The cubs came and roared like tigers
“The Tigers have conquered the African plains and the world in this tournament.”
It took me some time before I could comprehend what Ian Bishop’s words really meant as Rakibul Hasan floated the ball towards deep mid-wicket to score the winning run and secure the U-19 World Cup in Potchefstroom on Sunday.
As the rest of the team invaded the pitch to celebrate, it dawned upon me -- we are the champions of the world!
Celebrating an U-19 win may come across as trivial to some but truth be told, this is perhaps the best achievement in Bangladesh’s sporting history, across any level. Despite horrendous rapes, murders, fires, and all that is wrong in our society, cricket has been the only issue that successfully unites the entire nation.
Growing up, Bangladesh cricket was nothing but a source of heartbreak along with the occasional spark of brilliance. Despite this, we took it for granted that we would be able to magically compete with cricketing nations who have been playing the sport at the highest level for decades.
However, the newfound consistency of the national side and superstars such as Mashrafe, Shakib, Tamim, Mushfiq, and Mahmudullah helped inject some hope. We are not the minnows we were once labeled as, if anything, we are set to be the next powerhouse in international cricket, at least in white-ball cricket.
But soon after, a series of heartbreaks (read: Deep wounds) led us to question our pipeline and whether it was fit to produce match-winners and consistent performers; our women’s team, with a stringent budget, had managed to win a major trophy -- the Asia Cup in 2018 -- before the men’s team.
There is no doubt that the youngsters who won us our maiden global title will help us dream of better days ahead.
The way that they conducted themselves on the field, presenting a fearless, aggressive brand of cricket (albeit unnecessary at times) and aptitude, took their Indian counterparts by surprise. Be it the consistency of the bowlers, exceptional commitment in fielding, Emon’s decision to return to the crease, despite being at 30% or the icy veins of Akbar, who played a superb captain’s knock to steer his side to victory -- it was all about teamwork that outshined the Indian U-19 side; something all other cricketing nations have failed since the final of the 2016 edition.
This is testament to how long-term plans ensure success.
Bangladesh has historically had a hard time managing and developing talent. Mashrafe was overworked early on in his career, Mustafiz has fizzled out (I dearly hope I am wrong), players like Soumya, Sabbir, Mithun, Liton -- who have showed great promise -- are failing to tackle the pressure of international cricket. Even players like Tamim, Shakib, and Mushfiq, who are our most consistent performers, relied on their own hunger and work ethic to reach the level they are at.
One man took notice and decided to intervene. Khaled Mahmud Sujon, director of Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) and chairman of Game Development, put forth a long-term plan for the U-19 side. This included hiring some of the best professionals as coaching staff to work on the side’s fitness, technique, and mentality.
Talking about their positive mentality, captain Akbar Ali’s elder sister passed away on the day after their win against Scotland on January 22. His family decided to refrain from informing him until after the crucial encounter with Pakistan on January 24. While the entire team broke down in tears, the skipper asked everyone to focus on the tournament -- turning his grief into strength.
Once you learn about this, his crucial knock under tremendous pressure in the final seems even greater.
According to the wicketkeeper-batsman, the side has been together for over two years and the camaraderie between the teammates and staff is what led them to glory. The Bangladesh U-19 came into the tournament with lots of match experience against the likes of England, Sri Lanka, and New Zealand, and multiple conditional camps, home and abroad.
As the dust settles from this euphoric win, we need to think about developing this squad further. While “cricketing experts” on social media are advocating graduating some of the youngsters into the national side, I plead to the authorities responsible for managing talent to refrain from doing so.
This batch of talented individuals must continue honing their skills, temperament (the scuffle, in the end, should not have occurred) for at least another two years. Perhaps, Bangladesh can keep some of them in their plans for the next World Cup, as surprise packages. Something like England introducing Jofra Archer in the World Cup even though he had been in the scene for some time.
Thankfully, Khaled Mahmud Sujon feels the same. Speaking over the phone from South Africa, Sujon shared some of his plans regarding this unit. Before leaving the country to be with the youngsters, he met Champaka Ramanayake, head coach of the High Performance (HP) unit about the possibilities of a second-string HP unit.
“This World Cup squad only features 15 players but in my opinion, there are more in this batch. Before they graduate to the main squad, there is only the A team and the HP unit for young players to hone their skills, and we simply cannot manage more than 20 players at a time. I met Champaka and we are thinking about a second-string HP unit to ensure that none of these players are lost,” he said.
Moreover, Sujon does not feel strongly about graduating these youngsters to the national side as of yet.
“There are exceptions when we know the player is a match-winner. Shakib, Tamim, and Mushfiq were graduated right after they played their U-19 World Cup but even they needed at least five years to reach their peak. For now, this [U19] team needs to gather more match experience and keep perfecting their skills,” the former national team captain added.
Call me an optimist, but it sure feels like we are making strides along the right path.
Baizid Haque Joarder is Deputy Magazine Editor at Dhaka Tribune.