But was it cricket?

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Photo: Collected

In March 2018, the International Cricket Council upheld the decision to impose one demerit point on Mirpur Sher-e-Bangla National Cricket Stadium in Dhaka for a “below average” pitch used during the second and final Test match between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, held from February 8-10 that year.

The Bangladesh Cricket Board’s appeal against the sanction was considered by Geoff Allardice, general manager – cricket, and Anil Kumble, chair of the cricket committee, who after taking into account the grounds for appeal and other relevant information, came to the conclusion that the rating given by David Boon of the Emirates Elite Panel of ICC match referees was correct. Boon had rated the pitch below average according to the ICC pitch and outfield monitoring process, citing uneven bounce throughout the match and inconsistent turn.

In the revised ICC pitch and outfield monitoring process, which was introduced on January 4, 2018, if a pitch or outfield is rated as being substandard, that venue will be allocated a number of demerit points.

One demerit point is awarded to venues whose pitches are rated by the match referees as below average, while three and five demerit points are awarded to venues whose pitches are marked as poor and unfit, respectively. No demerit point will be awarded when the outfield is rated as below average, but two and five demerit points will be awarded to venues whose outfields are marked as poor and unfit, respectively.

Demerit points will remain active for a rolling five-year period. When a venue accumulates five demerit points (or crosses that threshold), it will be suspended from hosting any international cricket for a period of 12 months, while a venue will be suspended from staging any international cricket for 24 months when it reaches the threshold of 10 demerit points.

The ICC’s view of a good pitch seems can be broken down easily. If we consider that two types of variation are essentially possible - lateral variation, where the ball moves towards off or leg, and vertical variation, where the ball bounces higher and lower than normal (note, this is not some general normal, but the normal specific to the pitch), then the ICC is far less forgiving of vertical variation in bounce than it is of lateral variation. Some lateral variation could indeed be considered desirable.

The role of the referee is to test when this lateral variation becomes excessive. This is a judgment call, but it helps that referees are typically experienced former international cricketers from across the cricket world (and not just the subcontinent, or the southern hemisphere). But their job is simplified by the fact that the existence of variable bounce on Day 1 means that under the definitions specified by the ICC, the pitch must be either “below average” or “unfit”.

The Bangladesh cricket team today is on the verge of wrapping up a short stint at home prior to next month’s ICC T20I World Cup, during which they have pretty much dominated Australia and New Zealand in T20Is played on woefully sub-standard pitches. The variable bounce on day 1 that the ICC deems as a sure sign of a sub-standard pitch has been visible during these games from the first over, forget the first day. Also visible has been a puff of dust kicked up by the ball as it touches the surface – again, from the first over in some games. The squad for the World Cup was announced on the eve of the last game of the New Zealand series, and for the most part it reflects the team will be depending on the same set of players we have seen in these two series.

But given the cricket we have witnessed, there are legitimate questions to be raised on whether these players have had the kind of preparation required going into the game’s showpiece event. On that, the answer would have to be a resounding ‘No’.

Negotiating a minefield

Teams batting first in Dhaka have averaged just 114 runs in the nine T20Is the venue has hosted this year, whereas from 2015 to 2020, the average first-innings score was 150. The overall average score in the first innings at this ground is 152. New Zealand beat Bangladesh by a big margin while defending 128 on Sunday. Last month, Bangladesh won three games defending 122, 127, and 131 against Australia. On four occasions, we have seen teams fail to get to three figures before getting bowled out – including Australia’s lowest and New Zealand’s joint-lowest totals in the shortest version of the game.

The overall scoreline for the Australia series was 4-1 in Bangladesh's favour and the hosts currently lead New Zealand 3-1. Together with their 2-1 win in Zimbabwe in July, Bangladesh have turned around their form in T20Is, having spent the last five years with the second-worst record among the major Full Member or Associate teams. And yet these are performances that can hardly fill the players with confidence ahead of an overseas assignment.

Ahead of this series, the team’s head coach, South African Russell Domingo, said that they wanted pitches where teams can get "150-160," but after losing the third game of the New Zealand series in which Bangladesh were bowled out for 76, he said that they probably expected more from the pitch than they ultimately got.

"New Zealand's 128 was probably a par score. We were hoping (the pitch) would skid on a little bit like it did the other night. The wicket didn't get better, it probably got worse. But having been 20 from two overs, needing another 110, I am disappointed with the way the game finished," Domingo said.

For all that is being said about these wins boosting the team’s morale ahead of the World Cup, the batters clearly don’t feel the same, and that third game was a reflection of that. In their last three T20I series, Bangladesh's collective batting average has fallen from 28.82 (vs Zimbabwe) to 15.97 (vs Australia) to 14.68 after three games against New Zealand, according to Cricinfo. Mahmudullah Riyad, the captain, has been the only player to score a fifty for Bangladesh across the two home series, pending the final game of the series.

The T20Is against Zimbabwe, Australia and New Zealand comprised Bangladesh's build-up to the T20 World Cup, and we know now that the ones who played here will be the team’s main batters for the world tournament, too. As a result, there is said to be disappointment at every level in the BCB, as well as the Bangladesh team, with holding the T20Is on such pitches.

The BCB has been on the defensive about their role in the debacle. The square at the Sher-e-Bangla clearly needs to be relaid. The 66 matches held at the venue are the most by any ground in the world this year. Forty-nine of those matches were during the Dhaka Premier League T20s in May. The two months between that tournament and the Australia series should have been ample time for preparing the square, but it was under covers for most of the time. The monsoon season was heavier than usual this year, so even after the Australia series, three weeks in August were never going to be enough as the rain continued on most days.

That’s according to Akram Khan, the former captain who is now the BCB’s chief of cricket operations.

After New Zealand were bowled out for 60 in the first game, BCB's cricket operations chairman Akram Khan said that rain prevented proper preparation of the pitches, and, significantly, both Australia and New Zealand requested to play only in Dhaka. This also played a role in the under-prepared surfaces.

"It wasn't bad just for New Zealand, it is the same pitch for both sides. Our players also struggled to score runs," Khan said. "We have to understand that due to the rain, it is hard to prepare the wickets. It has been mostly under covers. The wickets we get in January or February, we won't get at this time of the year.

"It is unrealistic to expect good wickets now. We obviously know that our preparation (for the T20 World Cup) would be better if we played on good wickets. The other problem is that we are only playing in Dhaka. We wanted to hold the matches in two venues but both Australia and New Zealand wanted to play in one venue. The wickets need rest."

In effect, his words amounted to a confession that our preparation has not been ideal, and going into the World Cup, that leaves the team vulnerable.

In the eyes of SAH75

As Bangladesh’s most accomplished cricketer, with experience of playing overseas for franchises in most cricketing nations, Shakib Al Hasan perhaps knows better than most the double-edged sword that playing on such pitches can be, and he is perhaps more sensitive to the rumblings that are surely growing around the cricketing community around Bangladesh’s performances. In the New Zealand series, on a number of occasions he could be seen not celebrating a wicket, or looking almost apologetically at the batsman after getting him out, when he knew it had more to do with the condition of the pitch, than anything he may have done.

"I think the wicket in the first match was more difficult than the Australia series," he said. "I think we still bowled very well. They naturally struggled as they are not acclimatised to these conditions."

"Picking up singles and running between the wicket must be in focus in these conditions," he said. "It is hard to find boundaries but if you are in a positive frame of mind, singles and doubles make it easier. It releases the batsmen's pressure.

"When he is set, it might be possible to score some runs, taking advantage of a few loose balls. But at the end of the day, these are tough conditions for the batsmen. They are going through a challenging situation in these pitches."

Having said that, Shakib maintained that Bangladesh's recent winning run in T20Is will stand them in good stead ahead of a global event. And there is precedent here. Back in 2007, Bangladesh went into the 50-over World Cup with 18 wins in their last 24 matches and they rode that high all the way to the Super Eights in that tournament.

There was a similar purple patch of form that Bangladesh hit prior to the 2015 World Cup held in Australia and New Zealand, when the Tigers arguably performed even better, getting knocked out by India in the quarter-finals. But no one can really recall the pitches Bangladesh were playing on in those days to have been particularly poor, or overtly favourable to them in any way. It would seem that in the minds of the public, the results Bangladesh are able to obtain in the T20I World Cup next month, ultimately will be the main determinant on whether the snake pits produced by the BCB’s groundsman in Mirpur this summer were an abomination, or just the tonic the team needed.

The World Cup squad

Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) announced a 15-member squad for the upcoming T20 International World Cup to be held in October-November in the United Arab Emirate (UAE) and Oman.

Among the selected players, Afif Hossain, Mohammad Naim, Shamim Hossain, Shoriful Islam, Mahedi Hasan and Nasum Ahmed have been included in a World Cup squad for the first time.

Minhazul Abedin, the chief selector of the national cricket team, announced the squad at a press conference at the Sher-e-Bangla National Cricket Stadium in Mirpur, Dhaka, on Thursday. The chief selector hoped at the press conference that the team, consists of a mix of experienced and young players, will do well in the World Cup. "We the selectors are quite confident about this team," he said.

“We have won three series in a row. On the centenary of Bangabandhu's birth, we have won all the series of white ball cricket at home. We want to maintain this consistency in the World Cup. I hope the team will do well.”

The confidence that the team has developed with consecutive wins will help in the World Cup, Minhazul added.

The chief selector further said, “Wins are important regardless of any format. Winning boosts the team’s confidence all the time. If you lose, there will be a possibility of mental breakdown. The habit of winning and self-confidence will be useful for the team.”

However, the question is how useful the series against Australia and New Zealand will be in Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

Minhazul said in reply, “We have never played in Oman. The game plan will be finalised after the team reaches there. It is difficult to say anything in advance about the preparations until the team reaches there.”

 The chief selector also rued the unavailability of experienced Tamim Iqbal, “Tamim is one of our best players across the formats. We were hopeful of getting him in the World Cup. But we did not get him. We will miss him. However, it is also a chance for the rest of the openers to shine on the biggest platform.”

  • Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB)
  • But was it cricket?
  • International Cricket Council (ICC)
  • World Cup Cricket
  • T20 International World Cup

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