The darkest period of Bangladesh's pace bowling has finally broken to a bit of a dawn. While the inevitable fading away of Mashrafe Mortaza added to the gloom, the pace surge in the two domestic tournaments of the 2020-21 season has been encouraging. The senior pacers have turned a corner with their fitness and form while a group of youngsters have emerged with a bit of verve.
In the season-opening BCB President's Cup, eight of the top ten wicket-takers were all pace bowlers. It was one better in the Bangabandhu T20 Cup when nine out of the top ten wicket-takers were also pacers. It is hard to remember the last time so many pace bowlers were among the wickets in any domestic competition, let alone two on the trot.
This surprise stems from the atmosphere in which Bangladesh's pace bowlers have generally operated in the last four years. The senior team's management is very spin-oriented at home. They didn't bother to pick even a token pacer in home Tests against West Indies, Afghanistan, England and Australia, since 2016. This spin-only strategy has given them home wins against three of those four teams, but it also resulted in a humiliating loss to Afghanistan.
That last defeat, and a generally ineffective pace attack in overseas conditions, has instigated scrutiny on this lop-sided strategy. Russell Domingo, the current coach, has vowed to move away from this mentality and while his intentions are appreciable, changing the country's pitches and its long-standing outlook will take a very long time.
The pacers' surge even amid thinning interest from the powers-that-be and the absence of Mortaza has put special interest ahead of the West Indies series that starts next week.
"Mashrafe has been an outstanding player for the country for a long time but it [his absence] gives the likes of Rubel Hossain, and Taskin Ahmed, Al-Amin [Hossain] and Mustafizur [Rahman] the opportunity to step up and take the lead," Bangladesh bowling coach Ottis Gibson told ESPNcricinfo. "I am sure the experience that Mashrafe has, cannot be replaced, but I am sure these guys will see it as an opportunity to step up over the course of the three years leading up to the 2023 World Cup.
"Bangladesh is generally a place you hear a lot about spinners, but then I have seen the likes of Rubel and Taskin doing well, Al-Amin improving and Mustafizur working hard on swinging the ball back into the right-hander. Ebadot [Hossain] and [Abu Jayed] Rahi have done well in Tests. Khaled [Ahmed] is perhaps one of the quickest bowlers in the country. Somebody like [Mohammad] Saifuddin has been really good for the country, too."
Gibson said that the second wave of pace bowlers who have emerged in the last couple of seasons has been a much-needed boost to Bangladesh's barren fast bowling coffers.
"I expect great things of Hasan Mahmud who has emerged as an outstanding young prospect. Shoriful [Islam] is a tall left-armer, and someone who has made a name for himself in the President's Cup after a very good Under-19 tournament. He has been drawn into the senior side now. Sumon Khan and Mukidul Islam have had good outings in the [recent] domestic competitions," he said.
Mohammad Salahuddin, the two-time BPL winning coach who was recently Gazi Group Chattogram's head coach during the Bangabandhu T20 Cup, had a few words of caution though.
"There is a visible improvement in pace bowling," he said. "Maybe in the first two tournaments of the season, the pitches helped them and the batsmen haven't been really in good rhythm. So they did get to dominate the cricket. Winter is also a factor in our conditions, which helps the pace bowlers.
"Taskin did well in the President's Cup, but couldn't quite replicate it in the Bangabandhu T20 Cup. They will understand the challenge better when the batsmen slowly get back into the groove. There's a definite improvement but we will get a better picture when they start playing more regularly in February."
So far though, the pacers' surge has been fairly impressive. The lockdown in Bangladesh since last March became a great opportunity for many cricketers to bring back focus on fitness. Taskin and Rubel were at the forefront of this drive.
"Players have become more aware and professional," Mizanur Rahman Babul, the Gemcon Khulna coach who has worked with many of these young pace bowlers over the years, said. "They have also understood the necessity of being professional in their overall approach. Those in the national team have personal trainers but the importance of fitness has also grown among those outside the national team. "They now take the initiative to raise fitness levels, even if there's no cricket around. I think it has become a general trend across all cricketers in Bangladesh."
Taskin's improvement in pace and fitness has been the most eye-catching. He has turned to working with Mahbub Ali Zaki, the BCB pace bowling coach who helped him when he had to correct his action in 2016. Zaki said that Taskin had to change his fitness routine to get leaner as well as maintain his action's "balance while being explosive".
"I tried to replace Taskin's skin fold by developing muscle mass," he said. "He has been given a target to reduce his skin fold, to get to at least close to what Mushfiq has, while keeping his current weight.
"We are trying to get him to be balanced while being explosive in his bowling. This is to ensure that he doesn't just bowl line and length, but also at a high pace. He is doing a lot of these bowling drills, sometimes even at his garage at home."
The improved fitness levels among these pace bowlers first came into light during the BCB President's Cup in October. Taskin returned as one of the fastest bowlers, but even more refreshing to see, even for seasoned coaches like Salahuddin was the accuracy among some of the younger lot.
"Among the new lot of tall, well-built fast bowlers, the likes of Hasan Mahmud, [Mukidul Islam] Mugdho and Shoriful [Islam] are quite accurate," he said. "They know where to bowl. They can swing the ball and also produce extra bounce. Such bowlers usually can take benefit from all types of wickets."
But Salahuddin said that Bangladesh still require a fast bowler who can sustain his pace for longer periods, especially in Test matches. "These young bowlers will need a bit more pace. They have to bowl intelligently. But we don't have an out and out express fast bowler, who are required in Test cricket where they can force out a wicket."
Gibson, who is about to complete one year in the Bangladesh role, explained how the lack of overs in domestic competitions has a direct connection to how fast bowlers can regress even in helpful conditions.
"We have had a one-day and a T20 tournament, but to get them ready for Test cricket, we have to get time on their feet and miles in their legs, bowling and standing out in the field all day, and then being physically able to manage that workload and come back on the next day to replicate what they did on that first day," he said.
"Our fast bowling programme is a work-in-progress, but the selectors and board have had a message from me: if you want fast bowlers ready for Test cricket, especially in overseas conditions, they need to be bowling more in first-class cricket.
"I have spoken to the selectors that if you want to develop a core group of fast bowlers, they need to be able to bowl more overs, 15-20 overs a day, in domestic cricket. At the moment, they average about 10-12 overs but to be better and more consistent bowlers they have to bowl more in domestic cricket."
Zaki meanwhile said that the current lot of pace bowlers is relatively young, which puts the onus on them to remain fit for a longer stretch, so that they can serve the senior side in the long run.
"It is important that our experienced bowlers maintain a high level of fitness to keep them at the international level for the next five to ten years. We should definitely expect to see improvement in our more experienced players. They are not too old. These bowlers can give another five years of service to Bangladesh cricket.
"A captain has to rely on them to either get him wickets or stop the run-flow, every time he gives any of them the ball in hand. They would be expected to be accurate in whatever skill they execute," he said.
It is crucial that this pacers' surge isn't a false dawn, as has been the case so many times in the past two decades. It is hard to forget how Mashrafe himself forged an impressive pace attack, albeit in the limited-overs format, that got Bangladesh important success in the 2015 World Cup and the landmark ODI series wins later that year. But all that work collapsed in the face of a team management bent on home dominance that they preferred playing Test matches on slow and dry pitches that turned from day one.
But having a working pace attack even in home Tests has always meant that the bowlers will have enough confidence to do the same job in overseas conditions where Bangladesh can slowly build a reputation as an all-round side.
Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84