Rarely has there been a clearer illustration of the importance to a sports team of a cleanly motivated and prioritised administration than the Bangladesh national cricket team demonstrated to the rest of the world over the past six months.
Routing Zimbabwe in eight out of eight Tests and one-dayers last October could easily be dismissed as irrelevant, but eliminating England en route to the quarterfinals of the World Cup earlier this year made everyone sit up and take notice.
Bangladesh cricket history has plenty of “landmark” moments that turned out to be fool’s gold. These upsets heralded not a new era but merely an increase in the money- and influence-grubbing culture that has bedevilled the country’s progress since it was granted Test status at the turn of the millennium.
It was only then that a first-class structure worthy of the name was even introduced. That in itself is reason enough for why the team has struggled in Tests and succeeded sporadically in limited-overs cricket. But the major reason, undoubtedly, has been the status and wealth the game has afforded those who administer it.
Way back in the 1980s there was a club league in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, which often played to packed houses of 40 000-plus in the Bangabandu National Stadium and employed many international stars, mostly from Pakistan, on extremely generous packages. Former Pakistan captain Aamir Sohail has fond memories of his time in the league.
“The atmosphere was like a one-day international [ODI] but it was [local franchises] Gladiators against Baridhara; the crowd went crazy. We were very well paid and looked after like stars. It was an offer we were all very happy to accept,” recalls Sohail.
“Bangladesh should have made more progress as a Test nation, but there are many things that hold the players back. Pakistan can be complicated, but Bangladesh is more so.”
No waves of change
It would be trite and naive to suggest that everything has now changed, but there is undoubtedly a gentle lapping of realism rather than waves of high change in the administration. The vast majority of a population of 140-million are avid cricket followers, which makes advertising revenue and broadcast rights highly desirable. Bangladesh is, and has been for many decades, a mini-India in that respect. The progress and success of the national team has not been a priority, with huge income guaranteed regardless.
So perhaps, yet again, South Africa’s tour of the country that begins next week will signal the start of a new era. The locals are not setting their sights too high. Their first draw against Pakistan in nine attempts in Khulna two months ago was celebrated nationwide with no apology. It was a draw with honour, too, and a high-scoring one.
Flat, batting-friendly pitches will face the Proteas in both Chittagong and Mirpur, Dhaka, for the Test matches, with spin only seriously coming into play on the final two days. Survival will be straightforward, but run scoring will not be fluent and patience will be paramount.
A South African team made to scrape and scrounge for their runs will be victory enough for the home side. A South African team eager to avoid doing so by dominating too early may end up red-faced.
South Africa’s decade-long history of starting slowly on tours, both home and away, will be exacerbated by the conditions in Bangladesh, but coach Russell Domingo is confident that the decision not to hold a pre-tour camp of any description – either in Pretoria or even in Dhaka – will not backfire.
“We have spoken in great detail about the issue of slow starts over the past year and put it to bed. Our results have shown that we have overcome that perceived weakness,” Domingo said this week.
So the squad will assemble on Monday and fly the same day, as “cold” and, conventionally speaking, as underprepared as any Proteas squad of the past 20 years. Domingo, like predecessor Gary Kirsten, is convinced that the most important pre-paration takes place in the head, not in the nets. It certainly helps that the least important fixtures take place before the two Test matches, with two T20 internationals preceding three ODIs at the start of the tour.
“There isn’t too much we can do regarding physical preparation. The schedule is what it is. We have one warm-up T20 match as well as the normal net sessions and middle practice sessions.
“Bangladesh are playing well and have been involved in a few big series, including the [recent 2-1 ODI series] win against India, so we need to be on top of our game from the outset. We know that,” Domingo said before referring, with an understandably wizened weariness, to an old theme.
“Our players will be coming off a good month of rest. If we play week in and week out, players are jaded and we are criticised for that. But if you have a month or two off, players are rusty and we are criticised for that. You can’t win. We just need to prepare well and train hard for five days and get straight back into it. That’s the bottom line.”
Faf du Plessis was certainly grateful for the break: “The time away from the game has been much needed, especially for the guys that go to the IPL [Indian Premier League] every year as we hardly get a good break at home and have a lot of cricket coming up this season. So mentally it is great that we’ve had time off.”
The Bangladeshi team is not what it once was. An ever-changing line-up of well-connected recent school-leavers and 21-year-olds has evolved into a squad of seasoned, experienced cricketers. Selection is consistent, eccentric or outspoken individuals are no longer immediately discarded, the first-class structure is working and the players are awash with confidence under an excellent coach, Sri Lankan Chandika Hathurusingha.
This series will be neither one-sided nor easy.