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Old Guest Column

Whatmore and the wilderness years

As Bangladesh head into their final series under Dav Whatmore, Utpal Shuvro recalls the darkest days and how things have improved

<i>As Bangladesh gear up for their last match under Dav Whatmore, <b>Utpal Shuvro</b> recalls the early days</i>

Whatmore imbued in the players the belief that they could win and always thought big, even when victories against weak sides were hard to come by © AFP
Dav Whatmore has frequently reminded me of that night. "Why were you behaving like that?" he asks. I just laugh it off. Whatmore didn't understand it then; he won't understand it now.
It was March 10, 2004. Bangladesh had just won a one-day international, beating Zimbabwe by eight runs in Harare. Whatmore had won the World Cup eight years before - what could this one victory mean to him?
That night I went to interview Whatmore. The excitement I was feeling must have reflected on my face. As soon as he saw me, he asked, "Why are you looking so agitated?" Three hours after the match had ended, I was still unable to shake off the excitement. I told him as much. "But it was just one match that we won," he said.
Maybe it was for him, but for me, and probably for every fan of Bangladesh cricket, it was a dream come true. Bangladesh's historic win over Pakistan in the 1999 World Cup - and, whatever the critics say, I would like to think of it as Bangladesh's victory by right - was followed by 47 matches without a win. Game after game the story would be the same (literally, in my case). In the pre-match interview the captain would say, "We will go into the match aiming for a win." No one would believe it. Did the captain himself believe it? It seemed he said it because it had to be said. And we would write it because it had to be written, not because we believed it.
As of this writing, Bangladesh have notched up 36 ODI wins, including defeats of India (twice), Australia, Sri Lanka, and South Africa. But even now my mind often wanders back to the scene on that March evening in Harare, when the Bangladesh players celebrated like schoolboys, and I tried to beat the four-hour time difference between Zimbabwe and Bangladesh by drumming a crazed beat on the keyboard of my laptop.
Most importantly, these young players didn't carry the baggage of the past, like their seniors did
Bangladesh's winning habits have improved with time. No longer can the big teams take the field against them insouciantly. The captain now says, with all gravity, "We are playing this match to win." He believes it, and so do all around him.
So how did this change come about? To say it happened with experience is extremely simplistic. Bangladesh currently have the youngest side among all eight Test-playing nations; their cumulative Test experience is probably less than that of one of India's bigger stars. In the past two-odd years there's been such an influx of youth into the team that they've often been compared to an Under-19 team - and ironically, the influx has been from the U-19 team.
To these players goes the credit of changing the psychological make-up of the side. In the past, Bangladeshi cricketers would dare dream of no more than success in the ICC Trophy - which would mean qualification for the World Cup. By the time the likes of Saqibul Hasan and Tamim Iqbal broke through, though, Bangladesh had already acquired Test status. As they played for the U-17 and U-19 teams, these cricketers were aware that their next step up could be to the highest level of all; that they could soon be facing the likes of Glenn McGrath or bowling to Brian Lara.
Most importantly, these young players didn't carry the baggage of the past, like their seniors did; they had missed out on the 47-match winless streak. The previous generation had grown so accustomed to losing that they didn't dare dream big. But the youngsters had tasted success against the big teams at the junior levels; for them no team was invincible.

A 47-match drought ended when Bangladesh beat Zimbabwe in Harare in March 2004 © AFP
And then there was Whatmore, who imbued in the players the belief that they could win. One incident from the 2004 tour of West Indies comes to mind.
The first ODI at St Vincent. Bangladesh led from the start but contrived to lose the match by one wicket. Those of us who were there were obviously disappointed, yet happy that the boys had put up a fight. In those days all we wished for from Bangladesh was that they lost honourably. I went to the dressing room and saw that the players, though mostly gutted, were pleased that they had run West Indies close.
Then I bumped into Whatmore. "Our task has just become more difficult," he said. "We now have to win the next two games." I was flabbergasted. Bangladesh had won one match in the past five years and Whatmore was thinking about winning the series?
Only much later did I realise that Whatmore had made that statement for a purpose. He knew, as did we all, that Bangladesh weren't going to win the series, yet he felt it important for the players to believe that they had every chance of doing so.
When I covered my first Test match (India v England at Kolkata in 1993), I couldn't imagine that less than eight years later I would be reporting on a Test match featuring Bangladesh.
These days Bangladesh's younger fans (and journalists) get angry if the team's performance dips. I can look at it more calmly; those five years in the wilderness have steadied my emotions. Sometimes when I regard my younger colleagues, I feel that they haven't paid their dues, reporting on defeat after defeat for five years. How can they truly appreciate a victory when they haven't really known defeat?
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Utpal Shuvro is sports editor of Dhaka-based daily Prothom Alo, for whom he covered the 2007 World Cup