ICC U-19 World Cup 2020: The making of Bangladesh

If you watch David Attenborough’s famous wildlife documentaries, you will know how tigers teach their cubs to hunt. Train them hard and keep them hungry.

The Bangladesh U-19 team celebrates after winning its maiden Under-19 World Cup.   -  PTI

 

What does it takes to make champions? Talent, hard work, luck, or maybe a bit of everything. But for any sports team from a country like Bangladesh, the most important thing is conviction. The belief and never-say-die attitude helped the under-19 cricket team finally lift the first ever global-scale trophy for Bangladesh.

The win is like the word “Shazam!” that turned Billy Batson into Captain Marvel; it is like the fairy godmother’s touch that transformed Cinderella into a princess to join the grand ball. If you watch David Attenborough’s famous wildlife documentaries, you will know how tigers teach their cubs to hunt. Train them hard and keep them hungry, and they will find their prey.

The process of training the young Bangladeshi cricketers, who will wear the tiger badge, was similar. It started three years ago, when the Bangladesh under-19 team failed to earn the top spot in two consecutive ICC Under-19 World Cups. At home in 2016, they lost to the eventual champions, the West Indies; in New Zealand in 2018, they suffered the same fate against India, also the eventual champions. In the aftermath, the Bangladesh Cricket Board top brass wanted to try a different way and the board’s game development committee prepared a roadmap.

Finding a coach

Headed by Khaled Mahmud, the former Bangladesh captain, the committee decided to appoint a coach who is accustomed to the cricket culture and structures of the subcontinent, but at the same time is aware of modern coaching techniques. Navid Nawaz, a former Sri Lankan cricketer who had a short stint in international cricket but had a long coaching gig at the development levels, fit the bill. An Australian Level II coaching degree helped his case.

Bangladesh U-19 coach Navid Nawaz.

 

Nawaz took charge of a bunch of young cricketers aged under 17 who came through different age-level competitions, school cricket tournament, development programmes and the main hub of Bangladesh’s athlete supply, Bangladesh Krira Shikkha Protisthan (BKSP), a state-run sports education institute.

Eight cricketers of the World Cup-winning squad, including skipper Akbar Ali, are BKSP students. The young cricketers were pitted against each other, tried and tested, and a few were eliminated, to form the core group.

Then, the young side toured England for a tri-nation series that also featured India and host England’s under-19 team. In the month-long tournament, every side played each other four times in the group stage and the top two met in the final. Bangladesh defeated England twice in that tournament and India once in the group stage, but in the final, they fell short despite a valiant century by Mahmudul Hasan.

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The run to the final gave the team confidence.

After the England tour, the young guns played in the Asian Cricket Council U-19 Asia Cup and marginally lost to India again in the final. Later, they toured New Zealand to play a five-match One-Day series and won 4-1, which was the first ever series win for any Bangladesh team in New Zealand. Playing against strong opposition in adverse conditions had turned them into steel. In military words, “hard training, easy fight.” As bowling coach Mahbub Ali says, “We wanted to embed a warrior-like approach in our boys, because this was the World Cup.”

Bringing in madness

To turn the boys into fighting machines, Richard Stroiner joined the band. The former Meir Heath and Whitmore cricketer turned elite strength and conditioning coach. He brought madness, high energy and intensity. Always pumped up with adrenaline, Stroiner turned hard work into a daily routine, rigorous gym sessions into entertainment. He created a competitive scenario among the boys, who wanted to surpass each other in fitness and endurance.

Shoriful Islam, along with fellow opening bowler Tanzim Hasan Sakib, stifled the Indian batsmen in the Under-19 World Cup final.   -  AFP

 

Even the finest army will fail without the right leadership and strategy. Therefore, Touhid Hridoy was spared the role of captaincy and Akbar came in. Akbar was captain of the BKSP team that played in local leagues, and his leadership skills in junior cricket was taken into consideration.

Replicating South Africa in Bogra

To chalk out a proper bowling strategy, the coaching staff of the under-19 team sought suggestions from senior cricketers who had toured South Africa. To replicate the conditions, the team were stationed in Bogra, a northern district of the country where the surface is hard. With 5mm grass on the pitches, the players trained for three weeks before boarding the flight for South Africa.

Altitude was a concern. Bangladesh is a country that is par with sea level, while South Africa is on a higher plane.

Potchefstroom is 1,340m above sea level. To fight this problem, the team trained in Johannesburg, which is 1,800m above sea level. Every bowler was prepared to bowl 12 overs a day. They wanted to be closer to match situations and feel the pressure of delivering their best even if the body said no. Their energy levels did not drop. Bangladesh reaped the benefits in the final, where the pace attack kept the talented Indian batsmen in check.

Why Akbar?

The stage was set by the bowlers, who restricted the Indian side to 177. A brisk start from the Bangladeshi batsmen made it look like an easy chase. But a mesmerising spell from young Indian leg-spinner Ravi Bishnoi completely choked the Bangladesh middle order, and the old fear of “so close yet so far” started haunting the cubs – a tragic disease acquired from their senior counterparts who had suffered the same fate in Bengaluru (ICC World Twenty20), Colombo (Nidahas Trophy) and Dubai (Asia Cup).

This is where conviction comes into play.

As a young emperor, Akbar the Great had shown maturity in warfare and politics. After hundreds of years, one of his namesakes displayed the exact calmness, maturity and fighting spirit to take his team towards the ultimate glory. He knew that failing from here would haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Then and now

A day after Christmas, the under-19 team had an official photo session at the Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium before their departure. It was a gloomy day. There was a cold wave in the city and very few journalists has turned up at the home of Bangladesh’s cricket.

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A light drizzle stopped the shoot midway. Everybody rushed for shelter. Not too many reporters were keen to ask about the prospects of the youth teams; rather, the uncertainty of Bangladesh’s tour of Pakistan was a burning issue and the BCB president had to speak more about that.

Cut to February 2020. When the team stepped back into the home of their cricket, there were flags, fireworks and celebrations. They received a grand welcome at the airport and were taken to the stadium in a decorated bus, guarded by a motorcade. Flight EK 586, which carried the young cricketers, touched ground at 16:55 hours. Around the same time, some of the senior cricketers who were part of the Test team that had suffered a heavy defeat in Rawalpindi returned to Bangladesh. They left the airport unnoticed and unattended.

That’s the biggest difference a World cup trophy can make.

Samiur Rahman is a senior journalist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.