A catalyst for Bangladesh

NOT often does a bottom-ranked side go into international competition expecting a win.

NOT often does a bottom-ranked side go into international competition expecting a win. Zimbabwe's year-old racial turmoil, which even led to the ICC delinking it from the Test arena for a while, saw it in this queer situation during its recent two-Test series against Bangladesh. The Asian team recorded its maiden victory in 35 matches, since gaining Test status four seasons ago.

However, too much should not be read into Bangladesh's series victory. The Zimbabwe side, under wicketkeeper Tatenda Taibu, had a combined experience of fewer than 70 Tests and hadn't played in a Test in nine months. In fact, the last series Zimbabwe had played in full strength had been at home against Bangladesh. Zimbabwe is presently ranked second from the bottom.

Concern will certainly be raised when Zimbabwe meets a stronger country, as the results could be embarrassingly lopsided, leading to the thorny subject of the integrity of Test cricket rearing its ugly head again.

Not for nothing then was this series billed as the `battle for the bantamweight crown.' Obviously, Bangladesh was better prepared. The two Tests and three-match one-day series it played against India at home only weeks earlier had sharpened its skills.

Man to man, too, Bangladesh had a clear edge in every department. Left-arm spinner Mohammad Rafique had taken more Test wickets than the entire Zimbabwe team. In batting, the host's top-order had four players with over 1000 runs each, while Zimbabwe had only Dion Ebrahim to show for, and even he was ineligible for the first Test, serving a dissent suspension.

Then, there was always the home advantage. Clearly, Bangladesh's confidence was high after the success in the second one-dayer against India. But, the new-found attitude actually stemmed from Md. Ashraful's masterly century against the world-class spin duo of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh on the third day of the second Test against Sourav Ganguly's men at Chittagong where he very nearly saved the follow-on.

Bangladesh captain Habibul Bashar had said that if his boys played as well as they had done during the later part of the India series, then they should win. They did.

There has been a marked improvement in the team performance since Dav Whatmore took over as coach after the 2003 World Cup. One of the reasons, the Australian said, for his staying with the side is the "potential to gain a lot of satisfaction with a group that wants to improve." This, he said after his team had lost the second Test to India at Chittagong for its 31st loss in 34 Tests.

You can be sure that Whatmore would put his side's gritty batting performance in the first innings of the second Test against India ahead of the series win over Zimbabwe. As he explained the other day, "the lessons are in getting the small things right against stronger sides. We are grateful that India came full strength for the Test series."

Come to think of it, Whatmore is a bit of a visionary, and his strength as coach lies in his ability to help his wards understand what he is looking for. The 50-year-old agreed that the side has progressed considerably under him. "My measurements are not recorded in terms of wins and losses. But I'm sure that the personnel who have joined the side appreciate contemporary training. Good up-to-date information is being given to them, which sometimes reflects in the games."

Bashar acknowledged that Whatmore has totally revolutionised the boys' mental approach, and instilled self-belief, so much so that the players feel they can win matches irrespective of the opposition. However, the odd gritty showing against better sides doesn't exactly lend one a competitive touch. Consistency is crucial. And that is what Bangladesh aspires for.

The fact remains that Bangladesh still has a long way to go. The team possesses the talent. Young batsmen like Ashraful, Nafis Iqbal, Aftab Ahmed and bowlers like Mashrafe Mortaza, Tapash Baisya and Enamul Haque (Jr) are certain to serve the side well and for long. The Test win, after all, came only against Zimbabwe. It brings to mind Martin Crowe's assessment. The former New Zealand batsman felt that Bangladesh's Test matches should be restricted to the team graded immediately above it (Zimbabwe presently).

The former Kiwi captain felt that the long-term benefits would be greater if Bangladesh plays more against international `A' teams rather than struggle against top Test nations to keep up its commitments to the five-year Test programme. This would hold good with Zimbabwe now, unless of course, the African country clears its internal differences.

Bangladesh's problem is not lack of infrastructure, but lack of quality in domestic competition. The Bangladesh Cricket Board is working towards setting it right. The maiden Test win is sure to serve as a catalyst.