“There are 30-35 news channels in Bangladesh, so 30-35, and a lot of reporters from the newspapers, maybe 50-60,” Mehedi Hasan Miraj thinks hard as he counts the number of interviews he has done since the end of the Dhaka Test against England, where he picked up 12 wickets to script a big slice of history for Bangladesh cricket. He was also named the Man of the Series for his 19 wickets across two Tests.
All those media interactions don’t seem to have tired him. He is chirpy as he comes on the phone with a warm and familiar, “Kyamon asen, Dada (How are you doing, Dada)?” It’s easy to talk to Mehedi after that, and he frequently interrupts questions with, “Wait, wait, let me first tell you that story …”
One of these is about the beatings he got at the hands of his father, Jalal Hossain, a truck driver, when growing up first in Barisal and then in Khulna.
Hossain, understandably, wanted his son to get himself a safe career. “When I started playing cricket in 2005-06, I was nine-ten, my father didn’t want me to play. He thought I’d get spoilt and mix with the bad boys. He wanted me to be a doctor or engineer. He wanted me to study. But I loved cricket. I had to hide and play cricket. He used to take his truck and go off in the morning, and I ran away to play cricket,” Mehedi recalls – although ‘recalls’ might be the wrong word here, because he’s still only 19, and the memories he shares are from barely ten years ago.
But it didn’t always work out to plan. “When he caught me, found out that I had gone to play, I would get beaten up. On Shab-e-Baraat [the night of forgiveness, a Muslim festival] once, he caught me, tied me up by my hands and ankles, and beat me up black and blue. I used to get beaten up a lot. But after a point, he gave up and I stopped caring. I was going to play, and he realised it.”
It was all tennis-ball and tape-ball stuff at the time, “not serious cricket”. The Bangladeshis are cricket-mad, and Mehedi was no exception. He wanted to play it properly. Enter Rasel bhai (not Syed Rasel, the Test player, but a local star of some sort) and then Sohel bhai and various others, until finally – at the age of 13 – he was taken on by a proper coach, Al Mahmood, on Rasel’s insistence. “I held a leather ball in my hands and I loved it.”
He still couldn’t focus on the game; his father wasn’t going to have any of it. Mehedi told his coach that he wouldn’t be able to attend training regularly. But soon, Mahmood realised that he had a little gem in his hands: A solid top-order batsman and a decent offspinner. “He loved me,” Mehedi says about Mahmood, still his primary coach. “I was very brave. I didn’t fear fast bowlers and I didn’t fear fielding close and stopping hard-hit balls. I played without fear, and my coach loved that.”
He put in some good performances where it mattered, Mahmood backing him strongly, and his father, busy with trying to earn his family’s bread, finally gave up. The boy was going to play cricket, of that there was no doubt. So he went: The Under-14s, Under-15s, Under-17s, and Under-19s, for district, then division, and then the country. In between, when in the U17s, he started out in first-class cricket for Khulna too. The boy’s talent fast-tracked his progress. So much so that he was captain for Bangladesh at various age-group levels and twice at the Under-19 World Cup, in 2014 and 2016.
Along the way, he visited the other Bengal, in India, in 2011 and 2012, when the Bangladesh team played against local teams from Kolkata and the West Bengal Under-15s and Under-17s in small towns like Baharampur and Chinsura and Nadia and Hooghly. “Those were fields more than grounds; village fields, but it was fun.”
“When I started playing cricket in 2005-06, my father didn’t want me to play. He thought I’d get spoilt and mix with the bad boys. He wanted me to be a doctor or engineer. He wanted me to study. But I loved cricket. I had to hide and play cricket. When he caught me, found out that I had gone to play, I would get beaten up. Once, he caught me, tied me up by my hands and ankles, and beat me up black and blue. I used to get beaten up a lot. But after a point, he gave up and I stopped caring. I was going to play, and he realised it.”
An aside – when asked what he likes doing outside of playing cricket, he says, “eating food, the stuff my mother makes, like pitha and payesh (sweets) and gorur mangsho (beef)” before apologising profusely with “oh, you don’t have beef, I am so sorry”. No, no, I do, I say, and the relief is palpable even over the phone: “Oh, that’s good. I am so young; I didn’t know Hindus don’t have beef. I realised when I went to play in West Bengal. It was so different. I don’t know much about Partition, I found out when I went to Kolkata.”
That was some time ago. More recently, at the Under-19 World Cup earlier this year, when the young man led Bangladesh to the semifinals, he was a star. On the field, and he had the carriage to match. He won the Man of the Tournament award for his 242 runs and 12 wickets in six games.
“Taking Bangladesh to the semifinal, even though it was at home, was a big achievement. I was Man of the Tournament and also captain of the World XI that was named afterwards. It was great. It proved to everyone that I was good enough,” he says.
Everyone included Hossain, who had come around once his errant son began to do well at the U14s. It wasn’t a bad career choice after all. Mehedi had won the best allrounder award for the national U14s and was called to Sher-e-Bangla Stadium to collect his spoils – a trophy and 25,000 Taka – from Mustafa Kamal, then the Bangladesh Cricket Board chief. England was on tour at the time, and the award was given during a break in the second Test.
Two things happened there.
One, Hossain figured out that his son was probably doing the right thing in trying to be a cricketer. “I brought him with me, and a lot of important people spoke to him. So he was proud. He got a lot of respect.” And, after the recent Dhaka Test heroics, “he is very happy and proud. He says I am not his son but the son of the whole country.”
Two, it made Mehedi want to play international cricket desperately, and he wanted to play against England. “Look what fate has in store for you. By the grace of Allah, I played Test cricket in Dhaka, at Sher-e-Bangla, and my debut was against England.”
Too many youngsters pay lip service to Test cricket in this day and age of Twenty20s, but Mehedi is categorical: “I want to play all formats for Bangladesh, but I wanted to start with Test cricket. It was a dream. Now I have done that.”
More than once, Mehedi says, “I play without fear”, and it was evident during the Chittagong and Dhaka Tests against England.
“I have worked very hard to get here. You can’t imagine how much harder I can still work. Maybe that’s why I have achieved this. I am very proud of what I have achieved for cricket and the 16 or 18 crore people here in Bangladesh. Their love is a great blessing. I am not going to be weak and lose that. I have gotten here now, and everyone is treating me like a star. I have to work very hard to remain a star.”
It’s fair to say, even at the cost of generalising, that the entry of Mustafizur Rahman and Mehedi Hasan Miraj to the Bangladesh cricket scene has changed something vital: the team’s attitude. No longer happy just making up the numbers, they are playing to win. There might be a number of factors that have contributed to making this happen – the emergence of Mustafizur and Mehedi a big one among them.
Mehedi agrees. “Our mental strength is the main thing,” he says about Mustafizur, senior to him by two years, and himself. “Cricket, it’s all in the mind. If you concede defeat before the game, then it’s all gone. But if you want to fight, want to keep trying … Mustafiz, me, whoever is playing in the national team, we know we can win. If your mind is strong, then you can do great things.
“I have worked very hard to get here. You can’t imagine how much harder I can still work. Maybe that’s why I have achieved this. I am very proud of what I have achieved for cricket and the 16 or 18 crore people here in Bangladesh. Their love is a great blessing. I am not going to be weak and lose that. I have heard leaders say ‘getting independence is easy, it’s tougher to be responsible about independence’. I believe that. I have gotten here now, and everyone is treating me like a star. I have to work very hard to remain a star.”
As I begin to ask the next question, Mehedi interrupts again – he is excited and wants to tell the “people of India” as much about himself as possible. “One of my favourite bowlers is from your country, guess who,” he asks.
Uhh, R Ashwin?
“No, you can’t guess. It’s Ramesh Powar.”
Ah, interesting. But then you think about it, there is a similarity in the action. “I watched him on TV in the IPL a couple of times,” says Mehedi. “I have tried to copy his action. I think I watched just one over and became a fan. He was also bowling on the same spot, like I can do. My biggest strength is that I can bowl on the same spot for a long time and I can spin the ball a lot.” The other hero is Graeme Swann, for similar reasons.
Mehedi also has his future, both the short-term and overall, sorted.
The immediate one is to be a part of Bangladesh’s tours of New Zealand and India and then the Champions Trophy. “This is the most important year of my life. We play a lot of cricket overseas, so I need to gather experience. We have to win outside Bangladesh too. I have to learn and perform. In all formats.”
The long-term plan is to “be a good human being”. “My first ambition in life is to be a good person. I am very young, and already a star. But I want to remain the same person. It’s just that others are looking at me differently, I am the same.”
Mehedi has suddenly gone and done what no cricketer from his neck of the woods had before him: Play the leading role in beating one of the top nations in a Test match. Cricket is full of stories of talented youngsters losing their way – and you can’t help but wish this excitable and cheerful young man is not among them. He looks, feels and talks the part of someone who will stay focused on the cricket. If he can remain the same person, as he says, good for him. For now, Bangladesh and world cricket will hope he remains the same, or gets even better, as a player.