“You have to believe in yourself when no one else does – that makes you a winner right there.” – Venus Williams
Belief. Belief in the self and, in non-individual sports, in the team, in each other.
I wonder if that’s the thing that makes the biggest difference in a contest between two rivals of approximately equal competence. Something Utpal Chatterjee said in an interview a few days ago comes to mind: “Bombay believed they were the best, and [the Bengal team] always felt inferior to them”. With 41 titles in 82 editions of the Ranji Trophy, who could grudge Bombay their belief? And their opponents the lack of it?
Belief – it’s something the Bangladesh cricket team didn’t have until just the other day. Now, they are oozing it.
But how exactly does a team suddenly find such a thing?
I’d put it down to the following: 1. Results: You start winning, you start believing in yourself. 2. Personnel: On the field, of course, but behind the scenes too. 3. Support: You can luck out here – if enough people back you, even if they don’t really believe in you, it can go a long way. 4. In a team sport, personalities: When players unburdened by the baggage of history come around, and play without fear of failure, great things can happen.
In the Bangladesh context, ‘1’ has happened in the 50-over format over the past couple of seasons, where they have been making waves, even if it has been restricted to Mirpur. As for ‘2’, Chandika Hathurusinghe has to take the credit (although many of my journalist friends from Dhaka don’t always rate him too highly). He joined the team in May 2014. That much-talked about run of glory in bilateral One-Day International series at home, it started in April 2015 when Pakistan came calling. Who knows how much credit a coach can be given for something like this, but if success of this sort coincides with the arrival of someone new, that is hard to ignore. With ‘3’, it’s easy – Bangladesh is a one-sport country and the passion of its fans is unparalleled in other Test-playing nations. And ‘4’ comes down to Mustafizur Rahman and now Mehedi Hasan, to my mind.
It’s the fourth factor that is key here.
Tamim Iqbal has gone from being a dasher to, possibly, Bangladesh’s best-ever batsman, while everyone that matters in the international game has noted Shakib Al Hasan’s all-round credentials over the years. Them aside, Mashrafe Mortaza and Mushfiqur Rahim, Sabbir Rahman and Mahmudullah, they have all done well over the years, more so in recent times.
But Mustafizur first and Mehedi over the past couple of weeks have lifted the lid for the Bangladesh cricket team.
Mustafizur’s rise from nowhere to being one of the global stars of the last year or so has been well documented, and it doesn’t need to be reiterated that his contribution to Bangladesh’s recent success in 50-over cricket is enormous. Had it not been for the shoulder problem, it’s fairly certain he would have been playing a role in this Test series too.
He might not always have done it himself, no one can, but Mustafizur has shown the way. By playing fearless cricket, by not worrying about the worth and the reputation of the opposition, and by largely doing his own thing and not altering his game to do what the opponents want him to do, Mustafizur has busted the glass ceiling.
So have people like Taskin Ahmed and Mahmudullah and Soumya Sarkar in their own ways.
And now we have Mehedi. Or Miraz, as he is known back home.
“The ease with which Miraz soaks in the situational demands to deliver almost every time his team needs with the bat, the ball and as a leader suggests that he is one for the long haul,” wrote my colleague Sidhanta Patnaik during the Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh earlier this year. Then, Miraz led the home side to the semifinals, where they lost to West Indies, the eventual champions.
He was 18-and-some then, and turned 19 during the Dhaka Test. Over two Tests, he did the unthinkable: Tie the England batsmen up in knots. Returns of 6 for 80, 1 for 58, 6 for 82 and 6 for 77 are up there with the greatest initiations to Test cricket. Crucially, like Mustafizur, he played without fear, without worrying about whether the English batsmen were too good for him.
They were not.
And, like Mustafizur, Mehedi did his own thing: “I always try to perform averagely, which I tried in the second Test as well.”
Bangladesh prepared the sorts of pitches “that would help our spinners and trouble the English batsmen”, said Mushfiqur after the Dhaka Test, and Alastair Cook harped on “our inexperience in those conditions”.
True, all of that. Miraz won’t be as effective everywhere in the world, maybe not even across the border in India, where Bangladesh come to play Test cricket for the first time in February 2017. But James Anderson and Stuart Broad aren’t as deadly outside of England either. Miraz’s average of 15.63 will likely hit the mid to late 20s by the time he has gone from two Tests to 20 Tests as well. That’s just how things work.
But, for now, he has shown Bangladesh the way, like Mustafizur had in limited-overs cricket – I suspect Bangladesh wouldn’t have made the final of the Asia Cup (Twenty20) tournament in early 2016 if they hadn’t done as well in 50-over cricket in the lead-up to the event.
Bangladesh’s Test life is now 16 years strong, and turning more than just one corner, even if only in their Sher-e-Bangla backyard. Eventually, they will do it elsewhere too. And, if I’ve got this right, these two young men (Mustafizur is still only 21) will take their senior mates, the ones with all the baggage, along with them – like we have started to see happening.