A little after the 1996 World Cup, where he dismantled bowling attacks at will, Sanath Jayasuriya had a short stint with Mohammedan Sporting Club in Bangladesh. Teaming up with him was another dashing left-handed batsman, who, like Jayasuriya, also bowled handy left-arm spin. When both were at the crease, they challenged each other to score faster and even had a competition to gauge who had the better strike-rate. Believe it or not, Jayasuriya - yes, the same Matara marauder Jayasuriya - actually lost many of those contests.
Mohammad Rafique remembers those days vividly. Until then, he hadn't actually seen too many top-quality cricketers. Growing up in a shantytown, and needing to ferry across Dhaka's Buriganga river to get some cricketing exposure, he rarely got a chance to watch much cricket. Starting his career as a left-arm medium-pacer, Rafique only changed under the insistence of Wasim Haider, the former Pakistan left-arm seamer, who suggested that spin might be a better option. Rafique instantly adopted Jayasuriya as his hero. Little did he know then that he'd actually rub shoulders with him in international cricket, and even dismiss him a couple of times.
Rafique turned 37 four days back. The team organised a party where the two young Hossains - Shahadat and Mehrab - surprised him with their singing abilities. Currently, he's one of the oldest international cricketers, a tremendous achievement considering that he was about to retire after the World Cup in 1999, when Bangladesh were yet to gain Test status. He's been part of every Bangladesh triumph and stands on the threshold of completing the allrounders' double of 1000 runs and 100 wickets in both forms of the game. One just needs to see the plethora of young Bangladeshi left-arm spinners - Manjural Islam Rana, Enamul Haque jnr, Abdur Razzaq, Saqibul Hasan, Mehrab Hossain jnr etc - to realise his inspirational capabilities. If you're looking for a hero, look no further.
At the moment, he's a father figure. He's seen the evolution of a young side and believes that the day when Bangladesh will win consistently isn't too far away. He knows that today's side can beat anyone in the world on their day; he asserts that the only way they will improve is by playing bigger teams more often. "We might lose but the fact that we've been able to push the opposition, the fact that we've created winning situations should not be forgotten," he tells Cricinfo in Bengali, urging the translator to get his point across. "We're positive even if we lost a close game. It means the team is improving all the time. The time is not that far away that we will be winning matches more consistently."
So what will he tell people who constantly put down Bangladesh, asking their international status to be removed? "We're not playing at this level through someone's mercy," Rafique shoots back. "The fact is that the ICC felt we are a capable team, a developing team, and that we will be able to compete at this level. Bangladesh are playing not because of charity."
When Rafique and Co. were initiated into international cricket, they were alien to the winning feeling. He's glad they've put those days behind them, happy that youngsters in the team know what it means to win. "The current lot are in a more advantageous position," he reflects, "because they know what winning is all about. So when me and the other senior players leave eventually, it will be a totally young side who are very used to winning. From that angle they are lucky to have come in a generation when we're winning matches and getting into strong positions."
Despite being part of a weak team, experiencing defeat after defeat, Rafique isn't short on motivation. "The fitness of the young players in the team act as an inspiration," he smiles. "I've attained a level of fitness and can still compete with the youngest member of the side. I want to serve my side as long as possible, until the World Cup and, if needed, even after."
Rafique may go on and on, no doubt the wickets and runs will come but the fact that he's been able to retain his humility in an age of instant superstardom remains his ultimate quality. Several cricketers have turned into national heroes, few have done it so unassumingly.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo