Bangladesh had a more than satisfactory 2015 World Cup, knocking England out to make the quarterfinals, where they fought for a while before falling away in the face of the collective muscle of the Indians.
Shakib Al Hasan, the biggest star Bangladesh cricket has ever had, had a decent World Cup from a personal point of view too. He also played his part, a big part, in the 15-run win over England where he bowled his ten overs – including a few in the Batting Power Play and at the death – for just 41 runs. But quite a few others overshadowed him during the course of the tournament – among them Taskin Ahmed and Rubel Hossain, the pacers, and Mahmudullah, who scored his first and second career One-Day International centuries in consecutive games against England and New Zealand.
“He surpassed our expectations as well,” Shakib tells Wisden India with a smile. “I really don’t think anyone expected Mahmud to do so well. Of course, he has been playing for the national team for so long because he is a quality player, an experienced player. But centuries against top teams in consecutive matches … to do so well was very impressive.”
Impressive as Mahmudullah was, the most heartening aspect of Bangladesh’s campaign at the World Cup was the two pacemen who topped 140kph – Taskin and Rubel. Traditionally, teams from Bangladesh have been fronted by spin. This was a pleasant change indeed. Shakib, however, feels that the change is only in the outside perspective: “Not just Rubel and Taskin, there are a few others too. The thing is that unless things happen in a major tournament, no one takes note of Bangladesh cricket. Shafiul Islam has at times bowled at 145. So has Shahadat Hossain. There are others too, in the domestic circuit,” he says. “Bangladesh or Ireland are in focus during the World Cup, so the performances are noted. There are players who do well in the intervening time, the last two-three years. The local media does focus on cricket, but outsiders don’t know about all this.”
Shakib wants to talk more about things at home and how, finally, things seem to be moving in the right direction. “There are processes. Our first-class structure is there for a long time and now our age-group set up is strong as well. So we are getting more players these days, we have a bigger core to choose from. The youngsters have been performing so well after coming in – you saw that at the World Cup with Soumya (Sarkar) and Taskin. It’s a great sign for us that the new boys have done well so soon after coming in,” says Shakib.
“What we did in this World Cup, if the youngsters continue to do well, we should be able to maintain the level of performance. The players who are coming in from the domestic circles are also stronger than before. Rony Talukdar has been selected for the one-day matches against Pakistan. He is a very good middle-order batsman. Litton Das is another one. The most important thing is that now there is healthy competition for places in the national team, and that can help us improve even more.”
During the World Cup, the status of the associate teams was one of the biggest talking points, especially during the group stage where Ireland and Afghanistan impressed hugely. One of the things some people suggested was that Test-playing nations must be asked to play against these teams more as a means to making them more competitive. That, to an extent, is true of Bangladesh as well. Despite being a Test-playing nation, they don’t get many opportunities to play the big teams either.
“That’s true, and yes, unless we tour Australia, South Africa, England, we will never be ready to play at the highest level. But things are changing a little. Pakistan are coming to Bangladesh now and then we have India, South Africa and Australia visiting as well. So we have a packed calendar this time, all with big teams,” points out Shakib. But that’s not the same as playing them in their conditions. “Yes, hopefully at least this (home series) will continue. But unless we tour these countries … that’s when we will know where we are, how good or bad we are.
“Most of us had never gone to Australia before the World Cup. So we were excited, and having done well, it has changed things a lot at home. There is a lot of belief now. And now, if we can travel more, it would help a lot.”
That’s possibly not happened so much because inviting Bangladesh over doesn’t make financial sense for these teams? Shakib looks down, nods, and then says, “Correct, but players can’t do anything about that.”
There are a couple of other things that could help, Shakib pipes up: “Firstly, everything in Bangladesh is Dhaka-centric. It would help if we went to the big divisions like Chittagong and Khulna and set up more infrastructure there … more players will come in, that should help.
“And secondly, we need to have even more A-team tours. They do happen, of course, but I think we should have more. A-team tours are the best thing. Those are the players that will play for Bangladesh later. They need the exposure now. They should go to India and Sri Lanka and England and all the major countries.”
First up for Shakib, and Bangladesh, is the series at home against Pakistan, for which he is leaving Kolkata Knight Riders after just two matches with the promise of coming back after May 10, when the series against Pakistan gets over, for the last two league assignments.
At one level, a lot of what Shakib is doing at the moment is a result of the sequence of events over the past couple of years, where he was pulled up on more than one occasion for going against the diktats of the Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB). It has, at times, been rocky, to say the least. And though he is now allowed to play the IPL and CPL and whatever else he wants, he has to prioritise Bangladesh over everything else.
Being in Kolkata has meant that Shakib hasn’t trained with his mates back home, but he doesn’t think that’s a big deal. “It’s always good to stay match fit. The IPL is a very competitive competition, so it’s good for me,” he says. “It was good to start well … another win would be perfect before I go back. I was happy with the way I bowled in the first match, so that should help against Pakistan as well.
“The Pakistan series was always on my mind. I knew I would go back after two matches. I think the training I have done with KKR here is as good as preparing with the Bangladesh team, so I should be all right. So now it’s about doing well on the field against Pakistan and coming back for the last two group games in the IPL. And, hopefully, the playoffs as well.
“And, I think, everyone appreciates the fact that I have become a better player since playing the IPL. This is one of the best things to have happened to me. I play these competitions, here and in the West Indies (Caribbean Premier League), so I know the strengths and weaknesses and team plans of many of the major players. I can share all this. Not that it always helps, but it’s a good thing for the Bangladesh team.”
That’s about all he can do as a senior player at the moment, the captaincy unlikely to come back to him after the series of scraps with the BCB. “But I have a leadership role in the team, apart from my responsibilities as a batsman and a bowler. And it (captaincy) doesn’t really matter. We (Mashrafe Mortaza and Mushfiqur Rahim) have played a lot of cricket together and we are friends. Bangladesh is very different from other places; we interact a lot outside of the field as well. So it doesn’t matter,” he says, convincingly enough.
Shakib has to leave, but before that we want to check on that World Cup quarterfinal one more time. For 30 overs, Bangladesh matched India. After that a couple of decisions didn’t go their way and Bangladesh seemed to collapse and eventually lost big. “Cricket is a game of many ifs and buts,” he starts philosophically. “Lots of things could have happened in that game. If this had gone right or that had gone right … but, more than anything else, I think we could have batted better. It’s always tough to chase 300 (India scored 302/6). It was important for one of our top order to bat well. But we were 100 for 4 (90/4, and then 104/5 when Shakib got out). It’s almost impossible to win after that.”
That is, of course, in the past. Now it’s Royal Challengers Bangalore first on Saturday, then the games against Pakistan, before returning to India for the last stretch of Kolkata’s campaign and then, a pretty hectic summer of international cricket at home. It’s an important period for Bangladesh cricket, where they would hope to add to the good work of late, and Shakib would, as he is only too aware, have to play a big role in moving to the next level. He is capable, of that there’s no doubt.