© AFP

“My average isn’t even 40 – if I averaged between 45 and 50 … Look at (Virat) Kohli and others, they average 50. As an opener, I must have an average of 45.” © AFP

When he started out, Tamim Iqbal was the sort of dasher at the top of the order who creates a buzz immediately. Bangladesh were far from being the best team going around, but Tamim drew eyeballs. What he also did was flatter to deceive more often than not.

His averages – 39.53 from 49 Tests and 32.40 from 162 One-Day Internationals – paint a not-very-exciting picture, but one he readily accepts is a fair reflection of what he has done over the years. But it’s also true that in recent times, he has achieved the one thing missing from his game: Consistency. Or some degree of it, at least. It has come at a time when Bangladesh as a team are also going through their best patch in close to 17 years of international cricket.

Tamim, who completed ten years in international cricket this February when Bangladesh were playing a one-off Test in India, is currently in Sri Lanka, where his team won the second Test of the two-match series – also their 100th Test – to earn a draw, and are now involved in an ODI exchange. He spoke at length with Wisden India on the changes in his game over the years as well as the progress of the Bangladesh team from being pushovers to a unit that better-ranked teams must now take seriously. Excerpts:

From exciting but careless stroke-player to more responsible senior batsman, tell us about your evolution in these ten years of international cricket.
The most important thing when I started out was that no one expected anything from me. I knew only one way to bat and that’s what I did, and no one seemed to mind. That time I had one or two shots in my book and I used to play those shots. But in international cricket, you need to keep improving, keep evolving, learn more shots. No one knew me when I started out, and once they found out how I played, I got caught out. I only managed to play shots in my zone. They started to bowl where I didn’t like it. So slowly I added more shots, I had to work out my weaknesses. Some of them got fixed, some didn’t. People have started expecting more from me over the years, as I am now a senior player. So I had to change my game. Hitting every ball is fun but if you have to score big runs and be consistent, you have to change. I am not perfect yet. But I am working hard. When people start to expect more from me, expect more runs, I need to be smart as well.

What was that area you didn’t like – the ball coming into the body?
I always liked to play on the offside. Not off my legs. I always wanted room and tried to make room to swing the bat. Sri Lanka was the team worked it out when we went there after the World Cup in 2007. They bowled at my legs, and I wasn’t comfortable. All the coaches were there – they told me I had to improve the game, so we spoke … you can’t relax in international cricket. I had to get better. Now playing off my legs is one of my strengths.

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Tamim burst on to the international scene with a blistering 51 in 53 balls against India in the 2007 World Cup. © Getty Images

It was the tenth anniversary of your win over India in the 2007 World Cup on March 17. I don’t think anyone in India has forgotten the way you stepped out and sent Zaheer Khan and the others to all parts of the ground in Port of Spain.
People in Bangladesh remember it too! When I was picked in the national team, I was just too happy to get the chance. I was too young. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. As a team, we knew we had to play at our very, very best. I don’t know how, but there was a feeling before the India game that we could beat them. Sachin (Tendulkar), (Virender) Sehwag, Rahul (Dravid), Sourav (Ganguly) … but we felt confident. Luckily we bowled them out cheaply (191) and then won [Tamim scored 51 in 53 balls, 7×4, 2×6]. Beating them in that World Cup game was a huge confidence boost for us. Then we beat South Africa in the Super Eights. It all started from the win over India.

Being a senior player now – what does it mean to you in terms of stature in the team and in terms of your responsibilities?
The most important thing as a senior player is to leave a legacy for the team. In India, you have Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly … they left a legacy for the Indian team to follow. They left a while ago, but people still talk about them. I want to be someone, along with Mushfiq (Mushfiqur Rahim) and Shakib (Al Hasan), to leave a legacy. You need to perform well too, but you need to be someone others follow. You have to be a leader in the group. I can score 20 hundreds, but if I don’t act like a leader, it will all be forgotten. I need to lead the team as well. I don’t need to be a captain or a vice-captain to lead the team. It depends on how you conduct yourself and what you do in the dressing room.

”The most important thing as a senior player is to leave a legacy for the team. In India, you have Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly … they left a legacy to follow. They quit a while ago, but people still talk about them. I want to be someone, along with Mushfiq and Shakib, to leave a legacy. You need to perform well too, but you need to be someone others follow. You have to be a leader in the group. I can score 20 hundreds, but if I don’t act like a leader, it will all be forgotten. I don’t need to be a captain or a vice-captain to lead the team. It depends on how you conduct yourself and what you do in the dressing room.”

I’ve also heard that you are in charge of making the youngsters in the team settle down.
I try my best as much as I can. No one is comfortable when they come in to the team. A lot of issues, there is a language barrier with the coach. When I was young, my seniors helped me as much as they could, so it’s my responsibility to help the youngsters now. Like I said, it’s not about scoring runs and taking wickets. It’s about leaving a legacy, being someone the young boys can look up to.

Coming back to your batting, where do you think you are at in terms of what you wanted to achieve when you started out?
I could have been in a much better position, definitely. I have lost a lot of opportunities. If you see my ODI record, I have scored 34 fifties but only seven centuries. It should have been the other way. I should have converted another ten fifties into hundreds. It’s disappointing. I have got a lot of opportunities, it’s not like I am blaming anyone. I am blaming myself. If I had scored more hundreds, I would have been in a different league. I am still 28. That’s good. I have some years left. But if I don’t make the same mistakes, I will be happier.

Test cricket is slightly better than ODIs – eight hundreds and 22 fifties in 49 Tests. I feel I should have scored six-seven more hundreds, yes, but the conversion rate is all right. I would have been in a different league if I had scored more centuries. But the last two years, I have been scoring a lot of runs in all three formats, the consistency has been good, so that’s what I want to continue.

“Mashrafe played the major part in transforming the team – what it was and what it is now.” © AFP

Forget the team, do you think you have let yourself down?
Definitely. Look at the last innings against Sri Lanka – I batted beautifully, no mistakes, and the hundred was there for the taking but I played a loose shot and got out at 82. All those things disappoint me. My average isn’t even 40 – if I averaged between 45 and 50 … Look at (Virat) Kohli and others, they average 50. As an opener, I must have an average of 45. Very disappointing. If I was playing badly or didn’t get the opportunity, I would have understood. But I have had it all. I have missed the opportunity. After crossing 50, I have thrown away my wicket. But what has gone has gone. I like challenges. Let’s see how things go from now on.

You are one of two Bangladesh cricketers, along with Shakib, to play in lots of Twenty20 leagues around the world. How has that impacted your cricket?
As an overseas player, you learn a lot. Overseas players must perform. When you go as an overseas player, other teammates look up to you. There is pressure. But if you can handle the pressure, you learn a lot. That’s what I enjoy the most when I go abroad. If I manage to score runs, that gives me a lot of happiness. International cricket is all about pressure. So it helps to play around the world – that’s the best part of it.

”Look at the last innings against Sri Lanka – I batted beautifully, no mistakes, and the hundred was there for the taking but I played a loose shot and got out at 82. All those things disappoint me. My average isn’t even 40 – if I averaged between 45 and 50 … Look at Kohli and others, they average 50. As an opener, I must have an average of 45. Very disappointing. If I was playing badly or didn’t get the opportunity, I would have understood. But I have had it all. I have missed the opportunity. But what has gone has gone. Let’s see how things go from now on.”

Let’s come to the team now – these are excellent times for Bangladesh cricket, aren’t they?
In ODIs, we have been performing well. That confidence is slowly is coming into Test cricket too. Those 50s and 60s are being converted to 100s, 150s, 200s. Those small things are slowly changing. We are not yet a finished product. We have to improve a lot. But we need to play more and more and more, home and away. From the England series, we have been playing a lot of Tests, in New Zealand, in India, in Sri Lanka. We normally play two-three Tests every year. We have played more this season and we are playing four-five more, against Australia and South Africa. If that continues, the graph will always go up. We will have bad games, where we don’t play to our potential, but we have to remember what we have done well in the past. Individuals have bad patches and teams have bad patches too, but we shouldn’t lose our confidence. Test cricket – you can only improve if you play more. In ODIs, the results are changing. And we are starting to do well away from home too. But we need to do even better. That will happen if we play away more. It comes with experience. We are a strong ODI side at home. Now we need to be a strong Test team at home first. Then take the next step and become strong overseas.

Finally, it seems, the senior players – you, Mushfiq and Shakib – are starting to play more consistently. The win in the Colombo Test is an example. How important is that for the team?
It’s definitely very important. We have been playing Test cricket for a while, and this is the time we have to start performing big time. If the senior players set an example, there are lots of youngsters who can follow. The three of us have the experience. This is our responsibility.

Bangladesh started becoming competitive in ODIs a couple of years ago – how and why did things start changing?
Bangladesh always had the capability. We didn’t have the confidence and the belief. We had the skills, definitely. In cricket, you need to believe you can beat any team, that you can score a hundred or a fifty. We started to believe we could that. Slowly, we won a game in a three- ODI series, then two, and we started to believe. ‘We can beat them’ – that belief became strong, especially at home. We took a step forward and continued to believe in our skills.

Along with the players, all the coaches have also played a part. They all saw the skills we had. They all stressed on self-belief. The current coach, Chandika Hathurusinghe, played a very big part. He made us believe we can be one of the top five teams in the world. Jamie Siddons – he was the one who started this trend of telling us to believe in ourselves.

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Tamim on Hathurusinghe: He gave me so much confidence, and you can see the results. I have had the two best years in my career. Not just me, the whole team. © AFP

Was there a point when you – the seniors – decided that enough was enough and Bangladesh needed to become more competitive?
Among ourselves, the senior players – myself, Mashrafe (Mortaza), Mushfiq, (Mahmudullah) Riyad and Shakib – we always used to discuss this. We wanted things to change. A lot of credit must go to Mashrafe – I honestly say that he played the major part in transforming the team. What it was and what it is now. When he became captain, a few months before the 2015 World Cup, he started to say that we would play the quarterfinals. He always used to say that. At the start, a lot of people didn’t take him seriously … we thought he was just saying things for effect. He was saying that till we played our first game. We lost the practice games but we didn’t stop believing. The way he used to speak to us, we started thinking that maybe we can beat the bigger teams and reach the quarterfinals. You saw how we played after that. A lot of credit must go to him.

Hathurusinghe’s tenure with the Bangladesh has been an extremely successful one – what has he brought to the team?
In the team culture … he should get a lot of credit too. He did change us. I always mention Jamie Siddons very highly. Siddons showed us how to work hard on batting, fielding … changed our culture. Then we had two-three coaches, then Hathurusinghe came. He is very different in the way he thinks about the game. He knows a lot about the game, information about the opponents. His attitude is very strong. The best thing is that he gives a lot of confidence to all the players. He backs you all the way. “Last ball or first ball of the day, if you can hit it for six, hit it. It’s your shot, if you want, if you feel it, go for it. If you get out, I’ll back you.” When I was struggling in late 2014 and early 2015, I could have been dropped, but he never lost hope. He kept believing in me. He kept saying how important I was to the team. He gave me so much confidence, and you can see the results. I have had the two best years in my career. Not just me, the whole team.

“Hathurusinghe is very different. He knows a lot about the game. The best thing is that he gives a lot of confidence to all the players. ‘Last ball or first ball of the day, if you can hit it for six, hit it. It’s your shot, if you feel it, go for it. If you get out, I’ll back you.’ When I was struggling in 2014-15, I could have been dropped, but he never lost hope. He kept saying how important I was to the team. He gave me so much confidence, and you can see the results. I have had the two best years in my career. Not just me, the whole team.”

Also Courtney Walsh – what has his contribution been like?
Not fair if I comment on Walsh. The bowlers work with him. But he is a top human being. Those kinds of characters you want in the dressing room. You love to have someone like him. He is the bowling coach, but he is not shy of coming to us with his thoughts. He tries to give us confidence. He’s a character.

We see lots of youngsters coming through, like Mehedi Hasan and Mustafizur Rahman and Soumya Sarkar, who seem better equipped than youngsters of the past – how did that happen?
Ten years back, we were in a situation … we were new to international cricket and we were losing a lot of games. As a youngster, coming in to that atmosphere was not a good feeling. Now things have changed a lot. We have started to win, first some matches and then series. For a youngster, it’s a very different feeling. So the mindset has changed. We also have that attitude as seniors. The boys know they need to do well to get in the team.

The academy, the Bangladesh Krira Shikkha Protishthan – what has been its role?
The BCB (Bangladesh Cricket Board) is doing whatever they can within their abilities. Camps. But I think … we can improve on those areas. We can be much better. If we improve, a lot more cricketers will come up. I am not complaining that we can do this and that. BCB is doing what they can, but we can do more.

Finally, what’s the way forward for Bangladesh to be competitive in all formats in all parts of the world?
The way forward is to keep improving as individuals and as a team. There will be a time when we won’t win. We need to be strong in those times. It has taken us years of hard work to get here and we must remember that and try to get better. This is the only way forward. I can promise you that I will remain hungry to score runs. To win games. That’s the only way.