Transcript : Couch Talk 40 with Mohammad Isam

Couch Talk Episode 40 (play)

Guest: Mohammad Isam

Subscribe to Couch Talk podcast on iTunes.

RSS Feed

Subash Jayaraman – Hello and Welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is a cricket reporter from Bangladesh – Mohammad Isam. Isam is the senior sports reporter at the Daily Star at Dhaka. He also writes for ESPNcricinfo. Welcome to the show, Isam!

Mohammad Isam – Thank you very much!

SJ– Bangladesh had a very creditable result in the Asia Cup. They finished a very close second to Pakistan. And there were plenty of press saying Bangladesh have turned a corner. The thing is, we have heard this in 2007 World Cup, where they made the 2nd stage of the World Cup, and people said Bangladesh have turned the corner. When they competed with Australia in a test series, they said Bangladesh have turned a corner. So, what would make us believe that Bangladesh cricket has turned a corner this time around?

MI – To be honest with you, after the Australia series at home, there was a large gap in playing cricket for the Tigers. This is also similar, but the difference is, that there are several cricketers who have now played for a long time together – Shakib Al Hasan, Tamim Iqbal, Mushfiqur Rahim, Mashrafe [Mortaza]… They have been playing together for a long time. And, they are stable characters, and they breed stability into the team. They try to bring in a certain sense of continuation for other cricketers. That is where one of the differences lies. Also, after the 2007 World Cup, there was a change of captain. [Mohammad] Ashraful was made the captain, from a very experienced Habibul Bashar, which I thought was s little hasty immediately after a big event. I think that’s never wise. This time, most cricketers except Mashrafe mortaza and Abdur Razzak are from a certain age group. So, I think there is hope for Bangladesh turning a corner. I think they have turned a corner, in a way – this group promises more than the ones before.

SJ– Fair enough. The thing with Bangladesh cricket is that we have seen in the past decade or so is that they basically had baptism by fire, where the young ones – 17 and 18 years of age – like the case of Mohammad Ashraful – he promised so much more, but is averaging 23 in tests, where young cricketers are thrown to the wolves, and made to grow up as international cricketers at the highest level of the game. Is that fair for the cricketers?

MI – I think it is absolutely unfair. The case of Ashraful was the practice for almost 5 or 6 years after Bangladesh got the test status in 2000. It stayed on till 2005. Even Mushfiqur Rahim – he made his debut at Lord’s, as a 16 year old kid. He looked like a 5 year old at that time. That problem has gone away, with the change in selection committee. There is a tendency to go to for youth,  but not 16 or 17 year olds. Now, they have a process where they let the U-19 cricketers come through domestic cricket, come through A-team cricket, which was not in place even 4-5 years ago. The system is in place where a lot of these players play a  lot of first class cricket, whether it is good or not, they play a lot of one-day cricket, for the A-teams. It also looks very innocent, these cricketers coming into international cricket at such a young age. You can see that this group averages 24-25 years, which is fair for international cricket, and it is growing. I just hope that the current selection committee will let this batch roll on for a few more years.

SJ– You mentioned the domestic cricket, the first class cricket, and these cricketers playing in Bangladesh. We hear about County cricket, the Ranji Trophy, Shield cricket and all that. But there is not enough reporting on the first class structure in Bangladesh. What type of structure exists there, that provides a feeding line to the Bangladesh national team?

MI – The first class structure in Bangladesh actually does not provide cricketers to the national team. What it does is, it gives them a taste of four day cricket,  a taste of longer version cricket. The current system has 8 first class teams, which is 7 divisional headquarters and Dhaka Metro. It is a lot of teams for a country as small as Bangladesh. The problem is – there are a lot of cricketers, and they have to be apportioned accordingly. Now, in this system, there are certain problems. Bangladesh does not have enough cricket grounds. They have 4 or 5 international standard grounds. So, the pitches are not taken care of. Apart from that, the biggest problem is the monetary side of affairs where none of the players who play in the National Cricket League (NCL), don’t get paid well. They get 1/10th of what they get in club cricket. And now that the BPL (Bangladesh Premier League) has come in, the Twenty-Twenty tournament, there will be a lot of problems in motivating these guys to play for the National Cricket League. I can tell you that Bangladesh Cricket Board is trying to get together a franchise based four-day tournament. They had a meeting today (Note: Recorded on March 31) which didn’t go too well. They didn’t actually discuss that, but it is in the offing. It could happen this season, or it could start the next season where six companies would come up with teams where they will play each other. And there will be a  lot of money on offer for the players, as well as prize money and they will try to bring foreign players. That should work, for first class cricket. For the structure that is in place, I’d say it is a hindrance.

SJ– You addressed the economic side of things. Let’s talk about the cricket side of things. You mentioned earlier that you have young cricketers being bled on the international scene. But, what is being done to develop such talent? We’ve seen Nasir Hussain and Mahmudullah Riad – very level headed guys, they know what the situation is, and watching Mahmudullah’s debut test vs India was fantastic, the way he batted. Nasir Hussain has an excellent temperament as well. But, what are the structures in place to develop these talents?

MI– You have actually pointed out two very distinct cricketers in Bangladesh. They actually bat in the same place, and bowl. They are distinct in the way they have come up in cricket in Bangladesh. Nasir Hussain comes from BKSP – Bangladesh Krira Shiksha Pratisthan – it is the largest sports institute in the country. Nasir was originally from Rangpur, a northern district town where he went to BKSP, where he did his schooling, practiced cricket and played a lot of tournaments, a lot of league cricket, and age-group cricket, the under-19 World Cup etc. And then, he went to club cricket, where he played for the bigger clubs. Nasir was always a very calm individual, and he is doing the same that he was doing in club cricket in international cricket, except, he is not doing too well against the faster bowlers.

Mahmudullah Riad, on the other hand, comes from club cricket background, mostly. He is from a place called Mymensingh. He came to Dhaka as a club cricketer, played in Dhaka, went through the ranks in club cricket through the different divisions that we have in Dhaka, which is the main cricket that is being played by the domestic cricketers here.

About the pipeline that you just talked about – it is full. It was supposed to be dry, but the Bangladesh Cricket Board has wisely put up a cricket academy where they have 30 cricketers training during the off-season and the pre-season. They have tours to South Africa. They have a deal with South Africa Cricket, where they bring in their academy side. Pakistan sometimes come, they have come a few times with their academy team. We have age-group structure from U-13 to U-19, and then cricketers can graduate into the academy and then, into the A-team. During the period, they get grabbed up by different clubs, where they develop their temperament, their patience, and the other parts of cricket. There is a very good structure in place. But one can say that the cricket that is being played within the structure needs a lot of development.

I’ll focus on fast bowling first. For fast bowlers, there used to be a lot of bowling camps and talent hunts, but those have also gone. Bangladesh Cricket Board is not putting together specialist camps for fast bowlers and spinners. It happens once in 2 or 3 years, but it is not enough. For batsmen, it is good – they have many batting coaches in Bangladesh. But in terms of developing talent, it is in place, but certain areas are there which is not being looked at, and must be looked at. Players will be coming through in the next few years.

SJ– We talked briefly about first class system in Bangladesh. Is there any benefit in tying up with the regional neighbours, say, India or Pakistan or Sri Lanka, whoever, and, Bangladeshi A-team will tour these or take part in other country’s first class competition?

MI– yes, Bangladesh Cricket Board have sent a team to the West Indies once. They have sent a team to Duleep trophy several years ago. That is one area. I have already told that there are certain lapses in the cricket board, and one of them is diplomacy. You have to have a cricketing mind to get into these situations, where you have to get a team to go to India, playing in those tournaments, because it will help the players. I don’t see why they can’t send a first class team to Pakistan? They can also send a team to Sri Lanka. Sometimes, the schedules in the subcontinents clash. Then, in that case, a team can be sent to England. They do tour, but regionally, it hasn’t happened for the last 5-6 years.

SJ– Why do you think that hasn’t happened in the last 5-6 years?

MI– Partnership with the cricket boards. Apart from the bilateral tours or some sort of A-team tours, there hasn’t been any one where the Bangladeshi first class champions have gone to India or Sri Lanka or Pakistan to play. Maybe, a Board selection XI to play the Duleep trophy, it happened the last time in 2001. I think they played the Busta Cup in 2003, but after that, nothing like that has happened, which is hurting Bangladesh slightly in that area.

SJ– The diplomacy you mentioned, that is between the boards or between the governments of the countries?

MI – Boards, cricket boards. It is fine at the government levels.

SJ– You mean to say that the Bangladesh Cricket Board doesn’t find favours, or doesn’t get along with the other boards of the area?

MI– I wouldn’t say they don’t get along, I would say their priorities lie in different areas. I think cricketing priorities are not the no.1 priorities in most situations. I’m sure they have good relations with the BCCI, they have to. Now, they have a dicey situation with the Pakistan Cricket Board. With Sri Lanka, they have a coaching program, where coaches from Sri Lanka come and coach Bangladeshi players, Bangladeshi umpires, they go and do it in Sri Lanka and South Africa and in West Indies. But, cricket wise, sending teams is not regularly happening. I think that is one area where the Bangladesh Cricket Board should really look into.

SJ– You mentioned the relationship between BCB and PCB, I will come to that. First, I want to touch upon the coaching thing. You’ve had Dav Whatmore, Jamie Siddons, and now Stuart Law is the national team coach. What is the deal with the Bangladeshi cricket and Australian coaches? And, does having Australian coaches help the local talent in realising the cricketers they can become? There is of course some lag between where the coach is coming from, the culture that he is coming from, the cricket that he has played, to come and help the players who have grown in a different conditions. Explain how that works.

MI– it actually started with Trevor Chappell. Trevor Chappell was the first Australian. He was the fielding coach first, (he was the fielding coach with the Sri Lankan team), then he became the Bangladeshi national coach. After him, there was a Pakistani coach named Mohsin Kamal, who took us to the 2003 World Cup, and then all the Australian coaches. There was a guy called Shaun Williams in the middle, after Dav Whatmore left. The cricket board, during the early 2000s, thought better of Australian cricketers, and Australian coaches were hunted everywhere. And I think the discipline and forthrightness of them cuts right through our culture. There is a lot of patronisation to the players, which they enjoy. And Australian coaches throughout the last 10 years haven’t really given two hoots to that. The Bangladeshi cricketer has had to go through a lot of disciplinary changes.

After Trevor Chappell, Dae Whatmore, who came from Sri Lanka., and a World Cup winning coach.  At that time, Bangladesh cricket board had struggled very badly till the 2003 World Cup, they needed a figurehead, and Dav Whatmore was definitely one of those, who gave the team a direction as well as being their father-figure, which everyone sees during that period.

After Whatmore, came Jamie Siddons. Jamie Siddons, I think was a very good batting coach. But, as far as man-management was concerned, he wasn’t in the league of Whatmore. He was a little too forthright, a little too emotional at times. I think it fit with the Bangladeshi culture at times, but an expectation from an Australian would be that he would not take favours from anyone and not do favours to anyone – not that Jamie has done anyone any favour – but there was some whispering that in the last few months of his tenure, he had lost control of the dressing room, which is very important for Bangladesh. Because, you need a coach, a senior figure in the team, because it is such a young team. You need such a figure to get a full control of the dressing room, which  I think, Jamie lost towards the end.

Stuart Law, definitely a great cricketer from his time and someone who still has something to prove. The Asia Cup showed that his calm approach works. He is very much a disciplinarian. He tells me he is not too strict, but players tell me he never takes no for an answer at times. Why Australian coaches? Because they are very disciplined and they don’t take no for an answer. None of them have.

SJ– Let’s get to the relationship between BCB and PCB. It was announced that they were going to explore the idea of sending a Bangladeshi team to tour Pakistan and this would’ve been a major public relations coup for the PCB, and that seems to have hit some kind of a snag lately, with BCB saying that if ICC is not going to send their own umpires and officials, why should they send their players? That was the last I read about it. I’m assuming, in all these board related engagements, there has to be some sort of mutual back-scratching. Like, “you do this for me, I do this for you.” “We’ll push your guy for vice-presidency of ICC” and so on and so forth. What is your take on the whole situation of BCB agreeing to PCB’s request?

MI– BCB has left it for the ICC to make the decision. I think ICC has a meeting this month, where probably they will guide BCB on what to do. From the government point of view, there has been a decision already made. I wouldn’t know if it is a yes or a no, but BCB, in today’s meeting were supposed to discuss the Pakistan tour. But, it was left out of the agendas. It started out as a surprise for everyone that Bangladesh were looking to tour Pakistan in the first place, which fit in well with Mustafa Kamal’s politics of trying to get into the ICC, when Bangladesh and Pakistan were the partners [to nominate someone to the ICC vice-president post].

It was not well supported in Bangladesh. Some board members accused him, saying that he didn’t let the others know that he was the one Pakistan had voted for, or he was the one whose name from Bangladesh is being pushed for. After that, they promise, that hasn’t really gone well. Certain people in Bangladesh will tell you that it’s quite an embarrassment that we have to resort to that sort of a deal between the two cricket boards. And now it is really turning into a bigger embarrassment if Bangladesh doesn’t go to Pakistan – even the country looks bad because of one person’s decision making. As far as I am concerned, it should’ve been handled a lot better. The other problem which I thought was that the team that was sent to Pakistan – there wasn’t anyone from the Army or the Special Security Forces, or the Intelligence Forces, which surprised me. If you’d send the security team, you wouldn’t send the tournament committee members or the BCB president or the CEO in the security team. They could be a part of the group visiting Pakistan, but I wouldn’t think they would be the best people to judge security. That was the signal that the Bangladeshi board wasn’t taking this thing too seriously. The government has. I feared that it would hurt relations between Bangladesh and Pakistan to a certain degree.

SJ– We should wait and see how everything transpires in the coming weeks and months.

Let’s talk about the Bangladesh Premier League. The auctions happened. The money per team was twice of what it was in the Big Bash League. So, there was a sponsor to fork up the money. The tournament went on. There were players from all over [the world] taking part. On the side lines, there were murmurs about some match fixing that could’ve gone on. As someone who had followed the entire spectacle closely, what is your take on the whole situation?

MI – I’ll start off on the positives, so people don’t think that I’m all negative about this. The batsmen got to face some fast bowlers, which is extremely important for Bangladeshi cricketers. They don’t get to face bowlers like Mohammed Sami, Kabir Ali, Shane Harwood and the like. That was the biggest thing that got out of the BPL, that Bangladeshi batsmen proved they can go on through a tournament without being flustered by fast bowlers and there were times – Sami got a hat-trick, everyone bowled well, but they did attack these bowlers. Ashraful, Tamim Iqbal, Shakib Al Hasan, Junaid Siddique all batted quite well. They had some good innings. That was the biggest positive – to bring so many cricketers to Bangladesh.

But, the problem started off with the fact that it was such a hurried tournament. None of the relationship between BPL and Game On Sports, the event management company, or the telecast rights holders, the paper work isn’t solid. Even with the franchises, the players, there have been too many promises made in a very short time – less than a month. They tried to set up such a  huge tournament, that I thought was always going to be in trouble. It started off with Mashrafe Mortaza claiming that former cricketers from Bangladesh had approached him for spot-fixing. Throughout the tournament, there were whispers of spot fixing due to the number of catches being dropped. Towards the end, it all blew up. The arrest of the Pakistani national, Sajid Khan, who was the friend of one of the Pakistani cricketer in Chittagong’s team, his phone number was in his phone and his bank accounts were also found. It just blew up. And the semi-final fiasco – it was terrible. It started off with the preparation – as far as paper work, logistics, and many other things – they weren’t fine.

The next one that they hold next year, in February, it should look better. The public too, here, they got too fed up. They tried to host 90% of the matches in Dhaka, and on weekdays, afternoon. However popular cricket is in Bangladesh, people wouldn’t bother to turn up on weekday afternoons. On the weekends, it was okay. Only for semi-finals and the finals people actually came in. Several areas to improve upon, several areas to look at.

The biggest worry is the match-fixing and spot-fixing allegations. Importantly, the young Bangladeshi cricketers are being exposed to all sorts of people. From a personal point of view, I went to the players’ hotel once, in Dhaka, which is about 3 or 4 km from the stadium. I had been there to take interviews. I had seen that it is a free-for-all. There is no control over who gets to see the players, who gets to go to the room. I even went to Marlon Samuels’ room to get an interview, when he got into the IPL, which is quite amazing, because these days you can’t get into the team’s floor in any hotel. But, in the BPL, the security in place was not good enough for a tournament which as you said, more expensive than the Big Bash. Several areas to look at. Players’ payment must be more regularized. I’ve seen one of several Pakistani players complaining. I’ve seen a tweet from a former Bangladeshi fielding coach, Julien Fountain, he is the Pakistan fielding coach now, he was with the Dhaka Gladiators. He’s complained that the payments haven’t been made. They have to improve these things before they launch the next one.

SJ–  One last question before I let you go. There was an interview you did with Shakib Al Hasan which was published on cricinfo as well. You’ve covered  a whole range of topics – from his growth as a cricketer, how he approaches his game, how Bangladesh’s cricket is progressing these days, and what the future holds and all that. one important aspect that caught my eye was Shakib saying that, in terms of Bangladesh’s performance in tests, he said that they are not going to be able to win tests unless they get bowlers to get to win test matches. and that is not happening just yet, but they can still compete in ODIs because they have a set of all rounders, attacking opening batsmen and a very savvy bowlers. Where does it leave Bangladesh in the test arena? And, give us a general idea about the interaction with Shakib.

MI – I’ll start with what he said about 20 wickets. Shakib is absolutely right. The Bangladeshi team is completely dependent of Shakib Al Hasan to take 20 wickets. There is a huge problem. There is one guy who bowls from one end all day, and there is nothing else coming in for the other. It happened in Zimbabwe last year, where Shakib kept plugging from one end and nothing came in from the other.

The problem is fast bowlers – fast bowlers’ development, fast bowlers’ injury management, fast bowlers’ skill improvement. It hasn’t happened in the last few years. They bring in bowling coach, they don’t get enough time to work on it. Ian Pont came in for 6 months – not enough. Shane Jurgensen, Stuart Barnes, a lot of people are coming in, but the problem is that these specialist coaches are being brought in as ornaments for a few months, maybe a year, and then they are let go. The last guy who stayed for a long time was Champaka Ramanayaka, former Sri Lankan fast bowler. He was the one who gave Rubel Hossain the break, he is injured now and missed the Asia Cup, but he is the one in form for the last two years for Bangladesh. Shafiul Islam has gone off the boil. Mashrafe is in and out, unfortunately, through his injury.

But, then, there is one really important one for Bangladesh. The basic problem is obviously pitches not being developed with a little more bounce that encourages captains to use fast bowlers. If you ever get to see a Bangladesh FC cricket match, fast bowlers bowl 7 or 8 overs at best and then they are told to chew the cud at third man or long leg. They are asked to score some runs, because they are not used. In first class cricket, if it starts around October or November, sometimes fast bowlers get 20-25 overs in an innings. But, not always. That attitude must change. It is similar to the attitude where Australian state captains were asked to use more leg-spinners or spinners. Same here – fast bowlers are not being used. Teams are loading in left arm spinners – three or four of them. Well, that works. They are going to use that, you can’t blame them.

The system has to change. Fast bowlers much be encouraged, not just with pitches but with incentives too. Why not become a fast bowler? We have role models, and Bangladeshi diet is fine for a fast bowler. They get to eat meat. I don’t think it’s a problem to develop fast bowlers in the country. The system has to be in place.

You have mentioned my interaction with Shakib. This was the longest interaction I’ve had with him. He’s an introvert sort of a person. And, obviously, from a personal point of view, I’ve never tried to impose myself on him. It’s always been the odd “Hi” or Hello”. It’s quite enjoyable talking to him. When he opens up, he has a lot of things to say. He has a very sharp mind as a cricketer, and I think with a team just ten years old as  attest team, we are very lucky to have someone as Shakib who doesn’t think about the national team or his own performance. He is one of the guys who would go to the board of directors and tell what to do, straight away. “Do this. Get an Australian coach for the academy. Get the high performance unit back.” Because he is one of the products of the high performance unit. I think Shakib’s impact on the Bangladeshi team is there for all to see. What Bangladesh is missing, however, is a few more Shakib Al Hasans, which he also understands – that he has people maintain his attitude to cricket. He doesn’t have any inferiority complex with the big teams. He enjoys playing against the bigger teams, he really enjoys playing against India. He has one attitude, Tamim Iqbal as well, these two are the sort of cricketers you wouldn’t want to face as an opponent, not all the time. That’s a very good sign for the Bangladesh, at least.

SJ– As a cricket fan it would be wonderful if Bangladesh become more consistent as an ODI team and become more successful in the test arena. As you mentioned, at the outset, the Bangladeshi team has had a good core of people – stay together, play together as a team for 3 to 5 years. The results should be happening soon. I think, the board should be bringing more players in, the selection committee should be bring more players that complement these players.

MI– More importantly, the cricket board should realise that more cricket should be played as well.

SJ– Certainly! On that note, Isam, thanks a lot for coming on. It was a pleasure talking to you.

MI – Thank you! Thank you very much for having me on the show!

SJ– Pleasure!

[Download the episode here]

Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman