"How do you find out if we have improved or not?" You could clearly sense the frustration in Bangladesh captain Mushfiqur Rahim's voice in the pre-match conference ahead of the India-Bangladesh one-off Test in Hyderabad.
While there has been a steady rise in limited-overs matches for Bangladesh, they have been considered a pretty average side in the Test arena. They haven't had the same success in the longest format of the game as in the shorter formats and the numbers speak for themselves. They have the worst win-loss ratio in Tests at 0.106 with just eight wins and 75 losses in 98 matches so far.
However, witnessing their performance against India in what was termed as a 'historic Test' proved how much they have improved. A 208-run loss might seem a comprehensive one on the scoresheet, but there is more to it than just the numbers. It wasn't just about the loss. It was about the way the 'Tigers' put up a brave fight against the No 1 side in their own backyard. It was about the lessons they taught the other teams on how to tackle one of the most devastating forces on Indian soil – the spinners – and more than anything else, it was about gaining that valuable experience from playing against a world class side.
Yes, Mushfiqur was in a way right. It was after their performance against India in Hyderabad that the world noticed that Bangladesh had indeed improved in Tests. Would the cricketing world have come to know of this had Bangladesh been playing against Zimbabwe?
In the one-off Test against India, Bangladesh did what no other side could manage in the last five years – bat for more than 100 overs in both innings of a Test in India. The last team to do that was England, way back in 2012, in the Nagpur Test. Bangladesh became just the second team to post a 250-plus score in the fourth innings in India since 2000. We have seen teams getting dead and buried inside three to four days consistently in India, but the Tigers almost took the match to the last session. They showed character. They showed the stomach for a fight. Yes, there were areas where they could have done better, but they realised and learnt from their mistakes, and that was the important thing.
"It was a very good learning curve for us and the youngsters to play against the the No 1 side in the world and hopefully we would learn a lot from this Test and improve a lot from hereon," Mushfiqur said in the post-match presentation.
"I am very proud of my side. Even our numbers eight, nine and ten have showed a lot of character. We can learn a lot from India, how their lower order contributed against England," he added.
England and New Zealand were battered on their trip to India but both the touring captains – Alaistair Cook and Kane Williamson – left the shores emphasising on how important a learning curve it was for the youngsters to play against the No 1 side and world class players in their own backyard.
This is how Test sides improve over years – by playing against strong opponents. Jarrod Kimber, in his book Test Cricket: The Unauthorised Biography, gives an account of how New Zealand were considered the 'little brother' in the Test arena during their infancy. And for a long time, they were considered rubbish. Big brother "Australia ignored them, England sent second-rate sides and the rest of the world played them rarely". They really struggled in their first 20 years of existence in the Test arena. And it took them 40 years to finally win a Test series.
Had they been treated fairly, they wouldn't have taken so long to be successful in Tests.
Lack of Tests is one concern and another is fewer Tests against strong oppositions. You need to get into the habit of playing Test cricket in order to be successful. Bangladesh struggled early on in Tests because they did not have the habit of playing five-day games as there was no proper first-class structure. “We had no idea what a five-day match was. We played Tests like three-day matches. (On) first three days we were competitive. On fourth and fifth days we would lose out,” former Bangladesh captain Aminul Islam told The Cricket Monthly. Getting into the habit of playing Test cricket is important to compete against the strong sides, or else you would be caught unawares as soon as you enter the big stage.
"I think they (Bangladesh) have the skill (but) they just don't play that many Test matches to gain confidence as a squad," Indian captain Virat Kohli said before the Bangladesh Test. "It's very basic. They have become a very good one-day side because of the fact that they play so many ODIs and they have their set combinations. If you don't play Test cricket very often, you will never understand the mindset. That's where it comes from. They have beaten all the sides in one-day cricket, because they know how to play the format. You can practise as much as you want, but game time is important. Ability is going to be there. It's the mindset that changes from format to format," Kohli added.
Sample this. In the last two years (since January 2015), Bangladesh have played just 10 Tests, second-lowest behind Zimbabwe (four). The other eight Test-playing nations, on the other hand, have featured in a total of 178 matches – an average of 22 Tests. Out of the 10 Tests that Bangladesh have played during this period, they have played just three away from home. In the last five years, they have played just 36 percent of their matches away (9/25).
Furthermore, since they got Test status in 2000, Bangladesh have featured in three-match Test series only thrice. Playing longer Test series is really the need to the hour for the development of Bangladesh as a formidable Test side.
"I am sure that if they (Bangladesh) play more Test cricket they will become solid Test players and a solid Test team as well. I think it should be pushed. They certainly have the ability to compete at the Test level," Kohli said before the Hyderabad Test.
Over the 17 years of their existence in Test cricket, Bangladesh have played just four matches against Australia and nine against India. It was their first visit to the Indian shores for a Test. No wonder it was called 'historic'. Prior to this they had toured Australia just once. The away tours are crucial for a team's development and Bangladesh need more of these.
"We went out of Bangladesh to play Test cricket after almost two years. That’s not acceptable. If you don’t give us an opportunity but keep saying that we are no good, that can’t be fair," Mushfiqur said before the India Test.
Bangladesh's rise in limited-overs was because they started playing strong sides, and with experience, started beating them. The win over Pakistan in the 1999 World Cup, the wins over India and South Africa, and then, over Australia in 2005 instilled the confidence that they indeed belonged to the highest stage.
"We believe that the more we play against competitive sides, the better we will get. If we didn't play against better standard sides in ODIs, we wouldn't have come this far," Bangladesh Cricket Board vice-president Mahbubul Anam told Cricinfo eight months ago.
It is through this route that most teams' success stories have been forged, including that of India. Speaking to Cricbuzz, Sir Viv Richards explained the importance of playing top sides and how the two-tier Test structure would be unhealthy for the development of cricket.
"I do not think we have enough teams in world cricket playing at a consistently high level for the two-tier structure to come into effect," Richards said. "If it happens, then there will only be a few countries playing each other at the top. People must remember that many of these strong teams at present were weak once upon a time, India included. The great West Indies team used to beat them within three days at times. But we didn't stop playing them."
Another West Indies great, Joel Garner, echoed Richards' sentiments. "The only way you can preserve Test cricket is to let people at the lower level play against teams above them to be able to compete and to be able to gauge the progress," Garner said.
Speaking to Firstpost, Heath Streak explained how the 1999-2003 side became one of the greatest Zimbabwe sides in their history.
"We had started gaining confidence, we spent a lot of time in the late 1990s playing in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India, in tough conditions and against top quality players, against the likes of (Sachin) Tendulkar, (Rahul) Dravid, (Wasim) Akram, (Waqar) Younis, Aravinda de Silva, Mahela Jayawardena, all these guys as young guys coming through the ranks," Streak said. "So we had put in the time and got the hard schooling playing in the subcontinent as well as home. And it started paying dividends and we started competing more, believing in ourselves and gaining the confidence," the Zimbabwe legend added.
Even though they lost in Hyderabad, the win against India might have instilled enormous confidence and self belief in the Bangladesh side. Not just the experience, playing against top teams helps nations like Bangladesh financially as well, which can pave the way for a stronger domestic structure and infrastructure.
For all the talk of animosity and frosty relationships between the two sides, one could witness the camaraderie with Ravichandran Ashwin pictured teaching nuances of off-spin bowling to 19-year-old Mehedi Hasan. The young offie was also seen learning from Kohli and the Bangladesh youngsters spending time and clicking pictures with Virat Kohli, making the most of the rare opportunity not knowing when would be the next time they will tour India. And Mushfiqur, who was Ashwin's 250th wicket, signed the match ball for Ashwin on his request. There was joy and there was immense learning too.
"We want to tell world cricket what we can do in India. I don't think about how many years later we are going to play in India. We want to play in such a way that India invites (us) again and again," Mushfiqur said before the Test. Well, the way they played, not only India but the other nations too must take a notice and invite them again and again.
Stats inputs by Sampath Bandarupalli
Published Date: Feb 14, 2017 15:54 PM | Updated Date: Feb 14, 2017 17:02 PM