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Robiul Islam, the forgotten man Bangladesh can learn from

The last Bangladesh fast bowler to take a Test-match five-for could have lessons on bowling (and life) for the current bunch

Mohammad Isam
Mohammad Isam
Robiul Islam contemplates life  •  Getty Images

Robiul Islam contemplates life  •  Getty Images

Robiul Islam is a forgotten man. He lives in Satkhira, a small town in the southwestern corner of Bangladesh, 15km from the Indian border. There, Robiul is taking care of his mother. He played his last competitive match three years ago. He is currently out of work, hoping the Covid-19 pandemic eases up enough for cricket to resume so he can start an umpiring career.
It was a different time in Robiul's life seven years ago, when he was the toast of the Bangladesh touring party in Zimbabwe. He took 15 wickets at 19.53, bowling 110 overs, the biggest wicket haul and the most overs bowled by a Bangladesh fast bowler in a Test series, ever. He had helped Bangladesh draw the two-Test series, and was adjudged Player of the Series - the only fast bowler in Bangladesh's Test history to earn that honour. He is also the last Bangladesh quick to take a five-wicket haul in Tests.
New Zealand fast bowling coach Shane Jurgensen remembers Robiul's performance vividly, calling it one of the highlights of his time as Bangladesh head coach.
"Robiul bowled absolutely beautifully in Harare," Jurgensen tells ESPNcricinfo. "His bowling performance against Zimbabwe was probably one of the highlights of my time as Bangladesh coach. I remember the performance mainly because he bowled so accurately. He was a threat to the batter. It looked like he was going to get a wicket off most deliveries. He was aggressive. He used his bouncer well. He bowled amazing outswingers to take the edge. He got a few lbws. It was one of the most outstanding performances for Bangladesh."
Robiul, however, played his last Test in the following year, and was out of reckoning soon after. He's now a trivia question that pops up when a Bangladesh fast bowler picks up four wickets in an innings. When they have inevitably failed to get a fifth, it becomes yet another reminder of Bangladesh's pace-bowling record in the last seven years.
Bangladesh are in Zimbabwe for another tour now, and the fast bowlers in the Test side are Abu Jayed, Taskin Ahmed, Ebadot Hossain and Shoriful Islam. They don't have the greatest numbers but they are part of a pace-bowling collective that has caused a flutter through better fitness and domestic performances in the last nine months. They are, however, far from being finished products.
Watching, and reading about, Robiul's 15-wicket haul might help. It is a reminder of what can be achieved through bowling accurately, by being patient and skillful. Robiul's story, however, is of greater importance for how his career folded so quickly. Fast bowlers can learn from his mistakes, but there were captains, coaches and administrators who could have shown more patience, technical knowledge and empathy, and less ego.
Robiul plowed away in the domestic scene for several years before his 2010 Test debut at Lord's. He was still not a regular in the Test side for the following three years until he hit paydirt in Harare.
"It was my best series," Robiul tells ESPNcricinfo. "I bowled 110 overs. I enjoyed bowling on the bouncy Harare pitches. I was called up to an unofficial training camp by Shane Jurgensen earlier that year. I wasn't part of any BPL team that year, so Shane decided to prepare me for tours to Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. Mushfiqur [Rahim], who used to give targets to every player separately, said that I should always think about bowling economically. I planned to do just that."
Robiul impressed everyone with his skill and endurance, and was picked in the ODI and T20I sides. Bangladesh had found a fast bowler after a long time, many thought.
There's no straightforward answer as to why Robiul's career went up in smoke so quickly. He wasn't the fittest cricketer, but nobody could deny his skill and endurance purely as a bowler. Jurgensen acknowledged that Robiul's fitness was a problem, but he also pointed out how he was never given enough time in unhelpful home conditions.
"It was a shame that he didn't bowl more," Jurgensen says. "If I can remember correctly, he may have battled some injuries and fitness issues after the Zimbabwe series. He was also not given enough time to adapt his game plans to home conditions. His bowling suited conditions in Harare, New Zealand or England. He didn't quite get enough time to adapt his bowling to Bangladesh conditions, which can be tough for any seam bowler."
Robiul was wicketless in his first two Tests after the Zimbabwe tour, against New Zealand and Sri Lanka at home during the 2013-14 season. After Jurgensen resigned from the Bangladesh job in April 2014, Bangladesh's first Test series was against West Indies a few months later. New coach Chandika Hathurusingha didn't welcome Robiul.
"The selectors told me that Hathurusingha, who had just arrived as head coach, didn't want me in the team," Robiul says. "They said that they consider me as the country's No. 1 fast bowler so I should try to do well in the Test series.
"I played one Test in the West Indies. During our transit in Heathrow Airport while coming back home, Hathurusingha told me that my bowling speed wasn't good enough for international cricket. I dared to ask him which is better - a bowler bowling at 140kph and not swinging the ball, or one who bowls 133-135kph and swings the ball to trouble the batsman? He didn't have an answer."
When Zimbabwe toured Bangladesh in October that year, Robiul missed a fitness test during a training camp. He proved his match fitness in the tour game, but even so he was dropped - a move that, according to Robiul, surprised even the Zimbabwe players.
"I was astounded when I wasn't picked for the Test series against Zimbabwe, having been the Player of the Series in the previous series against them. I was told it was my fitness, although I bowled 15 overs in the tour match," Robiul says. "An interesting thing happened during that game in Fatullah. Some of the Zimbabwe players asked me why I wasn't in the Test side. I didn't know what to tell them. I said that the head coach told me that I wasn't fit enough for international cricket."
As fate would have it, Robiul was injured shortly afterwards in a domestic one-day match. It derailed any hopes of a quick comeback. "It took me a year to recover from the shoulder injury. I was never the same bowler again."
Even though Robiul had shown he could be a match-winner overseas, he didn't have much chance to flourish in a Bangladesh environment that valued batters and spinners more. Captains and coaches are focused on winning home ODIs, and sometimes Tests. They know that was achievable through batters and spinners. Since they hardly played overseas Tests, there wasn't enough of an incentive to create a pace-bowling group with specialist skills.
Robiul didn't do himself a lot of favours with his fitness, but someone like Rubel Hossain, despite a lack of wickets for many years, got regular chances. Whenever Shafiul Islam has recovered from an injury, he has been back in the reckoning. It is a widely circulated belief, particularly within the BCB, that Mustafizur Rahman isn't keen on Test cricket. Yet, a lot of time, energy and resources have been spent on getting him to work on his inswinger to the right-hander.
There is, however, some credit for continuing with Jayed, who has also looked like the most consistent fast bowler over the last seven years. Taskin's comeback has been commendable too, given that he has worked doubly hard on his fitness and skills after being discarded for three years.


Robiul says Jayed and Taskin should be able to do the job in Zimbabwe, where pitches are likely to be on the slower side. "They have to hit the seam in Zimbabwe. It will depend largely on how much backspin a bowler can impart on the ball. It is a crucial aspect of seam and swing bowling," he says. "But they also have to be patient in those conditions, which can be cold and dry. I am sure they will do well."
Robiul says he has noticed better professionalism from the current lot of fast bowlers than when he was playing cricket. "I was kicked out by using fitness as the excuse," he says. "Fast bowlers have to keep their fitness up to the mark, but at the same time, they have to do their bowling drills. I used to bowl a lot in the nets, more than the prescribed volume.
"Everyone has become a lot more professional these days. There was a time when we used to wait for the BCB even to do gym. Now the players make their own arrangements whenever necessary, particularly during the pandemic."
He is also optimistic about life after cricket. He has begun earning his coaching and umpiring credentials. He is more interested in a career as an umpire, and dreams of one day standing in a Test match.
"I have done level-one courses in coaching and umpiring," he says. "I am leaning more towards umpiring although I couldn't start officiating due to the pandemic. (Enamul Haque) Moni bhai, our only Test cricketer to stand in a Test match as an umpire, told me that I should take up this profession."
Robiul retains optimism, resilience and good humour. He isn't keen to expand on his financial difficulties. He knows he will soon be forgotten again, living his life as a piece of trivia in Dhaka and wherever cricket matters. He's busy fighting a different fight in far-flung Satkhira.

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84