah said he might pick only one pace bowler in the XI. In that case, the three who would sit out will also miss the NCL's last round, meaning they would out of first-class cricket at least till mid-February.
In a culture where winning at home overrules everything, playing on slow and low pitches which rapidly break up as the game progresses suits Bangladesh. They want quick runs from No 1 to 7, and then two or three spinners to dismantle batting line-ups. They have done this to Australia, England and Zimbabwe in the last four years. Offered similar conditions in Colombo last year, Bangladesh beat Sri Lanka too to win their 100th Test.
However, this gameplan is having a poor effect on their pace bowlers. They don't get much of a chase in domestic cricket either, whether it is the four-day or one-day format.
On Thursday, head coach Steve Rhodes indicated that Bangladesh should address its lack of Test success away from home, pointing out how the batsmen struggle against fast bowling, and their own seamers have difficulty maintaining long spells even in helpful conditions.
Bowling coach Courtney Walsh believes that to help the pace bowlers do better overseas, they must first be given a fair go.
"It is an area of concern but if you look at it, we haven't played a lot of Tests this year," he told ESPNcricinfo. "I doubt if any bowler has played all those Test matches, maybe with the exception of Fizz. So there's no continuity. There are different conditions and you need couple of Tests to get yourself to season in. As I keep saying, they need to play more.
"What is happening in the NCL will definitely help their growth in Test cricket. They get a chance to bowl in the NCL. Some of the guys are not accustomed to bowling long spells. It is obviously an area of concern because I would like to have Test match bowlers that we can work with."
Robiul Islam was Bangladesh's last pace bowler to deliver a match-winning performance. He was Player of the Series against Zimbabwe in 2013 but faded away quickly due to lack of fitness. Some say that the success got to his head while others point towards the team management's lack of patience with a precocious talent. Not many in Bangladesh can move the ball like Robiul.
Since 2015, considered a good period in Bangladesh cricket, they have had the worst pace attack in the world: a combined average of 53.8 and strike-rate of 90.71. During the same period, Sri Lanka, West Indies and Pakistan average in the mid-30s while South Africa, India, Australia and England are in the top four.
Bangladesh have played two out of their four Tests in 2018 at home, so the quicks haven't had that much of a workout. They average 33.7 while the other teams (barring Zimbabwe and Afghanistan) altogether average of 24.84. Of course, it is the strike-rate that hurts them the most, and at 69.21, having played one Test in Antigua where the West Indies fast bowlers ran riot, it has been another disappointing year.
It is a different story in ODIs. Mashrafe Mortaza, Mustafizur and Rubel Hossain have helped win many 50-over games since 2015, and they have continued that trend this year too. Among teams that have played at least 10 ODIs in 2018, Bangladesh have the fourth-best strike-rate and average. Their good work has lifted morale in the dressing room giving Mashrafe the confidence that they can do well in the World Cup next May.
Walsh says this has a lot to do with the consistency with which they bowl, and the consistency with which they have been picked. In 2014, Mashrafe made it a mandate to use three pacers even in home ODIs, and that has helped develop a strong attack.
"I think they are bowling more consistently," Walsh said. "They have been working very, very hard. They are also consistently playing together. They have developed that understanding which you can only get by playing in the middle. I give credit to the bowlers for the work they have put in but they have to go to the middle and perform.
"I am happy and satisfied but there are still areas to improve in, especially with the World Cup in mind. We are doing okay but I still think we can do a lot better. For Bangladesh to have the lowest strike-rate and average, it speaks volumes of the guys."
But there is one problem. Bangladesh haven't really looked beyond Mashrafe, Mustafizur and Rubel.
Jayed and Abu Hider are seen as the next best options currently, but neither has enough international games. Mohammad Saifuddin offered a bit of variety against Zimbabwe last month but his control is still not considered up to the mark. Taskin Ahmed has been in poor form and has injury concerns. Al-Amin Hossain hasn't really been pulled into representative sides recently. Robiul has been out of the scene for four years.
There have been murmurs among Bangladesh's team management that their pace bowlers are more interested in short-form success and less interested about what happens in Test cricket.
After losing 2-0 in South Africa in 2017, Mushfiqur Rahim blasted his seamers for their lack of consistency, which made sure they couldn't exploit helpful pitches. Singling them out like that probably wouldn't make them change, but it is learnt that Walsh has been very hands-on in their development and Mashrafe has repeatedly said how big a help the legendary West Indies quick has been.
Bangladesh know that fast bowling is important. Placing emphasis on it is how they've become a force in one-day cricket. So can they not do the same in Tests? Can they not break away from the spin-it-to-win-it plan and give their up-and-coming seamers some care and attention?
One day, perhaps.

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84