Four years is a long time in sport, they say. Not only are medals and World Cups won and lost, records surpassed and horizons breached, but also the duration becomes quite the benchmark to gauge progress made by individuals and sporting teams - or as they put it, a four-year period is pretty much a sporting cycle of sorts. That's where we are at with Bangladesh cricket - frustratingly enough, still a project and work in progress and virtually on the threshold of breaking into the big league, but a side that has emerged through virtual anonymity to a confident, belief-oriented unit that on its day has learnt not to take a backward step.
The 2007 World Cup is by far the most important reference point for progress in Bangladesh cricket today - an event where they surpassed their own expectations, beat two of the strongest teams in the game - India and South Africa along the way and since, have managed to quietly move upwards, overcoming several challenges and crises of their own.
Habibul Bashar, one of the architects of Bangladesh's success story in the Caribbean recounts, "The win over India at Port-of-Spain was a special win for us. Given the format of the tournament, where you lose one game and you might go home, it was almost like a survival game for us. We had to win to stay in it and we won that game."
The essence of that win, according to Bashar, was the mental transition Bangladesh had to make to first believe that they could beat a side as strong as India and secondly, achieve what they believed. Much to the dismay of Indian fans, still reeling from the hurt of what they saw, Bangladesh went on to beat South Africa and convincingly at that to create a platform from where their cricket would head in one direction only - upwards. But sadly, all came crashing once the euphoria had settled.
There was a transition-in-waiting, with senior players like Habibul Bashar and Mohammad Rafique made way for younger, fresher and brighter prospects like Roqibul Hasan, Imrul Keyes and Mahmudullah. Keeping up with the "go young" theme, Mohammad Ashraful was appointed captain. Ashraful, one of Bangladesh's top batting talents to emerge, had a torrid time as captain, winning only 8 matches of the 38 he led Bangladesh in, and by the time he was replaced, Bangladesh cricket was in further disarray of sorts, where they lost a bulk of their squad members to the then rebel Indian Cricket League (ICL).
Akram Khan, former Bangladesh captain and current selector says, "We lost 60-70% of our side to the ICL and we had to rebuild from scratch. But, it gave us an opportunity to rebuild our team with newer talents and see how they fared." True to the selectors' expectations, Bangladesh turned it around and won an ODI against New Zealand at Mirpur in 2008, a game Khan regards as a start of the process, where Bangladesh became not just a competitive cricketing team, but one which on its day was a threat. "Today, we're happy that some of the players we invested in back then have come through and we're hoping to see them perform better," says Khan.
Bangladesh, since 2008, under Mashrafe Mortaza and now Shakib al-Hasan's leadership are quite simply, pushovers no more and a side that has learnt to put up a good fight, remain competitive for long periods and of course get the results whenever possible. They enter the World Cup in a hot streak of form, having won an ODI against England (in England), a whitewash of New Zealand at home by a 4-0 margin, followed up by a 4-1 series win over Zimbabwe.
An important behind-the-scenes member of the setup, Jamie Siddons is widely regarded by the Bangladeshi cricket fraternity as taking its cricket team to the next level. The Australian succeeded Shaun Williams and Dav Whatmore, who had understandably left Bangladesh cricket in good hands. Siddons knew the enormity of the challenges facing him, the more nuanced and mental side of things where Bangladesh weren't yet world-class at. Akram Khan says, "Jamie Siddons has changed our batting approach.
Today, 8-9 players are averaging 30+ in ODIs and that shows the progress they have made under him. He hasn't just helped them overcome technical deficiencies, but also changed their mental approach. We weren't up to the mark mentally, and now we can see the change, there is a belief about us." Siddons says, "When I took over, we were making a score of about 200 every four innings. Now, our focus is on trying to be more consistent when it comes to making the scores that our bowlers can defend," says Siddons. Frustratingly enough, the Bangladeshi batting never fulfilled its potential. It would get off to steady starts, a score of 90/1 and then crumble to 130/6, a position from which retrieving the match would be impossible.
"Today, we have the likes of Tamim Iqbal and Imrul Keyes, who are not world-beaters yet, but aren't scared of facing the new ball," says Siddons. His working relationship with Shakib al-Hasan has really helped shaping Bangladesh's tactical nuances. "We have worked very hard with Shakib as far as aggression and field placings are concerned. He's a very astute captain who knows his cricket well and has led the team from the front," says Siddons. Bashar, not surprisingly, also has good things to say about Shakib's captaincy. He says, "The good part about Shakib is that he is an aggressive captain. He's tactically very strong and has led the side from the front at most times."
Apart from Shakib's all-round abilities and leadership, the other real big positive coming out of Bangladesh these days is the overall development and transformation of opener Tamim Iqbal as a top-class batsman, so much so that Siddons reckons he could well slot into the Indian team easily, along with Shakib. Akram Khan, who is also incidentally his uncle, says, "Tamim is a hard-worker and likes to play his cricket aggressive. But importantly he has a very big heart and always wants to do well for his team."
Tamim shot into prominence with that brutal onslaught on Zaheer Khan & Co in the 2007 World Cup game, and since then, two top-draw Test centuries in England (one of them at Lords) has only enhanced his reputation as a world-class batsman. Khan likens him to being a bit like India's very own Virender Sehwag, the commonality being - both hate dot balls, and love scoring runs by playing their shots and not holding back. Importantly, for Bangladesh, Tamim had often tended to score big in matches they normally won, something akin to what Sanath Jayasuriya meant for Sri Lanka in the 90s. Also, Tamim is no more your slam-bam-whack batsman, and as he's played more cricket, he's mellowed down into a responsible batsman, with a much improved shot selection process and even with a tighter, much stoic technique, which only augurs well for Bangladesh cricket.
Today, Bangladesh have lined up pretty much on the lines of what Sri Lanka did fifteen years ago - a batting heavy side with an aggressive captain and a largely spin-based bowling attack, to compliment the conditions they'll be expecting at home - Mirpur or Chittagong. Siddons feels that there is a surprise or two as far as Bangladesh's bowling is concerned. Akram Khan believes that losing a bowler of Mashrafe Mortaza's quality on the eve of squad selection was a massive blow for Bangladesh, but still, he has faith in the ones they've picked.
Siddons' assessment is a bit more optimistic. He says, "We have two good fast bowlers in Shafiul and Rubel Hossain. I think Shafiul will be the surprise bowler in the tournament - how, I am not going to tell you about that. Our spin attack is a bit like having two Daniel Vettoris (Shakib and Razzak) in one team." Bashar agrees with Siddons' assessment, adding that only inexperience could stand in their way. "It is important for Shafiul and Rubel to get the early wickets and not let teams get away to a start, so that our spinners can come into play," says Bashar before adding, "Definitely, they're good enough because they've done it before for Bangladesh at this level and that's what they should be thinking about."
Bangladesh could well be the story of this World Cup, given that some of their best talents are in the right side of 20, and the oldest member of the side (Abdur Razzak) is aged 28. The other interesting aspect about this Bangladesh squad is the amount of players coming through some of the more nondescript, rural areas in that country, like Gaibandha and Mymensingh, thereby brushing aside the once Dhaka-Chittagong phenomenon that Bangladesh was. Khan says, "The ICC Trophy win in 1997 really changed cricket in Bangladesh. It killed interest in other sports like football, which was immensely popular."
Bashar adds, "When I started playing cricket, my parents didn't want me to become a cricketer. But I had to work hard and get here. Unlike those days, now everyone wants their sons to become cricketers. Even sportsmen who once played football for Bangladesh want their sons to play cricket." Given that the domestic structure in Bangladesh is still a work-in-progress, the funds expected to come in from this World Cup, if utilized well could go a long way in assisting in the development of the game in the country.
So, what should we realistically expect from Bangladesh this time around, given that they're in a tough group - with India, West Indies, England and South Africa featuring in there. Siddons wants them to at least make the quarter-finals as a realistic target. "We would love to make the quarter-finals. But we're equally aware of the fact that we're placed in a tough group with some of the top teams and to get where we want to, we might have to shock one of the bigger teams and that begins with our first game against India," he says.
Akram Khan and Habibul Bashar agree with Siddons' assessment about their team's prospects as being simple - a quarter-final place would be a World Cup, and anything more - a bonus. All said, this World Cup could well turn out to be Bangladesh's homecoming of sorts. A place in the knockouts would mean they're definitely getting there.