Try writing ‘Botham’s Ashes’ on the Google search bar and what will flash across your screen is a multitude of information and stories related to the 1981 Ashes. Similarly, the 2005 Ashes series is popularly called ‘Flintoff’s Ashes’ because it was riding on the back of his brilliant all-round display (402 runs and 24 wickets) that England went on to regain the urn after a long wait of nineteen years.
Seldom, in the history of cricket, has a particular series or tournament been identified with a particular player. Even though Bradman averaged over 50 (56.57 to be precise) in the infamous Bodyline series of 1932/33 while almost everybody around him, including the likes of Bill Ponsford and Bill Woodfull, were vanquished by England captain Douglas Jardine’s diabolical tactics, we don’t refer to the series as ‘Bradman’s Ashes’, or ‘Jardine’s Ashes’, or even for that matter ‘Larwood’s Ashes‘, but use the term ‘Bodyline’ because it embodies the darker side of the gentleman’s game, which would hardly carry the same effect if identified with a particular player’s name.
While the 2019 Cricket World Cup has been witness to several brilliant individual performances like Rohit Sharma’s five hundreds in a single edition and Mitchell Starc’s twenty-five plus wickets, it may well be remembered by the posterity as Shakib al Hasan’s World Cup, for his relentless consistency with both bat and ball (606 runs and 11 wickets) was the foremost reason why Bangladesh looked such a competitive unit and finished the tournament with three wins (against South Africa, the West Indies and Afghanistan) out of the eight matches that they played, with one game—against Sri Lanka in Bristol—being a washout.
While at one stage of the tournament, Bangladesh were very much in contention of making the semi-finals, losses against New Zealand, England, Australia and India meant that they had to depend on the results of other teams to stay in the hunt. That Tamim Iqbal confessed in the mixed zone after the game against Australia, where they scored 333/8 in reply to Australia’s 381/5, that the moment the target had gone past 330, they knew the game had gone beyond their reach, goes to highlight that Bangladesh are not yet ripe to pull off such run chases against superior bowling attacks which comprise the Starcs, the Cummins, the Archers, and the Bumrahs. And by the time they were playing Pakistan in their last league game, it had all come down to playing for pride rather than playing for a berth in the knockouts.
Dominating the ICC all-rounder rankings for nearly a decade now, Shakib is undoubtedly the greatest cricket superstar to have emerged from Bangladesh. Yet, there had always been a feeling that Bangladesh were not able to harness his true potential as a batsman since he was mostly batting at five or six hitherto. The decision to assign the number three spot to him prior to the start of the tournament proved a golden strategy for both the team and Shakib as it allowed him to take his time and build an innings, which is not always possible for a batsman batting in the lower middle-order since he generally comes out to bat at a time when he has to swing his bat from the very outset.
Adept against both pace and spin, Shakib was the fulcrum around which the rest of the Bangladeshi batting revolved in the tournament. From hinging on the back foot and playing the horizontal shots when needed to watching the ball till the last moment against spinners, Shakib exemplified the highest level of batsmanship against quality bowling attacks. The fact that he could never be dismissed under forty accentuates the price he put on his wicket every time he walked out to bat. With the ball, too, he fared reasonably well, picking up 11 wickets at an average of 36.27 and an economy rate of 5.39 including a five-wicket haul (5/29) against Afghanistan. In an edition that has not been much rewarding for spinners, these are stats that any spinner would boast of having.
Contrary to Shakib’s personal form, Bangladesh blew hot and cold as a unit during the course of their thirty-three day long campaign at the World Cup. While their win over South Africa by 21 runs at the Oval in their very first game shocked many pundits the world over, it did much to establish that they cannot be called ‘minnows’ on the global stage any longer. Yes, they have won bilateral series against heavyweight teams like India, the West Indies and South Africa on their home soil in recent past, but the win against South Africa coming away in England and on as big a stage as the World Cup, had a special significance of its own which inspired many Bangladeshi fans, who, harking back to the team’s semi-final run at the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy, were expecting the team to make a similar journey at this year’s World Cup. But with opener Tamim Iqbal and almost every other batsman except Shakib and Mushfiqur Rahim (367 runs in eight innings at an average of 52.42) being inconsistent, Bangladesh were always going to fall short of the target against big teams like Australia, England and India.
One of the main reasons why the Tigers did so well at the Champions Trophy a couple of years ago was that Tamim Iqbal performed exceptionally well at the top of the order, hitting two fifties and a century. This time around though, he could only manage 235 runs at an underwhelming average of 29.37 with his sole fifty coming against Australia at Trent Bridge. His opening partner in most games, Soumya Sarkar, has long been billed as an exciting talent, but it’s high time he translated his talent into performance; a tally of 166 runs at an average of 20.75 is certainly not good enough for a player who has played over fifty ODIs to date.
The lower middle-order batsmen such as Liton Das, Mahmudullah and Mosaddek Hossain suffered from the same malady. While Liton’s stroke-filled 94* off 69 balls en route to a famous run chase against the Windies at Taunton was a testament to the fearlessness of this new crop of Bangladeshi batsmen even against vicious bouncers, he was unable to sustain that form in the matches that followed. The inconsistency of these batsmen meant that Shakib and Mushfiqur had to shoulder added responsibility, and once these two players were back in the pavilion, the opposition knew that it was only a matter of time before they ripped through the lower-order and won the game.
The disappointment in the Bangladeshi camp was palpable when skipper Mashrafe Mortaza lamented in a press conference after their final game of the tournament against Pakistan at Lord’s, “We could not do the right things at the right times. We could not take catches when we needed to, and when we needed to bowl well, the bowlers could not step up.”
As far as Bangladesh’s bowling in the tournament is concerned, left-arm pacer Mustafizur Rahman was the standout performer, having taken 20 scalps from eight games (including two consecutive five-fors against India and Pakistan) and finished the league phase as the second-highest wicket taker after Mitchell Starc (26 wickets). Even though he proved a tad expensive—going at 6.70 runs per over—his tendency to pick regular wickets at the death was worth its weight in gold for Bangladesh. The biggest letdown for them was their captain Mashrafe Mortaza’s form, who managed a solitary scalp in the entire tournament at an abysmal average of 361!
Sharing the new ball duties with young Mohammad Saifuddin, Mortaza failed to get early breakthroughs which impeded his team from doing well against the higher ranked opponents. While speculations are rife that Mortaza may retire from international cricket soon, it cannot be denied that he was the weakest link in the Bangladeshi team at this World Cup. Saifuddin (13 wickets from 7 games at an economy rate of 7.18) brings raw pace into the side and has the potential to become a long-term asset if handled carefully. A useful batsman down the order, his inspired fifty batting at eight against India showed glimpses of a good all-rounder in the making.
On surfaces that did not provide much assistance to the spinners, the Bangladeshi spinners fared reasonably well with Shakib leading the way and Mehidy Hasan (six wickets at an economy rate of 5.08) and Mosaddek (three wickets at an economy of 5.97) complementing him nicely, especially in the middle overs when they were needed to slow things down.
With the next edition of the World Cup slated to be held in India, in conditions that will suit their style of play, Bangladesh need to draw up an elaborate plan on how they should proceed from here and what kind of players do they require in order to evolve into a match-winning unit rather than being just ‘competitive’. Finding two or three sharp fast bowlers, a pool of batsmen who can serve Bangladesh cricket for at least five to six years, and some genuine fielders should be the way forward if they are to do better at the international level in the future. Winning away from home is also another aspect which should be given equal emphasis and attention, if not more.
With the sacking of head coach Steve Rhodes and his entire support staff and Mortaza being on the verge of retirement, the reins of the national side may soon be passed over to Shakib, who must play an active part in the process of building a team for the future. The appointment of India’s Wasim Jaffer as batting consultant is perhaps a step taken in the right direction given his wealth of experience on India’s domestic circuit, and if the BCB shows the nous of choosing its coaching staff wisely and not letting the extraneous factors seep into the team’s on-field performance, there shouldn’t be any reason why Bangladesh will not be one of the contenders for the 2023 World Cup.