In the lead up to the two-Test tour of Bangladesh in 2010, India's then opener Virender Sehwag, in his own inimitable not-so-politically-correct style, declared that the hosts were “an ordinary side”. He believed that India could not be beaten because Bangladesh “can't take 20 wickets”, adding further that, “[t]hey can surprise you in ODIs but not in Tests”.
India won that series 2-0, by margins of 113 runs in the first Test at Chittagong and by 10 wickets in the second at Dhaka. Since then, the two sides have met for Tests just once, in 2015, where rain thwarted India's plans with Bangladesh following on. The overall tally in Tests between these two neighboring nations is: two rain-affected draws and six India wins.
As Bangladesh take on India in a lone Test in Hyderabad starting Thursday, Sehwag's bordering-on-arrogance-but-matter-of-fact statement from seven years ago is worth considering: Are Bangladesh an ordinary side — still?
Since their inclusion to the club of Test playing nations in 2000, Bangladesh have played 97 Tests, winning a mere eight, drawing 15 and losing a whopping 74 Tests. But more recently, in 2016, Bangladesh won a Test for the first time against England and came darn near close to winning the series 2-0, at home. Their batsmen piled on the runs in New Zealand, and set many personal and team records, but the team lost the series 0-2, largely due to collapses in the second innings.
At the international level of sport, especially in something as unforgiving and demanding as Test cricket, teams need to learn to crawl before they can walk. A lot of the international sides when they began their journey in Test cricket suffered losses, as a rule, but first learned to bat out draws, and eventually, understand how to win.
When Bangladesh was awarded Test status, there wasn't a proper first-class structure and it showed in the result. Speaking to The Cricket Monthly for a feature, former Bangladesh captain Aminul Islam, who ground his way to 145 runs in his nation's inaugural Test that they would still lose by nine wickets to India, said, “We had no idea what a five-day match was. We played Tests like three-day matches. First three days we were competitive. On fourth and fifth days we would lose out.”
Looking at Bangladesh's results in the recent years, it would seem that they have not got a handle on five-day cricket just yet. However, Bangladesh have achieved remarkable results in one-day games: reaching the quarter-final in 2015 World Cup; coming within a whisker of making out of the group stages in 2016 World T20; routine upsets of more established teams in global tournaments and currently ranked seventh in the ICC ODI rankings. It is no longer a surprise when Bangladesh beat a top-ranked side in ODIs and T20Is and that shows how far they have come as a side, but Test cricket is an altogether different beast.
In Wellington last month, on a green pitch that flattened out later, Bangladesh spearheaded by Shakib Al Hasan and Mushfiqur Rahim, raked 595 runs in their first innings. With any other Test side that has had learned its ropes in first class cricket, this sort of total would have ensured a draw; and with sufficient quality in bowlers, a likely victory. On a wicket that posed no threats, even as Bangladesh surrendered 539 runs, the draw was still on the cards. Aminul's words returned to haunt them as Bangladeshi batsmen, one after another, stumbled facing the prospect of reining themselves in for two sessions to force a stalemate. They collapsed to 160 and New Zealand romped home in style to another Test win that seemed nigh impossible only a few short sessions earlier.
In the second Test at Christchurch, Bangladesh cobbled enough runs in the first dig, and through the brilliance of Shakib, did not let New Zealand get away from them by much. But then, the old familiar trope reared its head, and Bangladesh were bowled out for 173 in the second innings. The Test ended in four days, even with third day's play completely washed out by rain.
Shakib is a world class all-rounder, and the young spinners in their side are quite capable in conditions that assist them, as they showed against England. However, their fast bowling stock is raw and inexperienced at first-class level, and do get exposed against any decent top level Test opposition. So the onus is on their batsmen to hold the fort, bat out draws, while their bowlers learn to bowl in Tests, and eventually bowl them to wins. Test cricket, as it is, is very hard to master even for seasoned professionals, and Bangladesh is trying to have their youngsters learn to play it while playing it.
The passionate fans of Bangladesh are proud of their Tigers, but every time Bangladesh achieves a great result on the world stage, ushering in hope, it has almost always been a false dawn. On social media, their cricket team gets ribbed as “Toygers” as the results do not correlate with all the positive approach, aggressive mindset and the talk that surrounds the team that probably believes they are better than they actually are.
India, currently ranked the top Test side, should be able to extend their run of consecutive Test wins to five at Hyderabad, and stretch their streak of being undefeated in Tests to 19. The gulp between the two sides is just too much for Bangladesh to overcome in a solitary Test.
To get back to Sehwag's remark from 17 years ago on the eve of a Test, are Bangladesh an ordinary side? In Tests, the answer evidently would be that they still are.