Why Bangladesh continue to falter in T20 cricket

A caution-first mindset, a lack of long-term vision, and an overreliance on overseas stars at the BPL are among the reasons for this muddle

Mohammad Isam
Mohammad Isam
Bangladesh had a miserable time in New Zealand  •  Getty Images

Bangladesh had a miserable time in New Zealand  •  Getty Images

If you followed Bangladesh's recent results in New Zealand, you wouldn't wonder why more of their cricketers aren't making it big in T20 cricket. It can be assumed that teams that get bowled out in 9.3 overs - the third-shortest completed innings of all time - don't have great T20 players. And that's true of Bangladesh. There's the IPL on as we speak, and all of two Bangladeshis are a part of it - Shakib Al Hasan and Mustafizur Rahman, the only two to have played with any regularity in the competition over the years, Shakib much more than Rahman.
It comes down to a lack of T20 skills. There is a genuine lack of big hitters in the batting line-up, which has left a huge gap in Bangladesh's overall white-ball performances. They don't have legspinners or other unorthodox bowlers of any prominence in the domestic circuit. Orthodox bowlers, be it pace or spin, don't have much mystery about them. Bangladesh's T20I cricket often feels like a watered-down version of their ODI cricket. The personnel are not too different, and they follow ODI-like plans and patterns.
"A franchise doesn't have the opportunity, nor do they even try, to develop a player. Suddenly a foreign coach comes, we take a few selfies with him, and that's it."
Senior Bangladesh coach Nazmul Abedeen Fahim
No surprise then that Bangladesh are tenth in the ICC T20I team rankings. They are also at the bottom of all T20I teams in terms of win-loss ratio in the last five years.
'We 'don't have the culture'
To Nazmul Abedeen Fahim, the senior Bangladeshi coach best known for mentoring Shakib over the years, the show in New Zealand suggested that the Bangladesh players had lost the plot in their heads even before taking the field.
"We played against a quality opposition in conditions that weren't suited to our cricket, but I think the perception that we don't play well in T20s has got into everyone's head," Fahim tells ESPNcricinfo. "This may contribute to the mentality that we can afford to lose and play badly; there's not much expectation. We could have been a bit more positive. It was always going to be hard to beat New Zealand in their own conditions, but we should have played better."
Fahim, who has worked in the BCB as an Under-19 coach and as national development manager for many years, feels the New Zealand tour was another example of the lack of boldness in Bangladesh's approach - a precondition in T20s.
"We don't have the culture that allows the positive and fearless cricket so needed in T20s," he says. "We worry a lot about consequences when playing cricket at any level, be it club or national team. We don't have the physical build and neither do we play a lot of T20s. But, on top of that, if we can't even play 100% fearless cricket, it becomes a huge hindrance in T20s."
It's almost an echo of what Mahmudullah had to say after Bangladesh lost a T20I series 2-1 in India in late 2019, the last match - the decider - by 30 runs after they collapsed from 110 for 2 to 144 all out chasing 175.
"Honestly, we have a long way to go in T20s. We are a team dependent on skilled hitting, not big hitters. If we can be consistent with our game sense and mentality, we can improve in this format," he had said. "It is important to back players in T20Is where it is hard to be consistent. As a team and the management, we should back players who are going through a rough time."
As for the missing fearlessness, Neil McKenzie, who worked with the national team as batting coach for two years between 2018 and 2020, had tried to analyse the problem early last year, after Bangladesh lost the T20I series in Pakistan.
"There's no doubt that Bangladesh is full of very talented cricketers, but we need a little bit more consistency," he had said. "I want someone to be selfish in terms of winning games for the side. Not selfish for their own right. Selfish for not giving it away. If I have an 80, why can't I follow it up with a hundred, 140 or 200?
"A little bit more hunger for that consistency. A lot of the time, the guys are happy to play the next game. If you get a 40 or 60. It is the wrong mentality. I want the guys to try to be the best in the world, or be the best Bangladesh batsman. I think that's what we are trying to instill. We are making progress. But it has been a little bit frustrating."
Why has the BPL not helped?
During the seven seasons of the BPL's franchise-based model, the teams have depended mainly on overseas players to take charge of all the important phases in the games, especially the powerplay and the death overs, whether with bat or ball.
"We give all the important positions to the overseas players during the BPL. We let them handle all the crisis moments, which means our players can never gather that experience," Fahim says. "What's glaring is that these overseas players end up adapting to our conditions better. Afghanistan won here quite easily (in 2019) because this is not a foreign land to them anymore.
"A franchise doesn't have the opportunity, nor do they even try, to develop a player. Practice is only for three or four days before the tournament. Suddenly a foreign coach comes, we take a few selfies with him, and that's it."
Nafees Iqbal , the former Bangladesh opener who has managed the Khulna Titans for the last five years, agrees that the BPL model hasn't done much for the country's T20 cricket.
"It is very true that we pick overseas players who will make an impact in the powerplay and death overs, and it honestly does make it difficult to provide opportunities to local players," Nafees says. "But you can't really blame the BPL franchises. Winning the trophy is their only motivation, since they don't earn revenue like IPL franchises do."
So, by and large, Bangladeshi players don't get to - or manage to - impress much in their own T20 league. What chance do they have in overseas competitions?
The occasional splash
Only Shakib and Rahman are playing in this season's IPL.
Shakib has been around since 2011, winning two titles with the Kolkata Knight Riders, for whom he is back this season. He is among T20's glitterati, currently the sixth-highest wicket-taker in all T20s and is among only two players to have scored 5000 runs and taken 350 wickets in the format. He is a major drawcard, having played in all the major T20 tournaments.
Rahman won the 2016 IPL with the Sunrisers Hyderabad, in which he also won the award for the best emerging player. The Rajasthan Royals, his team this year, is his third IPL team in five years.
Both took the international route to the IPL. The Knight Riders picked Shakib in 2011 after he emerged as a match-winner for Bangladesh and became the No. 1 allrounder in the ICC ODI rankings. He didn't have a T20 record worth talking about at the time, but had established himself as a dependable allrounder. Rahman shot to the limelight after picking up 11 wickets in his first two ODIs against India in 2015.
But beyond them, there's little. Abdur Razzak (Royal Challengers Bangalore), Mohammad Ashraful (Mumbai Indians) and Mashrafe Mortaza (Knight Riders) have played one match each in the IPL over the years, while Tamim Iqbal was in the Pune Warriors rolls in 2012, but didn't get a game.
What about other T20 leagues?
Tamim is a regular at the PSL, and has played in the CPL and in domestic T20 tournaments in England and New Zealand. Mahmudullah has played a couple of seasons in the CPL and PSL too, while Mushfiqur Rahim played three matches for the Karachi Kings in the PSL in 2016. In the Abu Dhabi T10 last year, eight Bangladeshi cricketers - including Mosaddek Hossain, Taskin Ahmed, Sohag Gazi and Nasir Hossain - took part, but none of them did anything of note.
Nafees, who also worked as Rahman's translator in the 2018 IPL, while he was with the Mumbai Indians, pointed to two factors - fairly straightforward reasons - that are holding back Bangladeshi players, especially when it comes to the IPL.
"Firstly, India is considered the factory of producing batsmen, so usually the IPL franchises are only interested in batsmen who have the X-factor, like AB de Villiers or Andre Russell," Nafees says. "They are more interested in overseas allrounders and bowlers. Most of Bangladesh's top players are batsmen, which limits their opportunities in the IPL. Mustafiz is an exceptional bowler while Shakib mainly plays as a bowler.
"Secondly, our T20 team's track record isn't great. It is not like our one-day team. I think it is important to have an impact in your (country's) team, before you can be considered anywhere else. Someone like [Kieron] Pollard obviously played well for West Indies first. The moment a player does well for his country, he will attract attention, and then he will get picked in tournaments."
Light at the end of the tunnel?
The picture isn't pretty. An absence of specialist T20 skills is a primary reason for the continued lack of big performances. Bangladesh claim they have skilled hitters but not power hitters. That's true. Scoring patterns from domestic T20 tournaments clearly show that very few Bangladeshi batsmen can be dominant in the way we are used to seeing the top T20 batsmen be. Junaid Siddique is the only Bangladeshi in the top ten for powerplay strike rates, while there is no one in the top ten for strike rates in the last five overs.
As for bowlers, there's no legspinner or unorthodox spinner breaking the door down. The rare 140kph quick or orthodox offspinners or left-arm spinners haven't shown any remarkable ability in T20s. It is a well-known fact that unique skills have a better chance of producing the spectacular in T20s.
Although Bangladesh's cricketers play many T20 tournaments at the amateur or informal level, the BPL hasn't quite become what it could have, and not just for the reasons mentioned earlier. Corruption, unpaid wages, and impulsive rule changes have all affected the tournament, and the BCB eventually fell out with the original franchises in 2019 and ran the tournament on its own.
"The BPL could have given us a lot, had we tried to take something out of it," Fahim says. "The board considers the number of foreign players, media coverage and earning money as success. But that's not it. The BPL should be used to strengthen our players."
In a bid to keep cricketers busy during the pandemic, the BCB organised the Bangabandhu T20 Cup last year. The tournament didn't feature overseas players, so Bangladesh's best cricketers got a chance to have more of a say in critical moments in T20s. That could help.
"I think tournaments like Bangabandhu T20 will produce players," Nafees says. "If we have seen domestic players tackle difficult situations in this competition, we will consider him for a similar role in the next BPL."
There weren't many groundbreaking performances in the Bangabandhu T20s, though, but newcomers like Parvez Hossain Emon, a part of the Under-19 World Cup-winning side, and rookies like Anisul Islam, Mukidul Islam and Shoriful Islam showed they could hold their own in tough moments.
It could be a starting point. In a country where talented T20 cricketers are not falling over each other to be noticed, a bit more desperation might help - desperation on the part of the BCB and other stakeholders. There are two T20 World Cups in the next two years, and there are several spots up for grabs. It's up to the players to make those positions theirs.

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84