It’s a long Bank holiday weekend in England as the nation celebrates the diamond jubilee. Parades and flotillas are planned as well as a concert near Buckingham Palace and as is customary on such occasions, the weather is overcast and a not very warm. As a nation is overcome by monarchical fervour, Mohammad Ashraful is in buoyant mood. Ashraful explains he is currently playing for Blackheath CC in the Kent Premier League. He arrived in early May and is impressed by the standard of cricket:
“They are a very good side. I played in England in 2006 for Rainhill CC [in the North East of England] and I’d say the Kent league is of a much higher standard”.
Ashraful is in good touch too having recently scored a century for the club and taken wickets too. He is pleased he has been recalled, but not surprised that the selectors have reverted to possibly their most enigmatic batsmen:
“You know I had a reasonable tournament for the Dhaka Gladiators in the BPL [Bangladesh Premier League], my team won the tournament and I was among the top Bangladeshi run scorers, so I was always confident of getting a chance in T20 cricket”.
Ashraful feels that very tournament contributed to Bangladesh’s recent success in the Asia Cup where they narrowly failed to win the title, but defeated India and Sri Lanka to book a place in the final:
“I think the BPL had a big impact on this [the Asia Cup], coming out of a big tournament like that I think the boys were very confident in their abilities. I feel if we play this kind of tournament more our cricket standard will improve. At Dhaka Gladiators for example, we had the likes of Afridi, Rana Naved, Azhar Mahmood; all big name players. Playing with such high profile cricketers can only help our young cricketers develop”.
Ashraful feels a number of bright young prospects have already displayed their potential during the BPL, in particular Anamul Haque who has also been selected for the T20 tour to Zimbabwe. Ashraful describes his Dhaka teammate as being a technically sound batsman:
“He has a very good technique, but he’s still very young in fact I think he will play in the Under 19 World Cup this year. He has a good future ahead of him in all formats and he’s also a very good wicket keeper.”
Among the others he mentions are the fast bowler Abul Hasan who will also go to Zimbabwe and is known to regularly hit speeds of 140 KPH. Of the lesser known names, Ashraful singles out Barisal Burners batsman Mominul Haque Showrav:
“Mominul is a short guy, a talented left hand batsmen who has improved a lot in the last two years or so. He’s one to watch for the future, he shows a lot of promise”.
Ashraful also acknowledges the importance of having a good quality legspinner in the national side and tips 20 year old leggie (and protégé of his own former coach Wahidul Goni) Noor Hossain Munna for future success. Munna played for Sylhet in the first edition of the BPL.
As the conversation inevitably turns to his own inconsistent batting form, the veteran of 57 tests and 171 ODIs is reluctant to be drawn too much on why he remains an unfulfilled talent. As I probe him, he says he wants to forget the past and focus on the future. The impression, however, is of a cricketer still finding his feet in international cricket:
“I don’t know why I haven’t been consistent in the past. I still think I have seven to eight years left of international cricket and I hope to start performing well soon, starting with Zimbabwe”.
I query why Ashraful, the assured domestic cricketer, becomes diffident and uncertain when he puts on the national cap:
“Actually yes, when I play domestic cricket in Bangladesh my performance is very good in all formats. I think because I’m a leading player I know I’ll be playing in every game regardless of my performances. I don’t get that kind of freedom in international cricket where a couple of bad games automatically brings pressure”.
Ashraful views T20 cricket as a good route back to the national side in all formats:
“I have a good strike rate in T20 cricket. I opened [the batting] in the BPL and also batted at four and five, I would happily bat in the top order for Bangladesh in T20s”.
I then turn to the subject of former Bangladesh coach Jamie Siddons. Ashraful was skipper under Siddons and he feels his personal form suffered at the hands of the Australian known as a batting specialist:
“My strike rate in one day cricket declined significantly under Siddons. He came along and highlighted technical flaws in my batting. I was so preoccupied with trying to correct those that my form suffered, my strike rate was very low”.
Ashraful accepts that Siddons had greater success with some of his less experienced teammates, but on a personal level he feels Siddons failed to understand and improve his game:
“You know before Siddons arrived I had played for Bangladesh for almost eight years, and in that time no coach had ever said there were problems with my technique. Jamie was the first to do that, tinkering with my back lift and so on. So I focused on trying to change that, hoping it would improve my consistency. Unfortunately my strike rate suffered as a result”.
Ashraful’s comments on Siddons are intriguing and may partly explain why the BCB opted not to extend the Australian’s contract following the 2011 World Cup. Ashraful also feels he was unfairly singled out by Siddons:
“He always applied pressure on me in the media. Even when the whole team had performed badly, I felt he would name me specifically”.
I ask Ashraful why he declined to stand down as captain when Siddons suggested he concentrate more on his batting. On this, the diminutive right hander points to the fledgling nature of the team and to his own position as the elder statesman of the side:
“I was made captain after a lot of good players had retired and when we had lost many others to the ICL. We were a very new team and it would have been unfair for me to relinquish the captaincy at that time. It was my responsibility to lead and that’s why I didn’t stand down”.
He is more complimentary about Siddons’ successor Stuart Law whom Ashraful played under during the 2011 tour of Zimbabwe:
“We were very unlucky to lose Stuart Law. He is a very good coach, he was only with us for nine months or so. He’s a very good motivator and doesn’t tinker too much with technique ”.
On Law’s replacement, Englishman Ricahrd Pybus, Ashraful is optimistic:
“I’ve heard he is a very good coach. He has coached Pakistan before more than once so he knows the South Asian culture and mindset. I think he’s exactly the sort of coach we need for Bangladesh”.
Ashraful has clearly had a lot of time to reflect on his own performances and spells away from the national fold appear to have contributed to that. He highlights the ways in which he hopes Ashraful 2012 will be a better cricketer than previous incarnations:
“In the past my shot selection was not so good. Also, I am a naturally aggressive batsman and I hope to continue in that way in the T20s in Zimbabwe”.
He will certainly have plenty of wise heads to call upon should he require further advice. I have the impression that Ashraful is a popular member of the international cricketing fraternity and indeed he counts some impressive figures as friends,
“For Bangladesh I get on well with all my teammates but I am very close to Mashrafe. I have known him for around 11 years and we have played a lot of cricket together. I am also good friends with Harbajhan Singh, Sachin Tendulkar, Mohammed Yusuf and Shahid Afridi as well as Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard. In fact Pollard came round to my house when he played for us [Dhaka Gladiators] in the BPL and Mohammed Yusuf always gives me positive advice when I see him.”
“Sachin Tendulkar is my role model international cricketer and I was lucky enough to share a dressing room with him in the IPL for Mumbai Indians [in 2009]. That was a great experience. In domestic cricket my role model is Aminul Islam Bulbul”.
“I’d love to do well in Zimbabwe and secure a place in the T20 World Cup. If I can do that and keep playing well hopefully the selectors will pick me for the ODI and test teams too.”
Ashraful has kept his eye on English cricket too since coming to these shores and watched England take on the West Indies at Lords. He has great admiration for the world’s number one ranked test side and believes the secret to their success is the all-round abilities of the team:
“They are a very good test side and are particularly dangerous at home. James Anderson is a top bowler, he fields at slip and can hold a bat too. That’s why they do so well.”
This takes us to an interesting point in the conversation. I have been puzzled by the way Ashraful part time bowling has gone from legspin to offspin, he charts the history of his bowling antics:
“I started out as a legspinner, but in around 2006 I decided to switch to offspin and it turned out really well. I bowled a bit of medium pace when I was captain in the T20 World Cup [in 2007]. It’s much harder to land the ball in the same spot when you’re bowling legspin, sometimes I used to bowl really well and sometimes not so good. It’s much easier to control your bowling as an off spinner. It’s not a big deal for me; I bowl all sorts in the nets!”
Finally, we turn to Test cricket. Bangladesh last played a Test series in December 2011 against Pakistan. Their next scheduled series is against the West Indies in November 2012, a gap of almost 12 months. Ashraful makes a passionate plea for more regular Tests for Bangladesh:
“This is very important; we only ever play Tests after a long break. This is not good for any team. It takes time to readjust after such a long break”.
Ashraful is confident that the future is bright for Bangladesh. He tells me the Asia Cup performance has enhanced his team’s image among their international counterparts, and that they stand a fair chance in the T20 World Cup later this year. As for his old friend Mashrafe, Ashraful was pleased to see Bangladesh’s most experienced bowler back in ODI colours:
“Personally, I think after all those knee operations he should probably focus on ODI and T20 cricket for now. I think that’s what he is seeking to do. He bowled really well in the Asia Cup and that is encouraging”.
Mohammed Ashraful remains an enigma. His occasional bursts of brilliance have become infrequent as the selectors have become more confident in replacing him. However, he is never out of the side for too long, whether by design or pure fate. He was Bangladesh’s first batting hero, but others have overtaken him since. Tamim Iqbal and Shakib Al Hasan are much bigger names and more bankable stars. However, despite many years in the limelight Ashraful has retains an endearing sense of humility and charm. His diligence and dedication to cricket is obvious, which makes his failure to perform all the more tragic. So as the UK celebrates the reign of its monarch, Bangladesh fans will be hoping that as far as their batting prospects go, the king has returned.