After a memorable run in Tests at home over the past couple of years — during which they beat quality sides like England and Australia, the Bangladeshi Tigers will look to replicate the same story in overseas conditions as they kickstart their South African tour with the first Test at Potchefstroom on Thursday.
Despite recent successes in home conditions, things haven’t quite clicked for Bangladesh when it comes to playing overseas. Of the 10 Test matches they have won till date (from a total of 102 Tests played since their debut in 2000), only four victories have come overseas. And even those wins have come against sides like the West Indies, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. Although they have beaten top sides at home, they have nothing about which to brag in overseas conditions.
However, what Bangladesh now have is the belief that they are improving as a team with each passing day. The team have proved themselves to be quite a force at home especially after the 2015 World Cup in Australia where they qualified for the Super 8 stage. They won consecutive ODI series at home against teams like India and South Africa, and followed it up with a superb drawn Test series against England at home.
If that wasn’t enough, they proved their mettle further by qualifying for the semi-finals of the Champions Trophy earlier this year. And now, by drawing another Test series against Australia at home recently, they will believe that they have it in them to beat the best in their own dens as well. The Tigers are high on confidence because of what they have achieved as a team in the past couple of years. Accordingly, they will look to carry the momentum, positive mindset and self-belief to their tour of South Africa as well.
But, things are not as bright for Bangladesh as it appears. Bangladesh and South Africa have played 10 Test matches between them so far. Bangladesh have lost eight of them and drawn two (rain-affected matches). In South Africa, Bangladesh have played four tests against the hosts, losing all of them. So, history is not on the side of the Tigers.
Moreover, the majority of Bangladeshi players do not have any experience playing in South African conditions as Bangladesh have not toured the country in the past 9 years. Only Tamim Iqbal and Mushfiqur Rahim have toured South Africa back in 2008 when they were taking baby steps in international cricket. Shakib Al Hasan is another player who has a bit of experience in these challenging conditions, but his decision to pull out of this tour citing fatigue management issues means Bangladesh will be left with far more inexperience to handle on this tour.
Bangladesh will not only miss Shakib’s experience but also the three-dimensional contribution he brings to the plate. He is one of those rare players whose performance is hardly affected when he's away from home. He averages a healthy 40.21 with the bat with 1,287 runs to his name in 17 Tests in overseas conditions. And when it comes to bowling, he has 60 wickets to his name at an average of 32.95 as well. The fact that he has crossed the three-figure mark thrice in these Tests proves his ability to play the long innings in alien conditions. His innings of 217 against New Zealand in Wellington earlier this year was a testament to his class as a player.
He also has a supreme effect in influencing victories for Bangladesh. Shakib averages a healthy 48.29 with the bat and a scintillating 19.42 with the ball in matches that Bangladesh have won. And the fact that he has scored 420 runs at an average of 60 and claimed 23 wickets in the four overseas victories for Bangladesh to date reveal further why he is such an asset for Bangladesh.
In Shakib’s absence, Tamim and skipper Mushfiqur will have to shoulder additional responsibility in marshaling the young and inexperienced players. Both of them average around 40 with the bat in overseas conditions and both of them will look to maintain or if possible, better that in the upcoming series. The onus will be on Tamim to weather the initial storm from the South African pacers and eventually help Bangladesh off to a good start. Mushfiqur, on the other hand, will have to handle the middle-order responsibilities in tense situations.
Mahmudullah is also making a comeback to Tests after being kept out for the whole of the Australia series and he definitely needs to step up in Shakib’s absence. He has turned out to be a very important player for Bangladesh since his debut in 2009. Although he has proved his worth several times in the shorter formats, he is yet to make it count in Tests.
A batting average of 30.15 and bowling average of 44.71 hardly tells anything about a player of his calibre. Mahumudullah’s batting numbers are worse in overseas conditions as he averages a mere 23.35 in away matches. His only notable overseas contribution came way back in 2010 when he scored a superb 115 against New Zealand at Hamilton, which unfortunately ended up in a defeat for Bangladesh. However, it is a new dawn and a new day. And Mahumudullah will be eager to show his stomach for a fight against bowlers like Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel.
The form of opener Soumya Sarkar and No 3 batsman Imrul Kayes has been a cause of concern for Bangladesh in recent times. The former averaged 16.25 while the latter averaged a dismal 5.25 with the bat in the recently-concluded Test series against Australia at home. However, in his short career so far, Sarkar has surprisingly averaged only 19.11 at home while he has averaged a healthy 46.75 in away conditions. So, he will look to maintain his superb overseas numbers on the South African tour as well, hoping that he gets back into form quickly.
Kayes, on the other hand, has a dismal career batting average of 26.55 after 30 Tests. While he averages around 30 at home, his numbers dip further down to 22.09 in overseas conditions. But some good domestic performances have forced the selectors to retain their faith in him. Now, it is high time that Kayes lives up to their expectations as well.
Another thing that Bangladesh may have to deal with is their over-reliance on spin bowling. Spin worked pretty well for them in home conditions as it helped them in decimating top Test sides, who have traditionally been weak against spin in Asian conditions. It is true that the South African batsmen’s weakness against quality spin bowling has come to the fore of late. However, the Bangladeshi spinners will not get the same help from these South African tracks until the fourth day. And the South African pacers have the ability to win the match for South Africa with a few days to spare. So, it becomes important for the Bangladeshi pacers to step up as well. More importantly, it will require the skipper, Mushfiqur, to handle them cleverly.
Young pacers like Mustafizur Rahman, Taskin Ahmed and Rubel Hossain have what it takes to surprise a quality South African batting lineup.
But, it will take more than the element of surprise to produce a result in their favour. It will require patience, persistence and consistency for the Bangladeshi pacers to be successful in these conditions. They will have to adapt to the conditions quickly and find their proper lengths as well. If they are able to challenge the South African batsmen and test them with their skills, then the Bangladeshi batsmen are also in with a chance to put up a fight against the quality South African pacers.
With all these glaring problems, difficulties and odds being against them, Bangladesh will find it extremely difficult to replicate their home success in South African conditions. However, over the years, Bangladesh have taken adversity in their stride like champions and overcome all odds with supreme self-confidence. They are aware that on paper, they appear to be no match for this South African side consisting of big names like Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amla and Morne Morkel.
But, Mushfiqur and his team will give it their all to prove that Bangladesh is right up there to compete with the best. If they go on to spur an unlikely surprise on this tour, the world will definitely sit up and listen to their claim that Bangladesh are not minnows anymore. In fact, they are among the best in the business.