Fast bowler, captain, workhorse, inspiration: Mashrafe Mortaza has blazed a trail like few others
One afternoon in mid-May, a bare-chested Mashrafe Mortaza finished a long training session at the Shere Bangla National Stadium in Dhaka, walked up to the home dressing room and expounded on fish farming.
Surrounding him was a group of journalists, whom he had invited in mainly because among them was a senior sports editor he was seeing after many years and with whom he wanted to have a chat. His team-mates, sweating profusely after a punishing fitness session, quietly walked past the group seated in the glassed viewing area. Mashrafe reminisced about his days as a youngster, catching fish with his hands from the Chitra river, identifying each fish by merely looking at its tail.
Narail is 214 kilometres south-west of Dhaka, and like many small towns in Bangladesh, is reliant on the water that runs through its veins. One cannot think of Narail without thinking of the Chitra that curves and weaves through the town. A tiny path leads to the river from the house where Mashrafe grew up, and it often served as a run-up off which to dive in for young Mashrafe and his friends. Mashrafe spent his childhood finding spots around town from which to jump into the Chitra, often trying dangerous flips. Once, he and his friends got stuck in quicksand when they tried to swim in the tiny gap between two barges.
In the 1990s, the place was a cricketing hinterland. Striking talents had begun to emerge from outside Dhaka but not from Narail, a town known mostly for the avant-garde artist SM Sultan, whose paintings depicted the daily lives of villagers and peasants. Growing up, Mashrafe played a bit of cricket and football but his energies were mostly channelled towards cruising in boats at night and swimming in the Chitra whenever he got time off from school. He was immersed in his small world, taken in by the possibilities the river offered, until he was told about a trial for an Under-17 cricket tournament.
"If I don't do gym work, I don't have the confidence. Normally the day after the match everyone rests but I have work to do"
While Mashrafe talked at length about fish farming, a press briefing was about to start on the floor above. Some of the journalists excused themselves to listen to the president of the Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) Nazmul Hassan on the second floor of the grandstand, where he confirmed that the national team would have a new sponsorship deal worth $5.32 million for the next two years.
The news soon reached Mashrafe. "It is a big deal, isn't it," he said matter-of-factly, but no more. It was characteristic of him, to those who have followed his career closely. He gives it his all in the middle but his lack of overt enthusiasm when talking about his achievements tells you he knows it can all be taken away in a heartbeat.
Over the last two years, his attitude as captain has reinforced his ability to see the big picture. When he took over a struggling team in September last year - his third stint as captain after the first two had been cut short by injuries - he was forthright with his assessment. "We played quite badly this year, so I can't say that we are in a so-so position," he said ahead of his first assignment, the ODI series against Zimbabwe in November. "This is the time to come back, especially before the World Cup."
Trampoline man: injuries have threatened to write off his career on several occasions but Mashrafe has bounced back
Trampoline man: injuries have threatened to write off his career on several occasions but Mashrafe has bounced back © AFP
Bangladesh would go on to sweep Zimbabwe in the five-match series but Mashrafe refused to talk up the result. Even at the World Cup - when his team exceeded expectations to reach the quarter-final - he was measured throughout. He didn't offer excuses after they missed several chances against Sri Lanka, and didn't once complain after a controversial no-ball call in the quarter-final against India. Most saw the umpiring error as a decisive one but Mashrafe made sure he put things in perspective. Bangladesh should have played better cricket on the day, he said, but he was heartened by their overall performance.
Once back home, Mashrafe worried whether the euphoria surrounding the World Cup would have an adverse effect on the series against Pakistan. And before the ODI series against India, he was not going to be drawn into talk of revenge for the World Cup defeat. "People will remember such things but as cricketers we shouldn't be thinking about such things," he said before the first match. "It is hard to control people's emotions but I would request them to keep cricket in its place."
About a month later, after Bangladesh drew level with South Africa in the ODI series, he was asked about how it was for a team to put behind them three successive losses (in two T20s and an ODI) against South Africa. Did he feel as if he had overcome a challenge?
"I don't wait for two or three overs like many captains. If I see that it isn't happening for a bowler, I will change him after an over"
He broke into a smile and said without batting an eyelid, "Every challenge is different but there is no bigger challenge for me than to raise my son and daughter."
Since being granted Test status in 2000, Bangladesh have remained perennial underdogs. Upset wins against Pakistan in 1999, India in 2004 and Australia in 2005 were flashes in the pan, and it was not until 2007, when they entered the Super Eights of the World Cup and World T20, that they truly showed signs of progress. Through the decade, players and fans had to find ways to deal with one big loss after another. Journalists who covered those games remember their lead stories being about players like Habibul Bashar or Khaled Mashud, who sometimes made a forty or a fifty in a collapse. Each crushing loss was followed by chatter in the world media about how Bangladesh had been awarded Test status prematurely.
The few highs were a result of individual brilliance. Occasionally it was a sparkling innings from Mohammad Ashraful, or a tenacious spell from Mohammad Rafique (or a few sixes from him after the top order had taken a beating). There was a surge of excitement when Tamim Iqbal burst on to the scene - charging Zaheer Khan in the World Cup in 2007 - and plenty of talk around the breathtaking potential of Shakib Al Hasan. But despite being a threat, the team struggled for consistency, disappointing in 2011, flying high in 2012 and 2013, and crashing back to earth in 2014. The results in the first nine months of 2014 were so poor - losing 22 of 27 international games - that fans feared a return to the dark days.
Bowls fast, rides faster: Mashrafe loves biking (sometimes with his arms outstretched)
Bowls fast, rides faster: Mashrafe loves biking (sometimes with his arms outstretched) © BCB
In September last year, the BCB's decision to give Mashrafe the captaincy was with an eye on the long term but that could have easily changed if the team had continued to struggle. Though they blanked Zimbabwe, Bangladesh headed into the World Cup as no-hopers. To make matters worse, they lost all four practice matches in Australia, and after the loss to Ireland in the final warm-up an irate Mashrafe told the Bangladeshi media that he doubted if everyone in the team took the practice games seriously.
Gradually things turned around. Bangladesh beat Afghanistan, who were talked up as a threat, trumped Scotland chasing a big total, and upset England in an unforgettable match in Adelaide. They were also the first team to push New Zealand before putting up a fight against India in the quarter-final.
Mashrafe carried the side through the tournament. He brought the best out of many young players, some of whom had debuted less than 12 months earlier. He urged the batsmen to stop thinking about milestones and asked them to focus on their strike rates. He played a big part in helping Rubel Hossain move on from a personal crisis (he had spent some time in jail after an actress filed a criminal case against him). He knew how to fire up Taskin Ahmed. Mashrafe understood that screaming at his team-mates wasn't going to help. Instead, by understanding their strengths and weaknesses, he could better draw out their potential.
"I will never forget in Ireland in 2012. He described his last knee operation. He had no help or support in Melbourne. He took himself to and from the hospital for the operation"
Most of all, he led by example. He started with 3 for 20 against Afghanistan, taking early wickets and keeping the big hitters quiet. In the virtual knockout against England, he returned for his second spell in the 20th over - when England were 88 for 1 and on course.
"When spinners were bowling from both ends, I thought that we can't win this game if we keep checking the runs," he said. "We had scored only 275, so we needed wickets. If they had wickets in hand, they could beat us. I thought that I should come to bowl.
"I got hit for two fours and felt this wasn't the right decision. I thought I should finish this over properly and change the bowling quickly. But bowlers always have another chance (smiles). Luckily I got a wicket [Alex Hales] off the next ball. Then Rubel took two wickets. Taskin took a wicket."
Everybody digs Mash: prime minister Sheikh Hasina shows her gratitude to the country's one-day captain after his side swept Pakistan earlier this year
© Associated Press
Everybody digs Mash: prime minister Sheikh Hasina shows her gratitude to the country's one-day captain after his side swept Pakistan earlier this year © Associated Press
England slipped to 132 for 5. And despite a promising fightback, they couldn't overcome the mid-innings collapse. The match ended with a sensational over from Rubel, where he bowled Stuart Broad and James Anderson with searing rockets, and the whole team piled on top of him to celebrate reaching the last eight. Bangladesh had previously won games thanks to electric batsmen and wily spinners but here was a pace trio - made up of an inspirational captain and two youthful tearaways - pulling off a historic win.
The celebrations were headier back home, every neighborhood in a state of frenzy. When the team returned, Mashrafe was reminded of the reactions after their 2007 campaign. This time every player received receptions in their respective home towns and an extravagant public celebration was arranged near the parliament house. Manik Mia Avenue, the city's widest, was closed off several hours before a concert set the stage for the players' reception. The traffic was clogged. The crowd had to wait endlessly before the players were called on stage.
On Test debut, he finished with 4 for 106 in 32 overs. For a bowler who hadn't bowled more than 16 overs in an innings till then, this was a marathon effort
"I felt it was going a bit overboard," Mashrafe said of the reaction two months later. "I wasn't sure if we deserved what we got after returning to Bangladesh. I did feel some things were a bit too much. Getting a warm reception for what we did was okay but not at the scale that happened."
After the World Cup Mashrafe knew the team couldn't afford to let up. "If we didn't do well against Pakistan, our World Cup would have been called a fluke," he would later say. Which was why he asked the team to remain as aggressive in the series against Pakistan as they were during the World Cup. Mashrafe knew his bowlers would be the key to victory. And sure enough, they defended 329 in the first ODI and then worked out the Pakistan batsmen in the next two matches. Mashrafe's constant shuffling of the bowlers in the third game triggered Pakistan's collapse from 203 for 2 in the 39th over to 250 all out.
"I don't wait for two or three overs like many captains," he said. "If I see that it isn't happening for a bowler, I will change him after an over. It doesn't happen with planning, sometimes you just have to make those changes."
Playing through pain: Mashrafe put the tragedy of Manzarul Islam Rana's death behind him to bowl Bangladesh to a historic win against India in the 2007 World Cup
Playing through pain: Mashrafe put the tragedy of Manzarul Islam Rana's death behind him to bowl Bangladesh to a historic win against India in the 2007 World Cup © AFP
Mashrafe nearly missed the following ODI series against India after splitting his palms and bruising a knee. He was on his way to the Shere Bangla National Stadium when a bus hit the rickshaw ferrying him to the ground. (Odd as it might sound, many cricketers travel around Dhaka in rickshaws - even after they have made it to the national team. It's a mode of transport many city dwellers prefer. It gives one the luxury of getting off in the middle of a traffic jam and walking the rest of the way.)
Mashrafe fell out of the rickshaw in the collision and was bruised. He asked a traffic policeman to rush him to the stadium but not before giving some money to the rickshaw-puller, whose vehicle had been battered. He also asked the traffic policeman to not go after the bus driver responsible for the accident. Eventually Mashrafe would recover and lead his team to a historic win.
We met four days after the third ODI, during Ramadan, both of us fasting. At 4pm sharp Mashrafe parked his Toyota in front of the National Cricket Academy.
"Let's go, we can sit inside the gym," he said. "If I don't do gym work, I don't have the confidence. Normally the day after the match everyone rests but I have work to do. I need the gym to get ready for the next match."
"At the start I played for the joy of the game. I remember, I used to think that they will show me on TV. If this is my last match, at least everyone at home will see me play"
We sat on some benches as a few players milled about, some preparing to end their workouts. Mashrafe looked content but his expressions didn't give away too much. It was only when he spoke that his satisfaction was evident.
"It is our best achievement," he said. "Look, you have to consider our World Cup performances and how we won against New Zealand in 2010, when we weren't winning regularly. These are also up there but you need a few turning points. For us it was holding on to our consistency after playing well in the World Cup and against Pakistan. Considering all these aspects, this [win against India] is the best [achievement] as player and captain."
The victory over India had a lot to do with Mustafizur Rahman's 11 wickets in the first two ODIs, where he bamboozled batsmen with offcutters delivered at deceptively high speeds. Mashrafe saw him for the first time a month or so before the series and thought Mustafizur could be an attacking option. Convinced they had unearthed a gem, he told the selectors and the coach that they needed him as a surprise weapon.
Postcard from Narail: in his time, Mashrafe was one of these boys, forever finding reasons to jump into the Chitra
© Getty Images
Postcard from Narail: in his time, Mashrafe was one of these boys, forever finding reasons to jump into the Chitra © Getty Images
"You just had to see the way Mustafizur was bowling in the nets. He had wicket-taking strengths and was a complete unknown. He could be a dangerous bowler if people didn't pay him too much attention. In the first match he nearly took a wicket off the first ball, and then he took a wicket off the second ball in the second game.
"When you see a person closely, work with him and engage with him, you can sense his confidence. In these situations you have to give a chance to someone who doesn't think much about consequences. Mustafizur took the ball, bowled. He didn't take too much pressure, wasn't too tense. So we thought he could take wickets. In addition, all our opponents would have also thought that Mashrafe and then Rubel or Taskin will start the bowling, which made him a surprise option. The credit goes to him. He made our job easier."
Zahid Reza used to be known in Bangladesh cricket circles as Dari Babu, for his beard. These days he is the curator at Zahur Ahmed Chowdhury Stadium in Chittagong and is simply known as Babu bhai. Over the course of his 51 years Zahid has worn various hats. He was a team official for many years in the Dhaka club system, and after he took curating lessons, was given charge of the Bangabandhu National Stadium. Many other cricket-related jobs followed before he settled on his role in Chittagong.
Long gone are the days when Zahid's face was mostly covered by a beard. These days he sports a goatee, speaks firmly with an even tone, and always has something insightful to offer.
A word that easily attaches itself to Mashrafe - whether talking about his childhood, his teenage years or his adult life - is danpitey, Bengali for a naughty daredevil
In the late 1990s, Zahid, a club official at the time, came across a young boy from Narail. "It was an age-group match between Khulna and Dhaka Metropolis at the Dhanmondi Cricket Stadium," recalled Zahid. "He was one of Khulna's best players along with Syed Rasel, so someone had deviously thought that they should both be disqualified on grounds of over-age. They tried to test their age on the morning of the match and I saw one of the boys was crying. So I offered to take the two cricketers to a nearby medical college for a proper test. These two boys have to play, I said to the organisers. The two boys played the next day and Khulna won quite easily."
Zahid was instantly impressed with the pace of one of the boys - Mashrafe. It was something few expected to see at that level of cricket. He soon took Mashrafe under his wing and enlisted him in Azad Sporting Club in the Dhaka First Division Cricket League. Zahid recalls one game in the season when a young Mashrafe had seasoned batsmen hopping.
"He was running in fast and just blowing them past the batsmen," said Zahid. "I think then and there he was picked for the Bangladesh A team for the tour to India [in 2001]. As you can imagine, he was an instant hit with the selectors. He was one of the rare pace bowlers those days."
Mashrafe's was a meteoric rise. Within eight months of playing for Bangladesh U-17, he was picked to play for Bangladesh A in India in 2001. And midway through that tour he was summoned home for the Test series against Zimbabwe.
A bowler's captain: Mashrafe helped Rubel Hossain (left) get over a personal crisis and has fired up rookie Taskin Ahmed (right) expertly
© Getty Images
A bowler's captain: Mashrafe helped Rubel Hossain (left) get over a personal crisis and has fired up rookie Taskin Ahmed (right) expertly © Getty Images
The fast-tracking of Mashrafe had as much to do with his eye-popping talent as it did with Bangladesh's longing for a tearaway. In the 1960s, when Bangladesh was East Pakistan, men like the late Daulat-uz-Zaman and Altaf Hossain were pace bowlers who made a mark. Jahangir Shah Badshah, Dipu Roy Chowdhury and the late Ziaul Islam carried the torch in the following decade; Badshah, over a career spanning close to two decades, was a cut above the rest. In the 1967-68 season, leading the attack for Udity Club against the strong Public Works Department, which had many present and future Pakistan players, he took five wickets and inspired them to a narrow win. Nearly two decades later, after many years of carrying the Bangladesh bowling attack and turning in stirring spells, he was called up to a World XI side that took on Pakistan in a benefit series for Abdul Qadir in Kuwait City. In the second game he took the wickets of Mohsin Khan, Javed Miandad and Saleem Malik, finishing with 3 for 16 off seven overs.
Badshah was voted the country's greatest cricketer by the newspaper Prothom Alo in 2000. By then Bangladesh were desperately seeking Badshah's heir. Hasibul Hossain and Bikash Ranjan Das (later known as Mahmudur Rahman) played in the inaugural Test in November 2000. Das, a raw left-arm pace bowler who had been plucked out of an indoor net in central Dhaka, was included even though most agreed that he was not yet Test material. Manjurul Islam, another left-arm paceman, made an impressive Test debut against Zimbabwe in early 2001. And there was Mohammad Sharif, a teenager who tried to extract every ounce of pace from his tiny frame.
Mashrafe, though, was heralded as the next big hope. Andy Roberts, then coaching in Dhaka, was convinced of his potential, and journalists were confident that the emergence of a young fast bowler would show the world how serious Bangladesh was about Test status. Ashraful had then recently made a spectacular debut. It was assumed Mashrafe would do the same with the ball.
Still a skinny teenager, Mashrafe ran in hard in his first Test and made the Zimbabwe batsmen nervous. His long run-up, leap and cross-legged delivery stride caught the eye. When he got Grant Flower and Stuart Carlisle to jump around in his second spell, the crowd at the Bangabandhu National Stadium - subdued after Bangladesh were bowled out for 107 - came alive. Mashrafe removed both batsmen and reduced Zimbabwe to 89 for 5. And though Zimbabwe recovered, thanks to a lower-order resurgence, he added the wickets of Heath Streak and Brian Murphy to finish with 4 for 106 in 32 overs. For a bowler who hadn't bowled more than 16 overs in an innings till then, this was a marathon effort.
Like Fazal Mahmood during Pakistan's early years, Mashrafe inspired a generation to dream of bowling fast. His impact as a fast bowler and captain has often been reminiscent of Kapil Dev
Within two months of his debut Mashrafe injured his shoulder and back. Three months later he injured his knee while skipping rope. These setbacks were to become a recurring theme. Just when it appeared that he was settling into international cricket, he would be sidelined for long stretches. He played only two matches in the 2003 World Cup and continued to miss important games over the next 12 months.
Yet when he was around he usually made an impact. His ODI career average is an unremarkable 30.88 but it drops to 20.63 in victories. His economy and strike rates are similarly significant. His one six-wicket haul and three of his five four-wicket hauls have come in victories. There have been only four ODI wins where he has gone wicketless after bowling more than seven overs.
One of Mashrafe's finest performances came when he was at an emotional low. It was the night before the first match against India in the 2007 World Cup that he heard his Khulna and Bangladesh team-mate Manzarul Islam Rana had died in a motorbike accident. Mashrafe was close to Manzarul. They had played together in the Khulna region and later in Dhaka. Both had the ability to make friends quickly and both loved riding bikes fast. Mashrafe would speak of Manzarul's smile often. He was an emotional wreck during the India game, but the loss drove him harder, his four wickets carrying Bangladesh to a famous victory. He would later say he wanted to win it for his friend.
Thanks, but: Mashrafe thought the team's reception at home after the 2015 World Cup was a little over the top
Thanks, but: Mashrafe thought the team's reception at home after the 2015 World Cup was a little over the top © AFP
Many of Mashrafe's match-winning efforts, though, have been followed by long layoffs. Since his debut in 2001, he has missed 110 ODIs. And there are many who find it hard to believe he has lasted as long as he has done.
"He just wants it so bad," said former Bangladesh coach Shane Jurgensen. "I will never forget in Ireland in 2012, sitting with him on the bus after a team dinner. He described his last knee operation, when he had no help or support in Melbourne. He took himself to and from the hospital for the operation. That's courage."
There have been times when the country has obsessed over Mashrafe's fitness - never more so than in the days leading up to the 2011 World Cup. He twisted his knee in a domestic one-day game, but determined to play in Bangladesh's first home World Cup, worked hard on getting fit. One day while he was bowling at full tilt in the Bangladesh nets, coach Jamie Siddons said, "Mashrafe is unfit, so I am not really thinking about him at the moment."
That brought on a storm, fuelling murmurs about a rift between Siddons and Mashrafe. "The physio will speak about fitness and the coach… the coach will talk about performance," Mashrafe said when asked for a response.
The fast-tracking of Mashrafe had as much to do with his eye-popping talent as it did with Bangladesh's longing for a tearaway
On January 19, 2011, when chief selector Rafiqul Alam announced the squad in a packed conference room at the National Cricket Academy, Mashrafe was not included; he was not deemed fit enough.
"Today is the most painful day of my life," Mashrafe said to a group of journalists, breaking down. "I wasn't ready for this news. I was 100% confident but now I have nothing to do. I respect their decision and I wish the players well."
Seventy-eight wickets in 36 Tests, at an average in the early 40s, may give the impression of a run-of-the-mill cricketer, but Mashrafe's impact goes far beyond numbers. Like Fazal Mahmood during Pakistan's early years as a Test nation, Mashrafe inspired a generation to dream of bowling fast. His impact as a fast bowler and inspirational qualities as a captain have often been reminiscent of Kapil Dev - though Mashrafe himself balks at such comparisons. And he gives little thought to rankings and his legacy.
Many of Bangladesh's young fast bowlers have, like Mashrafe, come from small towns. Rubel is from Bagerhat, approximately 130km south of Narail, and he fondly remembers the day he clean-bowled Mashrafe in a local tournament. Robiul Islam and Al-Amin Hossain too looked up to Mashrafe. Many other young fast bowlers have spoken of his influence and all agree that it was Mashrafe bhai who showed them that a pace bowler from a remote town can go on to have a successful career.
Robiul, Bangladesh's only fast bowler to win a Man-of-the-Series award in a Test series, grew up in Satkhira, approximately 100km south-west of Narail. "Mashrafe bhai tells me about fitness, about bowling, about recovering from injury," he said. "I sometimes think about how shy I felt when I saw him for the first time; I couldn't even talk to him. Now I get to interact with him. I feel lucky."
As captain, Mashrafe has been guarded about his team's achievements and humble about his own
As captain, Mashrafe has been guarded about his team's achievements and humble about his own © AFP
Jurgensen remembers how Mashrafe charged the team up in 2012 after they had lost the Test series to West Indies at home. Mashrafe hadn't been part of the Test squad but when he joined the side for the five-match ODI series, the dressing room turned into a place of fun and laughter.
"A series-changing day for us as a team was prior to the West Indies ODI series in October 2012," says Jurgensen. "We spent the day in his home town. It was just an amazing experience to see how popular he is, with thousands of people following us." Jurgensen says the team-bonding experience was a major factor for the victory that followed.
It has been close to 15 years since his debut but Mashrafe still approaches the game like that wide-eyed 17-year-old who burst on to the scene in 2001.
"At the start I played for the joy of the game," he said during our second interview at the National Cricket Academy. "I remember, I used to think that they will show me on TV. If this is my last match, at least everyone at home will see me play. Now it has been almost 15 years. Now is the time to open your heart when playing. I haven't done anything big. But I give it my all in the field, despite my injuries."
Speak to many who know him and it is clear that Mashrafe hasn't changed much over the last two decades. Many insist that he remains the same animated, endearing teenager who was obsessed with exploring Narail and all that it offered.
A word that easily attaches itself to Mashrafe - whether talking about his childhood, his teenage years or his adult life - is danpitey, Bengali for a naughty daredevil. That side of him came to the fore during his wedding reception in 2006, when Mashrafe was so eager to show the guests around his home town that his friends and family struggled to keep him on the stage with his bride. He had to be stopped from climbing a coconut tree, and against many people's wishes, insisted on taking a cruise in a boat. Once, riding a motorbike, with Abdur Razzak pillion, he took his hands off the handlebar and spread them apart on reaching the Chitra Bridge. Mashrafe occupies space on billboards and has sponsors lining up to endorse him but when in Narail, he is the joker of the pack, wisecracking with his friends.
His attitude and approach to cricket have remained the same over the years. He still dives head first to save a boundary, even when a roller is perilously close. He still runs in full steam, even when carrying an injury. He has been part of the team during its darkest days. Now he is captain during their most successful phase. Bangladesh cricket has seen many superstars and breathtaking talents. But they are yet to see - and are unlikely to ever see - anyone so inspirational and yet so down to earth. And for that they are grateful.
Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84
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