April 14, 2006

The charge of the light-weight brigade

By H Natarajan

Circa 1940, somewhere in Nashville, Tennessee, a black family welcomes a new arrival – the 20th of the 22 children in the house. Sadly, when the girl was four years old, she suffers from double pneumonia and scarlet fever - a deadly combination that left her with a paralysed left leg.

Medical prognosis was not good: doctors deemed that the child will never be able to stand, leave alone walk or run. But in the years that followed, the child nurtures a desire – to be the fastest woman in the world! Most people dismissed the thought as foolhardiness. How can someone who cannot even stand and who doctors have washed their hands off even contemplate such a thought!

But the child’s dream and determination gets the support of her positive mother. What follows is years of toil…and, finally, the impossible is made possible. Wilma Rudolph becomes one of the greatest athletes of all time – winning three Olympic gold medals and turning into reality the dream of becoming the fastest woman in the world.

I was reminded of Wilma’s struggle and self-belief amid a sea of discouragement as Bangladesh’s performances at Fatullah. They gave the collective cricketing wisdom of the forces opposed to their continuing presence in the Test arena a fitting riposte with a David-like act against the Goliaths of world cricket. Bangladesh may not have won the Test, but nobody will dispute that they came tantalizingly close to beating Australia. The dissenting voices against their continuation at the elite Test match level would have dwindled vastly after their meritorious showing in the opening Test.

When the Australians landed in Bangladesh for their first-ever cricket tour of the tiny nation, the derisive comments of people like Richie Benaud, Kim Hughes, Ricky Ponting and Shane Warne must have been ringing in their ears. The four Australian captains believed that the continuing presence of Bangladesh on the Test arena was diluting the quality of the game at the highest level.

The sagacious Benaud, one of the most respected and influential voices in world cricket, went to the extent of asking the International Cricket Council to strip Bangladesh of their Test status. That was last year.

Bangladesh, however, showed guts and grit in the face of extreme adversity. They knew that the only way they could survive at the top level was turning their promise into performance. They knew that cricket has undergone a sea change from the decades bygone; newcomers, they knew, would find it a lot more difficult from the time nations like India and Pakistan made their Test debuts. Cricket has, in the intervening years, become lot more scientific and professional. Bangladesh did not have the same infrastructure to cope up with the challenges posed by the more established nations like Australia, England, India and South Africa. Just one win – against Zimbabwe – in six years was not the kind of record that was to be enthused about. They were shaken and stirred by the reversals, but their self-belief was unbreakable.

Bangladesh Cricket Board vice-president Shah Nurul Kabir Shaheen was unafraid to say in public that his country could upset Australia. His opinion, seen as an unrealistic bravado, was greeted with chuckles. But Shaheen was not the solitary Bangladeshi to express such optimism. Aminul Islam, a former Bangladesh captain, was another who believed that his country could surprise Australia.

There was merit in Shaheen and Islam’s comments. Bangladesh had sounded the first big notice of their arrival on the world stage by defeating Pakistan in the 1999 World Cup. In 2004, they defeated India and last year, they stunned Australia in the NatWest tri-series in England. They then recorded a victory over Sri Lanka. Still, Test cricket is a different ball game, especially against a team like Australia that has a plethora of quality batsmen and bowlers.

Ponting admitted on arriving in Bangladesh that he was wrong in saying a few months back that they did not deserve Test status. But it was apparent that his statement was more of a public relations exercise at the start of the tour. That was evident when he said, though Bangladesh had defeated Australia in an ODI last year, "there is a little bit of luck involved in the one-day game. But, I don't envisage a repeat performance."

Ponting saved his country from extreme embarrassment by winning the Test, but he knows it was a split decision, to borrow a boxing parlance, then a knock-out. The honours, anyways, will be with the underdogs. Bangladesh first proved their rising stature by scoring 355 runs in a day against the finest attack in the world. They then had the world champions reeling at 93 for six, as Australia faced one of the biggest ignominies in their long Test history. It took Gilchrist – returning to form after an extended drought – and the bowlers to save the follow-on.

The upswing in fortunes will do Bangladesh cricket a world of good. There is news of developing the infrastructure in the country as well. The meritorious performances of the Bangladesh Under-19 team against Australia show that there is good crop coming up. All of which augurs well for much-maligned Bangladesh cricket.

The man who will be enjoying a quiet chuckle now is Dave Whatmore. The Aussie, who had coached Sri Lanka to an unexpected title triumph in the 1996 World Cup, joined Lancashire a year later and guided the county to a one-day double of the NatWest Trophy and AXA League in 1998 and to a second place finish in the Championship. Yet his proven credentials were bypassed when England were looking for a man to take over from David Lloyd as coach in 1999. That job was given to Duncan Fletcher.

There must be a wry smile on Whatmore’s face as his unpretentious team is scripting one of the most memorable in Test history, while across the border, Fletcher could do precious little England’s pummeling by India in the one-day series.

What next can we expect from Whatmore? Well, an honorable invite from the BCCI to coach the Indian team as and when Chappell’s tenure ends.