December 29, 2011

Undone by overconfidence

Bangladesh's year began with the ignominy of their lowest one-day total and they hardly improved thereafter

After a fantastic last quarter of 2010, there was an air of promise over Bangladesh cricket. Having crushed New Zealand in their first major performance, the Tigers ended a difficult year on a winning note, cruising past Zimbabwe. The New Year was expected to take Bangladesh to the promised land: a place in the last eight of a home World Cup beckoned, under the leadership of the man considered the country's first cricket superstar.

But what ensued was a dreadful narrative of vanity, followed by poor form, discipline issues, several controversies, and a mauling. It truly wasn't Bangladesh's year.

It was a quiet start for the team. The Bangladesh Cricket Board's decision to appoint Shakib Al Hasan as captain for the year (and Tamim Iqbal as his deputy) put a bigger decision in the shade: it was decided, rather unwisely, to not play cricket in January, a month before the World Cup, when eight other countries were engaged in competitive cricket. The notion that a team that has a one-day World Cup in front of it can't play any other form is archaic. The lull would go on to breed a dangerous mix of overconfidence and bitterness - the latter owing to the exclusion of Mashrafe Mortaza from the World Cup squad due to injury.

In the tournament, after a beating at the hands of India and Virender Sehwag, Bangladesh had to beat Ireland, and they did, though it wasn't without an anxious afternoon. The swagger returned much too soon, and experienced observers heard a time bomb ticking, which went off on March 4.

West Indies were eyeing revenge for the 2009 defeats, and they struck gold when they bowled at speeds and on lengths that greatly troubled Bangladesh's trigger-happy batsmen. Bangladesh were shot out for 58, their lowest ODI score.

They then made their way to Chittagong, to face an unpredictable England. When Shafiul Islam joined Mahmudullah at the crease, Bangladesh needed 57 more to win. The unlikely pair carted boundaries, ran madly and ticked off Graeme Swann, to win with an over to spare. It sparked such delirium that the teams only made it to their hotel four hours after the game ended, as the entire port city came out to the streets. Another win, against Netherlands , followed, but that was the last good day Bangladesh saw in 2011. South Africa kicked them out of the World Cup and it was back to the drawing board all over again.

Australia's short visit was marked by a Shane Watson blitz, but it did bring an out-of-form Mushfiqur Rahim back from the brink, following which the team took off to Zimbabwe slightly uncertain of itself.

The next five months would be a nightmare. First, it was the defeat to Zimbabwe in the one-off Test. The batsmen remained in their shot-a-ball mindset as two debutants and an ageing left-arm spinner tore through the top- and middle orders. Tamim did his team few favours with his "ordinary" jibe at Kyle Jarvis and Brian Vitori before the fifth day of a Test poised for three possible results.

Three consecutive ODI losses followed; Bangladesh conceded the series in dramatic fashion in Harare, where Mushfiqur played a valiant knock only to fall at the final hurdle.

The captain and vice-captain were sacked within days of the team returning home. Mushfiqur took the helm, mostly for his form, as well as for the respect his work ethic commands in a team that has lacked intensity over an extended period. He immediately found success, hitting the match-winning six to beat West Indies in a Twenty20. But the floundering top order was showed up once again as Bangladesh conceded the ODI and Test series to a team that could have been conquered with a disciplined effort. Bangladesh did, though, bowl out Darren Sammy's men for just 61 in the third ODI - seemingly retribution for the 58 that sparked the Tigers' slide in 2011.

Pakistan's crushing visit rounded off the year, during which the promising Tamim and Shafiul never rise from the ordinary. Only in the final game of 2011, the second Test against Pakistan, did Bangladesh make an effort that could be comforting enough to carry forward. Shakib's 144 and 6 for 82 stood out like a beacon amid the wreckage of the Tigers' fourth Test defeat of the year, and he ended the year as No. 1 allrounder in Tests and ODIs.

The out-of-form players would like to believe that this is just the "second-season blues", and so will the team as a whole, but 2011 has been like other World Cup years in the past (1999, 2003 and 2007), where the team has gone into a tailspin after the tournament - a dangerous trend that has often sparked upheavals in Bangladesh cricket.

New kid on the block
He was on the periphery for the last couple of years, after strong performances in the Dhaka Premier League, so Nasir Hossain's selection for the Zimbabwe tour wasn't a surprise. He started off with a half-century on debut, followed by another quick 50 against West Indies. Apart from accurate offbreaks, Nasir brings some confidence to the fielding unit. In December he became the first Bangladesh batsman to score his maiden one-day hundred in the year of his debut, and followed it up with a Test fifty against Pakistan.

High point
It would definitely be the surprise win over England in the World Cup. It came from nowhere and it brought two introverted young men into the limelight. In Shafiul and Mahmudullah, Bangladesh have players who can take responsibility - as they did in the dying moments against England. Nobody expected the ninth-wicket pair to carry the team through, but the two players were optimistic. Shafiul, who had such an excellent debut year, tapered off and was dropped for the Pakistan Tests, but Mahmudullah's stock rose when he was made vice-captain.

Low point
Too many to name. The 58 all out would be an obvious choice, but Bangladesh's low intensity during the Test against Zimbabwe was disappointing - a real low point, as opposed to the sudden collapse that occurred in March against West Indies. Shakib couldn't rouse his men to action on any of the five days, and it was capped off by a wild swing from him that put an end to any hopes of survival on the final day.

What 2012 holds
After some domestic action, Bangladesh host the Asia Cup and then, subject to a security clearance, travel to Pakistan in April. They then play a three-Test series against Zimbabwe, their first since 2007, the World Twenty20 and a series against West Indies next winter at home.

Mohammad Isam is senior sports reporter at the Daily Star in Dhaka