Bangladesh: Breaking Hearts and Cycles

Tears of the talismen

When Mushfiqur Rahim and Shakib ul-Hasan broke down in tears after Bangladesh’s narrow defeat to Pakistan in the Asia Cup final it was not hard to imagine it was a scene being replicated up and down the country.

Because it wasn’t just a team who came so close to victory, it was an entire nation of Bangladesh fans who having grown so used to defeat, came so close to an unexpected victory. Theirs is a nation of cricket fans whose passion for the game overwhelms their disappointment at their team’s frequent losses since their unveiling as a Test nation in 2000.

As Wright Thompson, writing for ESPN Cricinfo, described them upon his visit to Bangladesh during the 2011 World Cup:

“The entire city is in the streets. Bangladesh, my colleagues tell me, has no winning cricket tradition. The Bangladeshis love the game, love it madly, yet it hurts them again and again.”

This defeat means that the game will have hurt them again, but it will be a different kind of hurt. It may even hurt more than the others, because for the first time in a long time they came to watch their side compete against a top level nation not in hope but expectation. Bangladesh had not just looked like competing, they looked like winning, and when the dust settles and eventually the disappointment subsides, they can look at their team and be proud.

They competed with the giants of Asian cricket, in some high stakes games and performed as well as any of the players which were available in the tournament. Undoubtedly the responsibility fell on the big players to perform, but each played their roles perfectly and lead from the front.

Opener Tamim Iqbal, dropped from the squad initially, regained his old sparkle and perhaps fired by his snub hit four consecutive half centuries in trademark style. Shakib was once again a star with bat and ball. Then there was Rahim himself, who captained with the frenzied energy of a man headed for an asylum rather than a final-but who emerges from the tournament with his reputation greatly enhanced.

Meanwhile they were ably supported by the rest of their cast. Abdul Razzak was economical, Nasir Hossain’s emergence was startling, Mahmadullah continued to make an impact with bat and ball and Mashrafe Mortaza’s rehabilitation gives them a genuine pace bowling figurehead again.

Yet this was a team effort. They fielded as well as any Asian team has done in the past year throughout the tournament-quite an effort considering Sri Lanka’s general dominance. But they fielded aggressively and positively and as a group. Their bowling generally was economical, while the manner in which they chased down totals often after losing key wickets was symptomatic of a team who performed like they believed they belonged.

Younis Khan, speaking ahead of the final, noted the change and said:

“They have some aggressiveness in their body language and that helps to bring about positive results. That is the way an international team should play. They performed as a group; all the bowlers, all the batsmen and all the fielders, they put in their 100%. This is the key thing about their performance.”

If they can continue in this vein, despite the narrow defeat in the final, then this could be the greatest impact this tournament will have on Bangladesh cricket. For too long they have been renowned as plucky losers, often caught up in a cycle of defeat and unable to turn those plucky performances into consistent, positive results.

But in this tournament they showed they can win, and that they can overcome some of the best. For if losing can become a habit, so too can winning and breaking that cycle of defeat they have been caught in far too often before could be the biggest step forward for Bangladesh.

Then who knows what might happen. As head coach Stuart Law surveys the bigger picture, he will see a young team capable of progressing further still, up against teams with aging players who will at some stage have to undergo regeneration. If they can build on this, then victories like these over India and Sri Lanka may arrive with increasing regularity.

Then perhaps the next time they reach the final-they might have learnt a thing or two about getting over the finishing line. So while this time their hearts may have been broken, breaking the cycle of defeat and getting that taste for success could make this a big step in the right direction for Bangladesh’s cricket.

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West Indies: Devendra Bishoo and the new hope

Darren Sammy has scarcely had a reason to celebrate during his time as West Indies captain yet as Pakistan crumbled and a procession of batsmen came and went in the afternoon he was beaming from ear to ear.

Perhaps it helped he’d played his own significant part, taking two key wickets, bowling a tight economic spell which helped crank up the pressure will put a spring in anyone’s step but it could have had something to do with what was happening at the other end.

Because it was pretty special. A young leg spinner gripping the ball, ripping leg break after leg break, beating batsmen with flight and guile time and time again.

Good batsmen, experienced players of spin looked like they were facing hand grenades being thrown from a soldier not a young debutant making his first steps into Test cricket. It was one hell of a way for Devendra Bishoo to say hello to the longest form.

Sure it helped he was on a raging bunsen rather than the type of flat deck more commonly witnessed around the world, sure it helped Misbah Ul-Haq got his footwork all wrong and UDRS saw off two of them. But leg spinners tend to have as many bad days as good ones so this was one of those days.

Quite what it means now is anything. Debutants are a tricky one to gauge, particularly leg spinners. Some do well, some do badly, and some do a Bryce McGain. West Indian has had its fair share of false dawns down the years so they more than any will be caution against hype.

But it’s a start for him at the very least. How he progresses will depend very much on how he is handled by the West Indian selectors. Their history with selections is mixed but with spinners it is dire.

The last promising leg spinner the West Indies produced burst onto the scene quickly too, taking wickets in Test Cricket from the off at a respectable average of around 30 but wound up ending his career at the age of 28. One hopes Bishoo doesn’t wind up the same way as Dinanath Ramnarine but there’s always a fine line between success and failure.

Though he may be new to Test Cricket he looked like he belonged there for years. That’s the wonderful thing about watching someone new and exciting making the world stand up and take notice: the fact that everyone wonders why on earth they weren’t there all along.

Indeed Devendra Bishoo, the new hope for West Indian cricket, looked like he could have been here for years. If he carries on like this he could potentially end up doing just that, which is no bad way to start.

Pakistan v India: Brave New World Meets End of an Era

What more can you say about a match which will be watched by hundreds of millions of people. A match so big that even the President of the ICC expects it to shatter all records for viewing figures for any cricket match ever. It is the kind of cricket match which would have Don King salivating.

After all this is Pakistan versus India. A match where, in a land renowned for worshiping it’s deities, the cricketing versions are masters of their own universe.

Take the politics out of it, the strong emotional ties, the history and everything which people will attempt to signify with it and it still remains a powerful entity itself because these are two countries where cricket means something entirely different to anywhere else in the world.

But while these two nations have a lot in common, they also are very much apart and in someways the differences could not be more marked. India have the batsmen to win this match and it is Pakistan who have the bowlers bar the honorable exception of the evergreen Zaheer Khan.

It is India who are the more consistent, Pakistan perhaps the more exciting. Even the two best players in the tournament, Shahid Afridi and Yuvraj Singh-both spinning all-rounders of differing varieties-will be up against one another.

While one team considers themselves to be the beating heart of all that drives international cricket, the other is still trying to redeem itself for it’s past transgressions.

For India this match is crucial. They are reaching the end of a cycle which has seen them boast some of the finest players, playing some of the finest cricket that the world has ever seen.

Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan cannot carry on forever and will surely never have a better chance to lift the trophy before finally following the likes of Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble into retirement thus bringing to an end a fine company of cricketers who have helped make India what they are today.

While fine players such as Yuvraj, Dhoni and Gambhir will help ease the burden of their eventual passing, it is hard to escape the sense that Indian cricket will take time to rebuild itself after these players, and in particular two of the greatest of all time in Tendulkar and Sehwag, move on.

Meanwhile for Pakistan, the scene is very different. This is a country which has been through more upheaval in the past year than other test nations have in the past two decades.Suspensions, ball tampering, match-fixing, the works. Throw in murder and racketeering and you have a rap sheet you’d expect a Baltimore police officer to be reading straight off The Wire.

Yet remarkably, perhaps even astonishingly, there are green shots emerging from what had seemed only last summer to be a desolate landscape.Granted, the likes of Mohammad Asif and Mohammed Aamir are missed, as is Salman Butt though less so perhaps. But in their place has come experienced heads like Misbah Ul-Haq, Younus Khan, Shoaib Akhtar and Abdul Razzaq to help ease the burden.

Meanwhile the Pakistan production line continues to produce gems not only polished enough to shine at international level but to genuinely sparkle. Few young batsmen catch the eye quite like Umar Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad, or play with the maturity of Asad Shafiq.

Although their impact is not quite Inzamam Ul-Haq circa 1992, the potential long-term effect could still be as important in the years ahead. Add in the developing Wahab Riaz and you have a mixture of old heads and young colts who are gelling in a potent force.

Then to top it off you need leadership. A few months ago few people if any would have pictured Afridi and Umar Gul being the equivalents of Imran Khan and Wasim Akram but now they stand on the brink of emulating the ‘cornered tigers’. It would be a truly remarkable turnaround, and an excellent launchpad to put Pakistan cricket back into a far better place after years of struggle.

But these are just the back stories to what should be a truly major event in cricket’s history. Matches between these two rarely fail to disappoint, and with the calibre of cricketers on show it is certainly going to be anything but entertaining.

Because come tomorrow the eyes of the world will be focussed on a battle between two old rivals, fighting it out for one prize but with two very different outcomes still very much a possibility. Who will win is anyone’s guess, even for an audience of nearly a billion people.

Pakistan and Abdul Razzaq repay the faith

It was always going to take something special to knock the news that Australia had been routed in a T20 international by Sri Lanka off the back pages. But boy was it special.

Abdul Razzaq absolutely annihilated South Africa, with the kind of innings which in years to come people will probably talk about as one of those “I was there” moments, a match-winning innings which belongs among the highest echelons of innings.

Smashing 109 off just 72 balls, hitting 10 sixes to rescue Pakistan in a match they seemed destined to lose. For almost 90 overs of this game they were distinctly second best, but towards the end of both innings they were dominant.

But ultimately all you can say was that it was brilliant, white knuckle ride of an innings. A whirlwind, blitzkreig of massive shots and a complete masterclass in handling both the drama of the occasion, but also the chase of an imposing and difficult total.

He smashed sixes off the spinners and faster bowlers alike, timed the innings to perfection, and took Albie Morkel and Charl Langeveldt to the cleaners. In total he smashed 63 of the last 65 runs Pakistan scored in the innings, and hit 10 of the 12 sixex which Pakistan hit in their innings to send them over the line in dramatic fashion with one ball left.

It was a timely reminder of just what Abdul Razzaq and Pakistan are capable of, not just in the context of this series, but of the past six months, which have been dominated more by their deeds off the pitch than on them.

It showed that they, more than any other cricketing nation, remain capable of the extraordinary, combining sometimes outrageous displays of daring with more than a touch of drama. Few do drama and audacity quite like Pakistan, but even this was something else.

The irony that such a display should come on the very day when the ICC chose not to uphold the appeals from Salman Butt and Mohammed Aamir’s against their bans will not be lost on some.

The accusations which stand against them characterise a darker side to Pakistan cricket, a side which has all-too often dominated the stories about them. This is a side which damages their reputation, and tarnishes the work of good and honest Pakistan cricketers who are brought down by the dishonesty of a few.

Yet Razzaq’s display, and this tremendous snatch victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat result, simply reminded us that while they can test the loyalties of even their most ardent fans, there is still that other side to their character which ultimately makes such faith rewarding.

Thus this was not only a brilliant and thrilling cricketing moment, but also a timely one.

It was a moment that repaid the faith which thousands of fans and followers have invested in them and confirmed that for all the controversy which has dogged them recently, there is another side which can help make all the turmoil and frustration.

While this was a moment worthy of any adjective, perhaps the best description of all is that it finally has people talking about Pakistan for all the right reasons again.

Pakistan must use Twenty20 cricket to build for a brighter future

Not long ago a Pakistan team came to England guided by purpose, destiny, and wonderful cricketers and walked away with the World T20 trophy, a hatful of plaudits and plenty of great memories.

Now, that very same team have returned to England and have had a tour to forget for many reasons. Routed on the field, members of their squad have potentially been exposed off it.

The repercussions running through the game are significant and highly damaging, both for Pakistan and the cricketing world.

But setting scandal and outrage aside, it would be worth Pakistan assessing their performances on the field which have been as poor as any major Test playing nation has performed in England for years.

Even in Twenty20, a form of the game where they have recently excelled-as shown by the vibrant performances against Australia which now seem a lifetime ago.

Yet now they can’t even perform well in that, routed handsomely in both matches against England who to their credit were excellent. The One Day series coming up could well be a long and tortuous affair for these players.

Granted these players will have been affected by the off-field allegations, and their team is undoubtedly missing it’s three key players, yet these are still simply excuses for inadequate performances. In a tour of sorry sights, Tuesday’s dismal batting effort-all out for 89, and the turgid fielding display which followed were among the sorryest.

The question now for Pakistan is where do they go from here, looking even beyond the One Day Series, they now face a tour of South Africa and a set of limited overs games against the Proteas and New Zealand, both challenging teams.

If they were looking for a change in fortunes in both their One Day, Twenty20 and Test match cricket, then they could do worse then look beyond the current personnel and introducing fresh blood into the team.

One of the things Pakistan cricket is renowned for is their ability to discover genius at an early age, and then have it perform at the highest level as quickly as possible. It happened with Wasim Akram, it happened with Javed Miandad, and recently it happened with Mohammed Aamer and Umar Akmal.

So the sight of their Twenty20 team packed with the aging, hulking presences of Mohammed Yousuf, Shoaib Akhtar and Abdul Razzaq was a dispiriting one.

These have been great cricketers in the past, but in Twenty20-as England have shown-the need for athleticism, youthful legs and acceptable fielding is most needed in this game, and this is where Pakistan have been found wanting.

If they want to revive their fortunes in this form of the game then they should jettison the aging players, capable though they maybe, and invest in some younger players.

This is a team which should be built around the explosive talents of Umar Akmal and which should invest faith in players under 30 like Mohammed Hafeez, Fawad Alam and Umar Amin. These players are younger and fitter, more capable of improving over time, and who will eventually be there once the older generation move on.

Senior statesmen like Shahid Afridi and Saaed Ajmal can stay, guiding lights for the younger players, who are still effective performers in T20 cricket and not liabilities in the field.

Furthermore, if the T20 team is used as a conduit to introduce younger players into international cricket, like Pakistan’s recent U19 World Cup finalists, then it can allow younger players to get experience earlier and perhaps equip them better for international cricket.

For too long Pakistan cricket, that mercurial and mysterious wonder, has sought to destroy itself and then revert back to the tried and tested of the past, thus preventing younger players from gaining the necessary exposure to improve.

It is this, more than anything, which has contributed to their dire performances on the pitch this summer.

If Pakistan are looking to rebuild after their tumultuous summer then they could do worse than use T20 cricket, that beacon of hope two years ago, as a path to brighter times after their darkest hour.

Pack mentality allows England’s bowlers to thrive in hunt against Pakistan

As Pakistan subsided to their lowest score in a Test Match against England, the sense of inevitability about it all was rather depressing.

Like they had in the series against Australia and at Trent Bridge the Pakistan batting line-up collapsed like a house of cards. Once the opener’s go, no-one has the application necessary to hold out against the swinging ball.

The steady stream of outside edges which flew to the England close fielders were mere catching practice for a slip cordon who are steadily growing into one of the finest in the world under the tutelage of Richard Halsall.

Yet while the inadequacies of the Pakistan batsmen have been the subject of plenty of column inches and TV coverage, credit where credit is due to the England bowlers.

In these conditions these bowlers are in their element, led by James Anderson who is arguably bowling as well as he ever has.

Certainly yesterday with both in and outswing he was too much for the beleaguered batsmen, as his career test bowling average now stands at it’s lowest point since 2003 after picking up 4-20 on the back of his 11 match haul at Trent Bridge.

But while Anderson’s performances in these elements are fast becoming expected, the form of his two young sidekicks Broad and Finn are further reasons for optimism.

Broad in particular bowled his best spell in England since his series defining 5-37 against Australia, picking up 4-38 with a wonderfully spell of line and length bowling, no doubt remembering his recent 11 wicket haul for Nottinghamshire at this ground.

And then there was Finn, though the junior figure in terms of experience and figures of 2-10, his obvious qualities of immaculate line and length, good pace and height suggest that should he stay fit he can be an England Test bowler for many years to come.

Few bowlers can have caused such a stir so quickly, though bigger tests in Australia will lie ahead.

The exciting prospect for England is that Finn does not appear to shy away from any challenge. Plus a healthy sense of common sense, perhaps drummed into him by his mentor Angus Fraser, will not go amiss on the flat pitches of Australia if they are not needed in conditions such as those at Edgbaston yesterday.

Perhaps the key point for this England bowling attack though lies not in the wickets, but the performances together. The last England attack to operate as a unit were that wonderful attack in 2005, and the signs are that a similar rapport is being built up between the three quick bowlers and Graeme Swann in support.

Plus the different ingredients, Anderson with his swing, Broad his line and length and Finn his height make for a potent and challenging attack working in tandem.

Credit too must go to David Saker, England’s new bowling coach who is clearly having a real impact on this attack. Though more a coach of people than of their art, Saker encourages his bowlers to think on their feet and work as a unit. Such qualities are likely to appeal to a group of bowlers who are also not short on brain power.

There will be harder days to come, and certainly the debate about whether England should stick with a four or five-man attack will go on. So too is the desire to inject real pace into this attack-probably the missing ingredient, meaning the likes of Ajmal Shahzad and Graham Onions will come into contention.

Though whatever the changes both in shape and personnel, the key for England will be to retain the focus on the bowlers hunting in a pack. Because as Pakistan found out yesterday, England’s bowling attack is at it’s best when working in tandem.

Matt Prior’s Latest Hundred against Pakistan Proves His Worth to England Once Again

A Third Test Century for England's wicketkeeper

Once again a middle order batsman has stepped up to help steer England away from potential danger towards almost certain victory with a century. Where Eoin Morgan had his moment in the first innings, here it was Matt Prior’s turn to raise the bat.

Though he ended the day a hero, he was villain earlier in the day as hesitant calling from Prior saw Morgan run out with the score at 98-6 and whatever momentum England had built up was beginning to be halted by the clatter of wickets.

After Umar Gul swung hard earlier the day to avoid the follow on, including some mighty blows off Anderson and Finn, it was England’s turn to face the swinging ball with the Pakistan bowlers running riot.

The mood was set, as ever, by Mohammed Aamer who nipped out Andrew Strauss with a beauty, then Cook swiftly followed-strangled down the leg side.

After a bright respite from the steady Jonathan Trott and a recovering Kevin Pietersen, who showed signs of returning to form with some fine shots-including one lovely straight drive off Umar Gul.

Yet both men swiftly fell to the Pakistan fast bowler, Pietersen caught wonderfully by a diving Kamran Akmal off an inside edge and then Trott with a delivery which kept low.

Once Collingwood, fortunate to survive a first ball duck when Akmal dived too far and spilled an outside edge, fell LBW to Gul and after Prior and Morgan’s mix up, England were on course for a tough target but rocking along the way.

Yet up stepped Prior, all busy energy and capable stroke play, to steady the ship. Here was an innings which ought to have silenced any doubts, if any, about his worth to this team.

His batting was dogged, determined, yet not without flair-as shown by two big sixes off Kaneria to take him into the nineties. But more importantly was the way he manoeuvred England’s lower order towards a near impossible total for Pakistan to chase.

Hitting out for the hundred

Partnerships of 49 with Graeme Swann, 56 with Stuart Broad and 51 with last man Steven Finn were vital, and showed his ability not only to take a firm grip on proceedings, but keep the score rattling along at a rapid rate.

Only as he edged towards his hundred did he slow, as he crept cautiously towards the century-perhaps conscious that he had not scored one since March 2009.

Yet once the width was offered, a cut through gully brought him the three runs for his third Test hundred. As Strauss duly declared, with the lead now standing at a world record 435 runs, and given the calibre of the Pakistan batsmen and conditions of the Trent Bridge surface a certain victory.

England’s good form continued as Stuart Broad came to the party with two vital wickets and Anderson nipping out another one to leave Pakistan tottering at 15-3 at the close. Such a final flourish merely embellished Prior’s innings further.

Since Alec Stewart’s retirement England have searched desperately for a wicketkeeper batsman who can both keep soundly and score more than his fair share of runs, in Prior they have a man who ticks both boxes.

His keeping is now lithe and athletic to both seam and spin bowlers courtesy of hard yards put in with coach Bruce French, and he no longer betrays any of the technical deficiencies which marred his first foray into Test match cricket.

Meanwhile his batting, always his strongest suit, has never been doubted, despite a slight wobble in South Africa. A test match average over 40-still a lofty landmark in Test cricket-is hugely creditable and puts him up there with the best batsmen among England’s pantheon of wicketkeepers.

It seems almost strange to think that just weeks ago Craig Kieswetter was being tipped to force Prior out of the Test position given their recent turn of fortunes.

While Kieswetter searches vainly for a recovery of the form that made him such a force to be reckoned with in the T20 Championships, Prior continues to get stronger and stronger after scoring plenty in all forms for Sussex.

But as his latest hundred goes to show, when the pressure is on, Prior is more than capable of responding well.

As England continue on through this series, and then eventually towards the Ashes this winter, one suspects they will continue to appreciate the worth of their wicketkeeper batsman. On this evidence he won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.