Bangladesh’s extraordinary 16 years in Test cricket
There is no actual term for the way you felt when watching Bangladesh over the last ten years. It's a combination of hope and pain. The hope they will do wells up but is usually brought down by the pain when they inevitably don't. It might be from one game or one series. Maybe they had a good session or day, or you saw a young cricketer who you think has a bright future. The hope rises, but the next game, the next day, the next series brings you back down, and that player you invested in, much like Bangladesh, loses the quality that excited you and fades away.
Even in their best players, there has been disappointment. Tamim Iqbal paints Lord's with his glory, and yet spends most of his time in mediocrity. Shakib Al-Hasan is one of the best allrounders in the world, but it's doubtful we've ever seen him consistently at his best. Mashrafe Mortaza's dodgy knees have kept away a quality player and sensible head. And then there is the horror story of Mohammad Ashraful, their first prodigal son, their first cautionary tale.
Their loss in the World T20 against India was perhaps their most Bangladesh moment. They had come into the tournament after being a World Cup quarter-finalist, they had played quality limited-overs cricket, discovered the marvels of Mustafizur Rahman, and were expected to cause an upset and perhaps sneak into the semi-finals. For most of the match against India they were not playing like some afterthought of modern cricket, but like the team their country so desperately wants them to be. And not against any team, but against the favourites of the tournament, in their own backyard. They were virtually over the line, so much so that it inspired a premature celebration from Mushfiqur Rahim, that looked silly at the time, but was far sillier then whey managed to lose the game.
It was yet another moment when Bangladesh tried to show they were Tigers and proved they were Toygers. Not for the first time, the cricket world lost patience with them: when will this team grow up?
Bangladesh are one of the luckiest cricket nations in history. You could argue that they were involved in Test matches over 50 years ago, as East Pakistan, and they should have been pushed, helped and funded back then, but that isn't what cricket does. But once they started playing cricket at a top Associate level, they needed to win only one game to get Test status. Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe had similar luck, but in the modern era the other teams have not fared as well.
Kenya beat West Indies in the '96 World Cup, then in the 2003 World Cup they beat Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and thanks to a walkover from New Zealand, made the semi-finals. They never received a Test call. And if Kenyan fans feel slighted, what of Irish fans - they have had three successful World Cup campaigns and are still not a Test team.
Those from the major nations feel Bangladesh haven't significantly improved, and those from the smaller countries think Bangladesh have misused their golden ticket.
From a modern standpoint you can see how there might be grounds for those arguments. Bangladesh's senior players were dropped to push youth, and instead of fielding a quality team of youngsters, they became an immature team of spoilt brats. The next generation never really came on at all. They struggled to fill an XI with international-quality players. Their fans have become known as boisterous at best and vicious at worst. And their chairman, the ICC president at the time, all but suggested that the World Cup quarter-final was rigged against his team.
All of this has left many cricket fans feeling like this team has underperformed, over-complained and will never make it. Some say if they have been this poor for this long, they will never make it.
The thing is, they were never supposed to be good enough. The only way to get consistent at international cricket is by playing international cricket for a long time. That has been proved many times in cricket history.
New Zealand's first Test win was in their 16th series, and that was a dead rubber after West Indies already led 3-0. They won their first series after 39 years, 1-0 against Pakistan in 1969. Before that series they had won six Tests in 92. And even after that first series win it took them another ten years to win another. New Zealand's paramount moment was not a win but a drawn series against England. To get the 0-0 result after three Tests, they batted like statues for days on end after stacking their batting. They didn't win a Test, but they won respect, and slowly over the years they continued to get better.
And it isn't just New Zealand. South Africa didn't win a Test until 15 years into their Test career, despite usually playing teams from England that included non first-class players, and third- or fourth-string teams. And in 1906, when they won, it was largely because they mastered the wrong'un before anyone in England knew much about it. Before that, had lost every single Test they had played in bar one.
India's first two series wins were against Pakistan and New Zealand, both of whom had not won a series at that point. It took India 29 years to beat England in a series. It was 19 years before they beat England in a Test, and 15 Tests.
New teams don't get a lot of Tests. That was the same then as it is now. Bangladesh haven't played Australia in a decade. When they went into the first Test against England, they hadn't played a Test in over a year. This latest win was only their tenth Test against England in their 16-year history; recently England and Australia played that many against each other in less than 12 months.
And it isn't like Bangladesh could rely on a solid first-class structure. Until they were a Test nation, they had no first-class cricket of any kind. Their premier competition, the National Cricket League, had only started a year before. To be a consistent and top-quality Test team, having a quality first-class system is a must. They were learning to play Test cricket when they were learning how to make a first-class structure. Their chances of instant success, or any success, or just regular non-embarrassment, would have relied on a fair bit of luck. Like them being held back for no good reason for up to 50 years, as Sri Lanka were, or playing in another country's first-class set-up, as Zimbabwe had done, or somehow unearthing someone as talented as Fazal Mahmood while taking a few Test players from another country, like Pakistan did.
It took New Zealand over 40 years to find one bowler as good as Fazal Mahmood. Bangladesh might be working with more human resources, but top-quality bowling needs good captains, selectors, coaches, competitions and pitches to help it. You can make a Test team with the strike of a pen; the rest takes time. When England toured there in 2010, the story oft quoted was that Bangladesh, the entire country, only had three bowling machines. Millfield school in England probably has more than that.
If it was hard for new teams back when South Africa was playing an English 3rd XI on matting wickets, think of how hard it is now for a developing country. Bangladesh aren't just playing against 11 men from England, they're playing one of the most organised cricket bodies that has ever existed. They are playing an English cricket team that has a 200-year first-class history; a system that sucks in professionals from other countries as well. They are taking on the second richest cricket board in human history. You can have all the passion and goodwill in the world, but you are fighting a cricket institution, a powerhouse, and not just 11 pretty good players.
So far Bangladesh's biggest successes don't look like much. They have been against Zimbabwe. That is very much like how India started off by beating Pakistan and New Zealand. Their other success was against a strike-breaking West Indies team with a batting line-up that was nameless then, let alone now. They built up a five-series ODI winning streak. Made a World Cup quarter-final. And they broke through the glass ceiling that cricket put up just to keep them out of the Champions Trophy.
That might not sound like much from 16 years as a Test nation, but considering where they started, how long it takes to grow in cricket, what they have achieved is extraordinary. There was no system; they were essentially a paper team, thrown into top-flight cricket on a whim. They've never been well funded, they've had political interference in their cricket, and they are the pride of a nation desperate for their instant success.
That they managed to beat England, not just any team, but a culturally significant team in cricket, at their tenth try, is one of the great moments in cricket. This would have been an excellent series had it been played between two teams of equal status, but for it to happen between No. 10 and No. 1, when it comes to the order in which they entered the game, it was a truly historic moment. Hopefully one that will become known as the day Bangladesh grew up.
Their fans will never lose that hope or pain; more success only truly brings more pain when you fail. But the team's next big development will be when neutrals start hoping they fail, and feeling pain when they consistently beat their side. Because when Bangladesh are detested, not patronised and ignored, that is when they will know they have made it.
It will take a long time, but in cricket, things do take time.
Ends/thereport24.com/S/Nov 03, 2016