OPINION

Bangladesh And The "Globalization" of Cricket

September 19, 2008
Kartikeya
Bangladesh is Test Cricket's newest exponent. It is also, unarguably, the worst of all time. As of now, they have played 53 Test matches, won 1 solitary Test match, and most importantly, lost 47 outright. The slowest starting Test playing nation of the 20th century - New Zealand, also had just 1 solitary Test match win in their first 53 Tests, but they managed to draw 25 of those 53, while Bangladesh have managed to draw just 5. The comparison between New Zealand and Bangladesh is obviously problematic - we are comparing different epochs, a different commercial climate and a vast difference in the variety and quality of opposition faced by these two teams. It took New Zealand 30 years to play their first 53 Tests, it has taken Bangladesh less than 8. But Bangladesh's numbers a particularly troubling.

It was a matter of time before something gave in Bangladesh, and with the mass exodus of senior Bangladesh Cricketers as well as some upcoming ones to the newly minted ICL franchise - the Dhaka Warriors, it seems as though that time is upon us. What is interesting here is not the uniqueness of the Bangladesh situation, but of how familiar the reaction in Bangladesh, of the Cricket Board and Cricket Fans has been. Utpal Shuvro describes events in Bangladesh. There have been discussions about patriotism, there has been talk of lack of support from the Board - if you didn't know better, you could easily think this was taking place here in India.

The ugly beast that is franchise driven Twenty20 Cricket has reared its head again. Several senior Bangladesh players, led by former Captain Habibul Bashar "retired" enmasse from international cricket to take up places in the Dhaka Warriors outfit. The Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) has reacted sternly, rejecting the letters and banning the said players for 10 years! Now, Habibul Bashar couldn't care less about the ban, but several younger players, such as  those who recently went with the academy side to Australia and have now signed up for the ICL, will suffer terribly if the ban is implemented fully or even substantially.

The Bangladesh situation is an important insight which ought to temper pipedreams about "globalizing" cricket. Bangladesh's problems come down at the end of the day to one simple fact - they can't win. Even more importantly, they can't even compete. In the eight years since they became a Test playing nation, Bangladesh have played 53 Tests and 108 One Day games against their fellow Test playing nations. They have won 1 Test and lost 47. In One Day Cricket, they have won 19 out of 108 games, losing 87. Of those 108 games they have played 29 times against Zimbabwe and hold at 15-14 edge over them. So their record against the top 8 Test playing nations in ODI cricket since they acquired Test status is - Played 79, Won 4, Lost 73. The Zimbabweans have not distinguished themselves in this decade by any means. They have played 180 ODI's against their fellow Test playing nations, and won 34 of them, losing 142. Leaving out games against Bangladesh, Zimbabwe's record reads - Played 151, Won 20, Lost 127.

That Bangladesh have been competitive against Zimbabwe is obviously because Zimbabwe have slipped, rather than any improvement on Bangladesh's part. After 50 Tests, and 108 ODIs, Bangladesh beating any of the top 8 Test playing nations in any form of the game is still considered a tremendous upset. Bangladesh sent a side to compete in the Duleep Trophy a couple of years ago, and that side got hammered by the weakest Zonal sides in India.

My point is this - globalizing the game deals centrally with building more competitive teams. So far, in this decade, Cricket has in effect lost one side (Zimbabwe), despite having added Bangladesh to the ranks of Test playing nations. Nobody even pretends that Zimbabwe and Bangladesh can seriously compete with any of the top 8 Test teams, either home or away. With neutral umpires, Bangladesh don't have the luxury that Sri Lanka did in 1985-86 when their home umpires helped them win Test matches against India and Pakistan. Even here, i am being uncharitable to Sri Lanka, because even by 1985, three years into their Test Match adventure, they had shown great promise, nearly beating a strong Pakistan side at Faisalabad.

In their first eight years in Test Cricket, Sri Lanka played 29 Test matches, and their batsmen made 19 Test hundreds in those games. These hundreds were made by 9 different batsmen. By contrast, in their first 8 years, in 47 Test matches, 7 different Bangladesh batsmen have made 11 Test hundreds between them (not counting tests against Zimbabwe to make it a fair comparison). If you are looking for competitiveness, Test hundreds are probably the best measure of this competitiveness, because the nature of Test Cricket is such that batting big keeps you in the game and keeps the opposition from winning.

That in a nutshell is Bangladesh's problem - they can't compete at the level of the top Test playing nations. I disagree with those who say that Arjuna Ranatunga made Sri Lanka a top Test playing country. He was important without question, but the basic ability to play was already present. If you looked down the Sri Lankan line up of say 1985, you would find a serious middle order there with the stylish Roy Dias accompanying Duleep Mendis and Arjuna Ranatunga - batsmen with batting averages in the mid-thirties. Compare those with the record of Bangladesh's best batsman - Habibul Bashar. Bashar averages 29 against good opposition, Ashraful averages 25, while Nafees averages 27.

The average Sri Lankan team score in a Test innings in the 1980's was 242. This accounts for their first 8 years in Test Cricket. The average team score in a Test innings for Bangladesh, in their first 8 years is 180.

At this point, i think i have driven home the point that in their first 8 years, try as they might, Bangladesh cannot compete in international cricket against the top tier teams, while a side like Sri Lanka, in its first eight years showed enough quality to justify their promotion to Test Match status. This has nothing to do with leadership or team spirit or anything else, for if there is one thing that is true in Cricket, it is that there is limitless scope for an individual demonstrate his skills and ability. Just ask Andrew Flower or Heath Streak, or even Shivnaraine Chanderpaul or Sachin Tendulkar (in portions of the 1990's). Mohammad Ashraful is a sub-standard Test Match batsman because he hasn't yet demonstrated the basic ability that any Test batsman worth his salt must have. Merely possessing the ability to play every stroke in the book is obviously not sufficient.

The problem Bangladesh face is a difficult one. When playing international cricket against a top level side, the opposition is too good for their players. When playing domestic cricket at home, the opposition is poor. Only Zimbabwe at this point in time are comparable to Bangladesh in terms of ability.

The problem is complicated even further by the nature of the various Cricketing contests. Bangladesh will not be taken seriously as a top Cricketing nation unless they are able to compete at Test Cricket. They will not become competitive at Test Cricket by playing Twenty20 or ODI's, and learning to play that game. The ever increasing focus on limited overs cricket, away from first class four day cricket, which, like it or not, is the best breeding ground for solid, high quality cricketers, is not helping Bangladesh.

Players as poles apart as Virender Sehwag and Steve Waugh will tell you that they are where they are because they learnt their trade in the first class game - playing on bad wickets, on good wickets, being run gluttons and running up mountainous scores. Even before he played Test Cricket, Virender Sehwag already had a first class innings of 274 to his name. The highest first class score by a Bangladesh batsman in 2007-08 was 168. Imagine how the Bangladesh Cricket fraternity must have felt when the South Africans visited and Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie both reeled off double hundreds against the best bowling Bangladesh could throw at them.  The highest first class innings in the 2008 First Class season in England was 270, while in the 2007-08 season in Australia it was 306, in New Zealand it was 268, in Pakistan it was 300, in Sri Lanka it was 285, in India it was 319, in South Africa it was 218, while in West Indies it was 208.

These are not coincidences, neither are they one-offs. What they reveal is a basic strength in the first class cricket in these Cricket playing nations. The general quality of first class bowling attacks in all these nations is superior to that in Bangladesh, which tells you something about the quality of batting. While bowling is central to succeeding in first class cricket, it is batting which drives the quality of first class cricket. Bowlers cannot know how good they actually are unless they come up against the best quality batsmen possible.

Bangladesh's two most celebrated batsmen are Habibul Bashar and Mohammad Ashraful. Bashar has a career best first class score of 224, but a first class average of 33, while Ashraful has a best first class score of 263 to go with a first class average of 30. Both Ashraful and Bashar have played at least as many if not more Test matches than they have played first class games (42 Tests in 84 first class games for Ashraful, 50 Tests out of 87 first class games for Bashar). If you isolate Ashraful's first class batting, his batting average is still only 35. This is the most gifted batsman in Bangladesh. There is little doubt that Ashraful can bat, the problem is that he doesn't most of the time.

This just illustrates how difficult it is for a new team to break into Test Match cricket, and how important a solid first class set up is to maintaining quality at Test Match levels. The challenge for Cricket in the face of Twenty20 Cricket is twofold. First, established Test playing nations have to ensure that their first class setups remain robust and prolific (in terms of number of games), even if domestic twenty20 tournaments emerge as major money spinners. Second, if Cricket is to grow, and if we agree that any serious expansion would involve the development of new Test playing nations, then Cricket needs to show foresight and investment for the long term (and by that i mean 50-75 years) by encouraging serious cricket of the long form variety in a handful of nations and building up the equivalent of first class cricket in those nations.

The only thing which justifies Bangladesh's presence in top level Cricket, is the popular enthusiasm for the game in that country. Of course there are those who will argue that we should leave everything to the market - that the future of cricket is best decided by the volume of the audience and sponsorship, but that does not guarantee quality. Thats where the corporate/commercial crowd (and by this i mean those who believe in a market fundamentalism of sorts) has it backwards. Twenty20 is successful because of the superstars created by tough, legendary Test Match battles. What draws an audience is the promise of high quality cricket. Now, you can create an artificial illusion of quality, but i suspect that this has a limited shelf life.

At the end of the day, you have to have teams that can play. Bangladesh have demonstrated how hard it is to build those teams.
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Bangladesh And The "Globalization" of Cricket

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Author: Kartikeya

 

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