Indian legend MS Dhoni once said, “To win a Test match, you need 20 wickets. So that's the only answer I can give because it doesn't matter how well you bat, how well you are there for five days but (by) taking 20 wickets, you can win a Test match.”
This sums up the most fundamental requirement for the longest and purest form of the game – a strong bowling unit capable of demolishing the opposition twice. Now, in that process, teams primarily take three aspects under consideration – pitch and overhead condition, own strength, and opposition’s weakness. Although most, if not all, of the top nations tend to follow this procedure, Bangladesh always finds themselves in the middle of a tangle – a dilemma whether to improvise and be proactive or to stick to the plan set from home.
More often than not, the Test skippers of Bangladesh decide to choose the latter one. From the reign of Naimur Rahman, Bangladesh’s first Test captain, to Mominul Haque, Bangladesh’s current skipper, Bangladesh, barring one of two exceptions, have been utterly defensive from team selection to field placing and what not.
It is understandable for the likes of Naimur Rahman, Khaled Masud, Khaled Mahmud, Habibul Bashar, Mohammad Ashraful to be defensive. They used to captain the side at a time when Bangladesh was very new in tests and the team’s objectives were taking the game to Day 5, minimising the margin of defeat, or at least avoiding an innings defeat. So, for them to be defensive is entirely justifiable.
However, with the emergence of Shakib, Tamim, Mushfiq, Bangladesh have been a comparatively better side over last decade – winning an away series against a tamed Caribbean side in 2009, drawing a Test match against Pakistan in 2015, defeating England and Australia at home in 2016 and 2017 respectively, winning an away Test against Sri Lanka in 2017.
Bangladesh’s mentality has persisted to be defensive and bookish with lack of aggressive attitude, reluctance to do anything out of the box, and absence of the urgency to be proactive. It seems as if they are given a textbook manual and are forced to follow that word by word.
Even without going too far in the past, one can identify several occasions where Bangladesh had been so predetermined in their approach that they ended up misreading either the surface or the opposition.
Historically, South Africa is known for producing fast bouncy pitches – Wanderers, Kingsmead, Newlands, SuperSport Park, you name it. When Bangladesh toured South Africa under the leadership of Mushfiqur Rahim, the team knew it too and as a result suffered from information myopia.
Fearing an imaginary bouncy pitch, Bangladesh picked three seamers and a lone spinner. Within the first hour of the game, it became evident that the very dry pitch at Potchefstroom had no outrageous bounce or carry. The bookish captaincy made Bangladesh completely overlook all three fundamental aspects – the pitch, their own strength, or opposition’s weakness – all suggesting towards the need of an additional spinner. Mehidy Miraj had a bad game there and Bangladesh had no second option to look up to. In the same game, Keshav Maharaj picked up 7 wickets, highest in the match, and even Mominul Haque picked up 3 with his innocuous left arm orthodox.
One might argue that an additional spinner would not have made any difference in terms of the result; however, Bangladesh could have managed to send a message that we came here to give a fight, unlike the message they sent we came here to save our face. That fighting attitude is something every team requires to play Test cricket. Opting for an additional spinner, perhaps Taijul Islam, in place of a batsman could have helped Bangladesh send the message.
That is not the only occasion where Bangladesh failed to assess the situation. Falling victim to recency bias, Bangladesh set strategies to play against Afghanistan in 2019. In the previous three years, Bangladesh won against England and Australia and whitewashed West Indies at home in sharp turning pitches. Having these successes in mind, the then skipper Shakib Al Hasan went for an all-out spin attack with four spinners and no seamers, and most surprisingly nine batsmen.
Quite understandably, a ‘spin to win’ strategy is not expected to be as efficient against a subcontinent nation as it is against a non-subcontinent one. Bangladesh failed to address this aspect and played into the hands of the opposition. Afghanistan, with three different types of leg spinners and an off spinner, took the better of Bangladesh, with four orthodox spinners. A couple of seamers discounting a couple of batters could have created a more potent threat ahead of the tourists.
Mominul Haque too can be criticised for such strategies. In Bangladesh’s first ever pink ball Test in India, skipper Mominul chose to bat first after winning the toss since the textbook says one should always bat first in subcontinent as the pitch will deteriorate with time.
However, with no prior experience to play against a pink ball under lights, choosing to bat first was a very brave (if not foolish) decision. Bangladesh batted first and found wanting against a moving pink ball. Mushfiq’s dismissal where he defended a rising delivery only to have the ball trickle back onto the stump shows Bangladesh’s lack of idea against the pink ball.
Mominul went with a spinner to seamer ratio of 4:1 and 3:1 in the recently concluded two Test matches respectively against Windies. With Shakib being injured in the first Test, Bangladesh lacked variation in the bowling department and failed to pick up 20 wickets only to concede successive defeats. The favourite extra batsman strategy could not manage to get us over the line even at home.
Sending in eight batsmen or playing too many spinners of similar type or bringing out textbook manuals while touring is certainly not the way to survive in Test cricket. These strategies neither send the right message to the opposition nor give us a viable chance to compete hard.
Our neighbouring countries India, Pakistan too opted for multiple seamers in their series victories against England and South Africa respectively despite having a spin to win strategy. It is time for Bangladesh to think in the same direction – not to be stereotypical and be proactive.
Ahmed Tanvir is currently studying at the Institute of Business Administration, University of Dhaka (IBA-DU).