Flattering to deceive
It has been a mere 16 years and four months since Naimur Rahman walked out to toss with Sourav Ganguly at the Bangabandhu National Stadium, Dhaka.
Naimur answered to the nickname Durjoy, which translates to Invincible. And for an incredible couple of days the newest team on the Test circuit did seem to have been touched by this essence of the skipper.
Aminul Islam displayed infinite reservoirs of patience, batting nearly nine hours for his 145, second only to Charles Bannerman in terms of knocks for a country in her inaugural Test. By the middle of the third day, when Sachin Tendulkar was held at short leg off Naimur and umpire Steve Bucknor upheld the appeal, the Indians had slumped to 190 for 5 in response to the very respectable 400 posted by Bangladesh.
And when the skipper beat Saba Karim in the air and the ball ricocheted off the pads of stand-in wicketkeeper Shahriar Hoosain on to the stumps to catch the Indian stumper out of his ground, the score read 236 for 6. The cricket crazy Bangladeshis dared to believe in the miracle that gave every indication of unfolding.
Alas, then they ran out of steam and stamina. Inexperience told heavily as Sunil Joshi laid into the attack. And, in the second innings, the batting, which had been so incredibly impressive in the first, collapsed under the pressure of the occasion.
By Tea on the fourth day, the hosts had lost the cream of their batting and were tottering at 53 for 5. By the end of that very day the challenge had fizzled out and the match was over, the final few runs obtained in haste-mingled professionalism under lights, the margin of defeat a resounding 9 wickets.
Bangladesh had flattered to deceive, but the fans were not disheartened. They had fought on even terms for three days, even enjoyed the upper-hand on occasions against their far more experienced neighbours. In the long history of Test cricket, very few teams had been so impressive in the first few days of their inaugural Test.
When Bangladesh, 16 years and four months down the line, will emerge on the field to take on Sri Lanka at the P Sara stadium on the inauspicious Ides of March, they will be playing their 100th Test match.
And those initial three days of brilliance in the inaugural Test still remain the transient, ephemeral flash of a false dawn.
They still flatter to deceive. Even early this year Shakib al Hasan and Mushfiqur Rahim added 359, and aided by a double hundred from the former and 159 by the latter, Bangladesh piled up 595 against New Zealand at Basin Reserve. Somehow they managed to lose the Test by 7 wickets.
The teeming millions in the country still keep waiting for the day when they will start winning Test matches with regularity.
A sordid, sorry tale
The immense promise of the first few exchanges of that inaugural Test match was never quite realised. Bangladesh went on to lose the first five Tests of their history before managing a draw against Zimbabwe at Dhaka — thanks to the last two days being washed away by rain.
They lost the next 21 Tests in a row before merciful rain from heaven above once again extinguished the blaze of consecutive defeats at Bulawayo. It was at Gros Islet, 2004, in their 29th Test, that Bangladesh finally earned a draw through pure cricketing deeds without any helping hand from the elements.
The first win took four years and 35 Tests in coming and had to be achieved against a Zimbabwe side plagued by political peril in their land and reduced to a pitiable outfit without the stalwarts of the past.
But, nevertheless, when 18-year-old Enamul Haque Jr skittled the Zimbabweans with his spin on either side of lunch on the fifth day, the nation palpated with passion and the excitement became infectious. Moshrafe Mortaza, having bowled Mluleki Nkala, had to wipe off tears before he could run in to deliver the next ball. And when Mohammad Ashraful snapped Chris Mpofu at silly-point off Enamul the country went wild.
It was but another brief, illusory spark of hope. The next victory had to wait for four more years and 25 Tests, 21 of which were lost.
This was again achieved against a rather dubious West Indian outfit, which nowadays adds a third dimension to the cricketing connotation of ‘minnow’ alongside Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. However, the victory was significant.
Firstly, it was the first time that Bangladesh had won abroad, in the distant foreign shores of St Vincent. Further, this was the first time that they had rallied from being behind, through some exemplary show of resilience. By now there was class in the side — the solidity of Tamim Iqbal at the top, the all-round brilliance of Shakib in the middle, and the soothing presence of Mushfiqur on either side of the stumps.
Indeed, they clinched the series in the very next Test, with Shakib capturing 8 wickets and hammering a run-a-ball 96 not out as Bangladesh chased down 215 in the final innings. Seldom invited to tour by their fellow Test playing countries, the young cricketing nation had won their first overseas series.
Yet, even the most cliché-prone chronicler cannot term that win ‘the watershed moment’. There has been no such moment for the Bangladeshis. They went back to their usual ways, losing 15 of the next 17 Tests, managing to draw just two tall scoring games.
In the last four years there have been improvements.
Shakib has developed into a force almost as supreme as Aubrey Faulkner in the early days of South Africa. Tamim and Mushfiqur have also grown in stature. The line up further reinforced with talented players like Monimul Haque and Soumya Sarkar. Mushfiqur has developed into a fine enough batsman to pass the bigger gloves to Liton Das, and the latter has also proved to be an impressive wielder of the willow. While the bowling still lacks incisiveness, Mustafizur Rahman shows signs of delivering the necessary sting. There is a definite nucleus forming within the team that augurs well for the future.
The results have continued to be largely negative, but Bangladesh has finally become a decent foe in their own backyard.
True, although they have accelerated their rate of wins by many factors by winning 5 of their last 21 Tests, 4 of those victories have come against Zimbabwe. The 7 losses during the same time have managed to keep the win/loss ratio skewed to the point of being ridiculous.
However, at the same time they have managed to beat England at home in a Test and have also squared the series against Alastair Cook’s men. Their drawn series against South Africa in 2015 was aided by rain, but it was not that the heavens opened up to save them from inevitable defeat. They had competed mostly on even terms against an excellent side. Another stalemate against New Zealand was obtained in 2013-14 through tall scores and with no help from the rain.
How have they fared?
When we look back at the 99 Tests, we find that Bangladesh have won 8 and lost a whopping 76. There is no way to deny that the bottom line tells a horrendous tale. That fact becomes uncomfortably prominent when we read it against the background of the incredible popularity the sport enjoys in the land.
Yet, there are some issues to consider.
Cricket has evolved in a drastic way that renders comparisons between the past and present sides a difficult endeavour. It is indeed not impossible to place the development curves of two teams side by side and draw inferences, but it has to be done with proper rigour or the analysis will end up drowned by the turbulence of times.
When we look at other sides and their initial forays into Test cricket, we generally deduce a similar struggle before finding their feet in this testing arena. But, the figures will not make sense unless we temper them to balance the fluctuating parameters of eras.
Let us take a look at the first 99 Tests played by sides that came into the fray after England and Australia had kicked off the concept of Test cricket.
When we analyse the data from South Africa onwards, the numbers do not really look good for Bangladesh.
Teams in first 99 Tests
We find that New Zealand won even less than Bangladesh during this phase of their Test journey, and teams like South Africa and India had rather poor introductions to Test cricket. But, Bangladesh seems to have lost way more than any other side in the beginning of their Test cricket history. Other countries frequently drew Test matches, and Bangladesh have failed to do that.
Yet, there are two things we must keep in mind. The frequency of draws and the frequency of Test cricket.
Draws are dwindling
The ‘draw’ is not really the comfortable cushion for weak teams today as it was in the past. The number of stalemates have gone down in the history of the game rather radically since the beginning of the century. To put things into context, let us look at the following table:
|Decade||Total Tests||Nos of draws||% Draws|
As we can see, other than in the decade of the 1950s marked by bent arms and dodgy wickets, the percentage of draws were constantly high more most of the last century. But it started going down in the 1990s and became far rarer in the 2000s. The number of draws have halved from the 1980s.
Hence while New Zealand, South Africa and India struggled through their early days by acquiring a lot of what was then called ‘honourable draws’, in the current era of faster scoring and 90-over days that is a far less viable option for Bangladesh.
The New Zealand cricketers of 1949 became the celebrated 49-ers because of their ‘achievement’ of earning a 0-0 draw in a 4-Test series in England. That sort of option is no longer viable for Bangladesh.
Tests are far more frequent
The second thing to remember is that experience in Test cricket is a function of time and the number of Tests played. And it is not a linear relationship with either of the parameters.
The sides play a relatively high number of Test matches in the current day, which has hastened the 100th Test for Bangladesh in just 16 years in spite of being rather short of invitations to visit other Test playing nations.
To put things in perspective, South Africa’s 100th Test came in their 60th year of Test cricket. New Zealand played their 100th in their 42nd year. India were already in the fray for 35 years when they reached their century of Tests. For West Indies it was 37 years. For Pakistan, the figure is 27. Only Sri Lanka did it at a fast-paced 18 years by virtue of being initiated into the arena in relatively modern times.
(Of course, the number of years are skewed by the periods of War. South Africa had to halt on their way three times, due to the Boer War, the First and Second World Wars; and for India, New Zealand and West Indies the World War II did bring about a five-year hiatus to the proceedings)
When we look at this factor, we do realise that all these countries were significantly more experienced as cricket playing nations when they reached their respective 100th Tests. The years had given them periodic exposure to the highest form of the game while the much greater time span had enabled their cricket to evolve within through gradual improvement of infrastructure, knowledge, concepts and training methods.
Given this, 16 years and four months have indeed seen Bangladesh play 99 Tests and they stand on the brink of their 100th; but in terms of maturing as a Test playing nation they have not really had enough time.
Let us take a look at where the other nations stood after 16 years and four months of Test cricket.
Teams in their first 16 years and 4 months of Test cricket
The above table is indeed striking.
The South Africans seem to have had as obnoxious a start to their Test journey. The New Zealanders fare better because of the draws, but we have already discussed that before.
The Indian record is pretty ordinary as well.
Even the West Indians, who seemed to have had a solid introduction when we looked at their first 100 Tests, do not turn out to be that brilliant from this table.
It is a far stretch to infer from all this that Bangladesh has not done too badly in Test cricket. They have been ordinary, there is no question about that.
However, given that they are just in their 17th year in Test cricket, there is no reason to say that they will not become one of the major cricket playing nations down the years.
As they gear up for their 100th Test, they can already boast a great player in Shakib and several very good ones in Mushfiqur, Tamim, Sarkar and Monimul. Liton and Mustafizur look promising enough to join this core group. Perhaps Mehdi Hasan Miraz will blossom into a fine all-round cricketer as well.
Perhaps all the team needs is some more time, experience and patience to catch up with the rest of the world. The teeming millions will perhaps need to wait a while longer to see their heroes win with regularity. But one can be reasonably optimistic that the wait will bear fruit.