Tim Wigmore discovers from Bangladesh’s star all-rounder Shakib Al Hasan about his nation’s change in fortunes
Tim Wigmore chats with Bangladesh’s Shakib al Hasan
In 2006, Tony Blair was still Prime Minister, George W. Bush was still President and the iPhone had yet to be launched. It was also the last time that Bangladesh played a Test match against Australia.
The two-Test series between the countries, which begins on Sunday, is brimming with significance. It is a series that many in Bangladesh had feared would never come.
First, because Australia have long been so reticent about playing the Tigers in Test cricket. Second, because of the security situation in the country, which led to Australia postponing their tour, originally scheduled for 2015. And, finally, because of the dispute between Australia’s players and board over their new contract.
It was never likely that the Ashes would be cancelled, which would have been disastrous for players and the board alike.Yet it was very conceivable that the wrangling could have extended for another couple of months, scuppering the matches in Bangladesh.
When Australia last played a Test in Bangladesh, nightwatchman Jason Gillespie scored the most unlikely Test double century in history, which rather summer up the state of Bangladeshi cricket at the time.
It is true that Bangladesh had almost toppled Australia in the first Test, probably coming only one dropped catch off Ricky Ponting short of realising this dream, yet their innings defeat in the second was perhaps a better emblem of the state of Bangladesh at the time.
They were only 18 months out of a run of 71 defeats (and a token draw, against Zimbabwe) from 72 internationals.
All that is history. Bangladesh today are not just a fine Test cricket team in Asian conditions – as England learned in their Test defeat last year, and Sri Lanka did the same during a home defeat earlier this year – but an emboldened one.
That spirit is embodied by Shakib Al Hasan, who stands out as Bangladesh’s finest ever cricketer, and a seminal figure in the world game. Consider this: he is ranked No.1 all-rounder in the world in all three formats. In all six disciplines – batting and bowling in Tests, ODIs and T20Is – his average is better than Ben Stokes’, which rather embodies the parochialism of those who proclaim Stokes the world’s finest all-rounder.
“We knew that we have this ability, and we needed that belief, and we can only get this belief by winning matches,” Shakib said of Bangladesh’s journey.
“But there is no shortage of selfbelief at this moment. Now we feel that we are very much unbeatable at home – doesn’t matter who we are playing against. So this is the belief that makes a team a very good team, and a winning team.”
“It’s been incredible. I don’t think many people thought – even in Bangladesh – that we can come this far.”
In Tests, the crucial change came ahead of the series with England last year. “Previously the mindset was to draw against big teams – try to play five days, make a draw – but we never used to get the result,” Shakib said. “Then we started thinking ‘let’s try to win – let’s try to play to win the game’. It’s the mindset that changed, and that made us believe that we can win.”
Through it all the support of Bangladesh’s fans has been unyielding and relentless: an extraordinary burden for a fledgling team to cope with. Shakib said: “There is a pressure, but we take it as a challenge, and we think that because they’re expecting, so they have the belief that we can perform. So that’s the positive thing we take from them – that because they’re expecting us to win – yes, if you think like that, it’s pressure, but we think because they think we can win, they have that belief, so why can’t we believe that we can win the match?”
His great frustration is that such chances are not more frequent. Ten years after his Test debut, only now will Shakib reach 50 Tests. “It is frustrating. I have been playing for ten years in Test cricket, and I have played only 49 Tests,” he said, noting how Alastair Cook, for instance, has played almost three times as many. “So we can see the difference. But that’s how it is. We can’t do anything. Hopefully we’ll get to play more Test matches, and improve ourselves as a Test-playing nation.
“The last few years have been great for our cricket. We can’t control other things. What we can do is keep improving ourselves, and we are. I think we are on the right track.” There is every reason to think he is right.
“I have a big responsibility, and I’m very much aware of that,” he added. “If someone gets inspired looking at me, I’ll be very happy.”
Shakib has already inspired a nation – and he might be about to do so all over again.
In the picture: Australian captain Steve Smith is stopped for a selfie when the tourists arrive in Bangladesh. Inset: The Aussies celebrate winning the Test series in 2006