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November 2009

Bangladesh’s 22-year-old allrounder Shakib Al Hasan is TWC’s Test player of the year. Still relatively unknown around the world, he tells Rabeed Imam about his reluctant path into cricket

Who is Shakib Al Hasan? Ask most cricket followers around the world who the best player in the last 12 months has been and you are likely to hear the names of Graeme Smith, Mitchell Johnson, Gautam Gambhir or Andrew Strauss. Shakib’s is far less likely to get a mention. Yet he has taken 45 wickets at 23 with his left-arm spin, including five five-fors. Add to that 498 runs at 35.57 and he already has the kind of allrounder figures that Andrew Flintoff could only have dreamed of – not bad for a 22-year-old.

Yet it almost was not to be. “I never had any interest in cricket until I found out I was good at it and that you can travel the world playing this game,” says Shakib. “At the age of 15 to 16 I got selected in three representative age-group teams. I was touring countries and thought this wasn’t too bad considering I hadn’t held a proper cricket ball until I was 14.”

His lack of interest in cricket can probably be explained by his family upbringing. “Football runs in the family,” he says. “My dad was a well-known footballer in our district and a cousin, who I looked up to and idolised, was a prolific striker for a top club and was a Bangladesh international. I was hooked on football. Cricket was a less serious pastime and was limited to some village knockabouts with a taped tennis ball. To become an international cricketer from where I come from it requires luck and a mini-miracle.”

Where he came from is Magura, in south-west Bangladesh. Never a sports hub, it is one of those typical sleepy rural localities. There was someone there, however, with the sporting eyes to spot gold. A local coach Saddam Hossain saw him at a village match and, after asking him to a trial for his club, told him to stop bowling fast and switch to spin. “I was a starter straightaway,” Shakib says.

Next came the break that would change his life. He was sent to a month-long talent-spotting camp in the nearby district of Narail in 2001. A local player on the verge of the Bangladesh side towered over the rest of the players and would often intimidate many of the kids. It was the current Bangladesh captain, Mashrafe Mortaza.

“He had this habit of using his thumb and index finger as the frame for a rubber band slingshot,” says Shakib. “When he turned on me one day I decided to return the compliments even though I was no match for this hulk who bragged about his one-handed push-ups and what not. He did beat me up later but the startled look in his eyes when I attacked him was priceless.”

He made an impression on Mortaza, who told the coach Ashfaqul Islam Bappy that Shakib was going to be something special. Bappy was also impressed and Al Hasan joined the Bangladesh Institute of Sports in 2002.

“It was not fun at first and I was kept with a group of boys who were weak in cricket,” says Shakib. “I shed tears in private as no coach would pick me in the tournament. One day one of the coaches saw me watching a game and asked which team I was playing for. When he heard that I didn’t have a team he took me to one of his colleagues and requested him to give me a chance. I played the next few games and emerged as the highest wicket-taker in the competition. I just kicked on from there.”

He went through the Bangladesh age groups – 15, 17, 18 and 19. Talk of his talent was reaching the national team. Mohammad Ashraful saw him for the first time in a club match four years ago and was taken aback by his brashness.

“He came to the crease with his team precariously placed against my club,” says Ashraful. “I had heard quite a bit about this lad and I expected some fight and grind. That’s how newcomers usually tend to impress. He was barely there but tried to hit each of the deliveries he faced out of the park before inevitably holing out. I shook my head in disbelief and wondered whether he had any future.”

It was that aggressive intent that has led him to the top of the ICC ODI allrounder rankings. “I guess I owe my performance to keeping things simple,” he says. “I don’t lose sleep over disappointments and rather look ahead to seize the next opportunity.”

He has a dash of swagger in him that is backed up by consistency in a very inconsistent team. Shakib captained Bangladesh to their first Test series victory, against a weakened West Indies side in July. He had taken over for the injured Mortaza and led his team to victory with a run-a-ball unbeaten 96. It was an indication of how highly his attitude is regarded that he was handed the vice-captaincy so early and Shakib is hopeful he has come into a team on the up.

“One day we will be right up there at the top and it is a realistic prospect,” he says. “Just look at the players we have. Tamim Iqbal, Ashraful, Mortaza can be match-winners and now we have Rubel [Hossain] who can bowl at 90mph. Give us a few years to grow together. Teams who face us in the coming months will be taking on a victorious unit and not the Bangladesh of old. There is a difference you will notice.”

His own ambitions are also immersed in his in-built practicality, which is why he shrugged off not being on the short-list of the ICC awards and being ignored by the IPL franchises at auction.

“Probably people who decide those things don’t know me that well,” he says. “It’s their problem, not mine. I have been a performer and I work hard at my game to become the best cricketer I can be. Besides, getting recognised by The Wisden Cricketer is far more prestigious and meaningful. It is the pinnacle of individual recognition as far as I am concerned.”

Rabeed Imam is a journalist and Bangladesh cricket’s media manager 

1    Shakib Al Hasan (B)    8    7.94
2    Gautam Gambhir (I)    8    7.63
3    Graeme Smith (SA)    7    7.21
4    Sachin Tendulkar (I)    9    7.00
=    Jacques Kallis (SA)    8    7.00
6    Ben Hilfenhaus (A)    8    6.94
7    Andrew Flintoff (E)    8    6.88
=    Dale Steyn (SA)    8    6.88
9    Fidel Edwards (WI)    8*    6.81
10    Andrew Strauss (E)    13*    6.77

Qualification: minimum 5 Tests between Sept 1 2008 and August 31 2009. This precluded any Pakistan players from the list as they did not play enough Tests in the period. Our reporters at each Test gave marks out of 10 to every player; we added up the marks for each player and calculated their average mark. *Edwards and Strauss also played in the abandoned Test at North Sound, Antigua, in February. No marks were awarded for this match.

Of the 164 cricketers who played Test cricket in the 12 months from September 2008 you could be forgiven for not expecting a 22-year-old Bangladeshi allrounder to be TWC’s Test Player of the Year. Yet Shakib Al Hasan deserves his accolade.
As his statistics opposite show, Shakib performed consistently against good opposition, including three five-fors in four Tests against the two highest-ranked sides in the world – South Africa and Sri Lanka. His marks were not inflated, as they often are for average players standing out in a losing cause; they merely reflected great performances in a losing side.
Andrew Flintoff ended his final 12 months as a Test player by being rated England’s top performer, perhaps surprising given the influence of Andrew Strauss (10th), who averaged 60 with the bat in his first full year as captain.
South Africa’s place at the top of the Test rankings is reflected with the most players in the top 10, while the potential of West Indies if they stopped the in-fighting is highlighted by having Fidel Edwards at ninth and Shivnarine Chanderpaul at 11th equal.
Last year’s winner Brett Lee played eight Tests but had an average mark per match of only 4.94 while the South Africans Dale Steyn and Jacques Kallis are the only players to retain their top-10 status from last year.

Shakib has played eight Tests in four different series over the last 12 months. Other than a weakened West Indies side, he has faced strong opposition from New Zealand, South Africa and Sri Lanka.

v New Zealand (home)
7-36, 2-79 + 5, 71
v New Zealand (home)
1-57, 0-6 + 49
v South Africa (away)
5-130 + 14, 0
v South Africa (away)
6-99 + 30, 2
v Sri Lanka (home)
5-70, 1-134 + 26, 96
v Sri Lanka (home)
4-109, 1-79 + 0, 46
v West Indies (away)
2-76, 3-39 + 17, 30
v West Indies (away)
3-59, 5-70 + 16, 96*
45 wkts @ 23.17
498 runs @ 35.57

Article By Rabeed Imam

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