The late 1990s and early 2000s was an interesting phase for Bangladesh cricket. They were among the best of the Tier II teams, but probably not yet ready for the highest level. It was then that men like Akram Khan played key roles in raising the standard of Bangladesh cricket. Portly and not the fittest on the field, Akram was an aggressive batsman who played eight Tests including Bangladesh’s first – against India in November 2000 – and 44 One-Day Internationals, of which he captained in 15. His biggest career highlight was arguably the 42 he scored in Bangladesh’s 223 for 9 as they beat Pakistan by 62 runs in a 1999 World Cup game in Northampton, even though his contributions in the pre-Test era were probably of greater significance.
Now the chief selector of the Bangladesh Cricket Board, Akram (also Tamim Iqbal’s uncle) looks more or less the same as he did in his playing days. Wisden India caught up with him on the sidelines of the one-off Test in Hyderabad – Bangladesh’s first in India – about the early years, the present, and the future of cricket in his country. Excerpts:
You’re back in Hyderabad, where you led Bangladesh to their first ever One-Day International win – over Kenya in the Coca-Cola Triangular Series in 1998. What are the memories you have?
That was one of the biggest moments for Bangladesh cricket. I had come to Hyderabad before that also, with Abahani to play in the Moin-ud-Dowlah (Gold Cup) tournament. I even played at the old Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium.
It was a time when the Indian board was helping us a lot. They were providing us with many opportunities to play, and we used to travel to India quite often as part of various teams, so we played in Hyderabad and elsewhere too. This was before we got Test status. When in 1998 we came here, it was after we had qualified for the 1999 World Cup … it was a dream come true when we beat Kenya. We were the top two teams in the second level, and though we had lots of good games, they usually won. They were stronger and fitter than us. But that win was huge for us. Football was the biggest sport in Bangladesh at the time but as we started doing well, cricket became the No. 1 sport.
It must have been an interesting period …
Yes, in many ways. We had some very good players: (Aminul Islam) Bulbul, (Khaled Mahmud) Sujan, (Minhajul Abedin) Nannu, (Naimur Rahman) Durjoy … but it was a difficult period. There were a lot of demands on us, a lot of expectations, but there was no planning. We were unprofessional. We didn’t know where we were going, who we were playing. In the ICC Trophy, those days, we couldn’t afford to go to new countries in advance and prepare. We had a good team but couldn’t qualify for the 1996 World Cup. So there was a lot of pressure on us in 1997. At the same time, there was a passion. India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka were all doing well, and we were watching them play on TV. So that was a big help …
In that unprofessional era, you must have learnt a lot of cricket from TV too?
Yes, of course. A lot. We didn’t have good coaches in Bangladesh, so some of us who were interested in cricket, we used to watch live telecasts as well as highlights packages. We still do. At the time, our club cricket was quite popular. There was the Asia Cup in 1988. It was my debut. India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka had come. A lot of popular cricketers from India played in the club circuit there at the time too. Raman Lamba, Ashok Malhotra … we still remember Raman Lamba very fondly, he was wonderful. I learnt a lot from him. A lot of first-class cricketers from India also went to play there in the 1990s. And that helped us, because we got a lot of good players like Nannu, Bulbul, (Mohammad) Rafique from the clubs.
The situation now is a result of what all of you did then, isn’t it?
Not just us. There were a lot of people who helped us tremendously at the time. Lots of individuals helped, with money, the media supported us in a big way, the fans … it was a struggle, but it all seems worthwhile now.
And then came the Test status, which a lot of people still believe was because of Jagmohan Dalmiya’s machinations. Were you ready for Test cricket?
[First-class experience and a domestic first-class competition were prerequisites for Test status, and Bangladesh hastily arranged some games for the players in the lead up to the voting in the ICC in 2000.]
On bad blood between Indian and Bangladeshi fans
“I know what you are talking about, but I think only some individuals have been mischievous, on Facebook and social media, the Taskin (Ahmed) incident with (MS) Dhoni’s head … These things happen in Bangladesh, but individuals might do it everywhere. In India also. I don’t think these things should be taken too seriously. I personally feel great affection for India and I feel a lot of gratitude for the help in those early years. They have always helped us.”
When we got Test status, we had just started playing first-class cricket, so we were obviously less experienced than the other countries. To be honest, we didn’t even know how to play Test cricket at the time. Even now, if you see, we have improved in one-day and T20 cricket, but we haven’t improved in Test cricket. There was a time when the big teams would win matches even before we stepped out on the ground. That’s changed now. Teams take us seriously. We haven’t got those chances in Test cricket – we have got a chance to play in India after 17 years. We haven’t even played 100 Tests yet.
Why didn’t Bangladesh get those opportunities – was it because the standard was so poor throughout the 2000s that no one wanted to play them?
That’s true. We haven’t been able to play well – that is definitely a reason. Of late, though, we have started doing well. We have had a lot of good performances individually. But collectively we haven’t been able to do it – batting, bowling and fielding consistently.
This year, Bangladesh have quite a few Tests lined up against major teams. Do you think this could be a breakthrough year?
I hope so. After all these years, we will play a lot of Tests. We already have nine scheduled and we might get two more against Pakistan. But it can’t be only one year. If this happens every year, we will improve.
Let’s go back to that first Test – how do you look back on it now?
As a player, there was nothing more important than that. The pride I still feel about playing the first Test for Bangladesh … there can’t be anything bigger. I was lucky. That too against India. India and Bangladesh have been close for many years. They were our friends. Maybe we would have drawn that Test if we had more experience. We played well in the first innings and bowled well also. But we couldn’t go on.
[Bangladesh scored 400 in their first innings but folded for 91 in the second to lose by 9 wickets.]
I was 32 then, not at my best. I got a chance to play Test cricket towards the end of my career. It was a strange time actually. We took a lot of bad decisions that pushed us back. Selection mistakes, mistakes with selecting the coach. We had a bad experience with Trevor Chappell – the time with Chappell set us back a long way. Same with Mohsin Kamal and Ali Zia. They all came for short periods and didn’t do any good. Eddie Barlow and Gordon Greenidge, who came before them, helped us. But they didn’t stay for long.
How exactly did Trevor Chappell set you back?
Maybe our officials didn’t know what to look for in a coach. Trevor Chappell focussed more on fielding than batting and bowling, and started bringing in the young cricketers. The idea was that younger players would do better in the future. It’s not wrong, but there needs to be a balance. That’s why, between 2003 and 2007, we did quite poorly. We had done so much for Bangladesh cricket but we were removed one by one. Trevor Chappell focussed on fitness and fielding, and we were not very fit. I agree with that, but we knew how to bat and bowl. He changed everything. It’s not that the Under-19 players were bad, but it was a sudden step up for them and it took a long time for them to cope.
Your fitness was never the best anyway …
(Laughs) Yes, it’s true. But the way fitness is analysed today – it wasn’t the case then. If we batted and bowled well, we played. I understand that it’s a good thing, the focus on fitness. And I am lucky too. I was overweight. I wouldn’t have got a chance if I were playing today. Obviously I would have worked harder if I were playing now. But those days it was more important to score runs and take wickets.
Coming to the present, a lot of us think that there is an anger about India in Bangladesh. Especially in social media circles, there is a lot of hatred. Why is that the case?
I know what you are talking about, but I think only some individuals have been mischievous, on Facebook and social media, the Taskin (Ahmed) incident with (MS) Dhoni’s head … These things happen in Bangladesh, but individuals might do it everywhere. In India also. I don’t think these things should be taken too seriously. I personally feel great affection for India and I feel a lot of gratitude for the help in those early years. They have always helped us. Not just in cricket. Politically too … I feel that they have tried really hard to give us this Test in the middle of a busy period. They haven’t always been able to play Tests with us, but they have come to Bangladesh often to play one-day cricket.
And that has been crucial for Bangladesh commercially …
Yes, we have benefitted hugely from those tours in terms of money. So, yes, personally some people have differences, but not as countries. Bangladesh owes a lot of gratitude to India.
On whether Bangladesh were ready for Test status in 2000
“When we got Test status, we had just started playing first-class cricket, so we were obviously less experienced than the other countries. To be honest, we didn’t even know how to play Test cricket at the time. Even now, if you see, we have improved in one-day and T20 cricket, but we haven’t improved in Test cricket. There was a time when the big teams would win matches even before we stepped out on the ground. That’s changed now. Teams take us seriously.”
As for the national team, they are probably going through their best period at the moment. Why do you think the levels have gone up?
Bangladesh has some top quality players – the five-six seniors are quality players. We work together. There is a long way to go, but some decisions we have taken have helped the team. The players are given all sorts of facilities. We have got Chandika Hathurusinghe as the coach, which has helped a lot.
Tell us about Hathurusinghe’s contribution …
It’s not enough to just get a good coach. He has to be supported. His work has to be evaluated constantly. We are supporting him. We are giving him and the team whatever they want. This time, the coach wanted us to travel to Australia for training before the New Zealand tour, so we sent them 15 days in advance, we sent 22 players. Before the (2015) World Cup also, we went in advance to train and play. These small plans are useful for the future. We have also started a four-day Under-19 league. We are making the domestic structure stronger. These things will give us results later. We have played the semifinal of the 2016 Under-19 World Cup, which was a big achievement. But we have a long way to go.
Much of the cricket in Bangladesh is Dhaka-centric – is that a concern?
It has been a problem, but we are trying to expand. And we need to involve organisers from all parts of the country for it to happen. Mustafiz (Mustafizur Rahman), Rubel (Hossain), some others have come from other parts.
And finally, a word on the Bangladesh fans – how crucial is that madness for cricket in the country?
Oh, 100%. They are crazy. That cricket has reached this stage is because of fans. When we played, only the naughty boys of the house played cricket. Now parents are asking their children to play cricket. It’s a big deal. They are our biggest treasure. The fans and our media have played a huge role.