Mohammad Ashraful walks back after being dismissed
© AFP

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A mountain of hope, a pile of ash

Mohammad Ashraful was once a poster boy. Now, fallen, he seeks redemption

Mohammad Isam |

The long corridor in the belly of Dhaka's Shere Bangla National Stadium that leads to the Bangladesh Cricket Board headquarters is often buzzing with visitors. Reporters and cameramen tend to mill about aimlessly, and are usually joined - in no particular order of merit - by small-time debtors, local politicians, policemen, club officials, minor celebrities, coaches, and a few former and current cricketers. At the height of a cricket season, the hangers-on crowd around the board's offices in search of tickets. While the well-connected seek an audience with a higher-up, the more cunning ones corner clerks. Everyone talks loudly, although you are told to be quiet since this is a corporate office.

The scene dramatically changes in the off season. There is no bustle and, barring the odd reporter, the BCB officials are mostly left to themselves. Earlier this year, one July morning, with the previous season receding from memory and the next one still four months away, a handful of visitors sat on two worn-out sofas and waited for someone to make their lives less dull. When Mohammad Ashraful walked in a few minutes before noon, everyone stood up, smiled, waved at him and started talking. The familiar buzz returned.

Less than a month earlier, Ashraful had been banned for eight years for his involvement in match-fixing and spot-fixing in the 2013 Bangladesh Premier League (BPL). Despite the revelations, he wasn't seen as a scoundrel. And it was unlikely that anyone would bar him from entering a stadium where he had blitzed a 26-ball Test fifty against India, guided Bangladesh to an ODI win over New Zealand, and flummoxed AB de Villiers with a ball that bounced twice.

At Idlewild Park in Queens, New York, where he played a bit of club cricket earlier in 2014

At Idlewild Park in Queens, New York, where he played a bit of club cricket earlier in 2014 © Peter Della Penna

Sporting a smile, Ashraful greeted the gathering and walked into the cricket operations department to ask if he could use the nets and the gym on the premises. He ran into Bangladesh's recently appointed coach, Chandika Hathurusingha, who had words of encouragement. About an hour later, when Ashraful was on his way out, I asked if he would grant me an interview.

Though I had written extensively about Ashraful over the past eight years, I had never sat him down and talked to him one on one. So I was pleasantly surprised when, after four weeks of pursuit, he invited me to his home in the eastern Dhaka suburb of Banasree.

On a hot Sunday afternoon at the end of July, a few days before Eid-ul-Fitr, I stood in front of his house, which, like many in Dhaka, takes up an entire plot, leaving no space for a compound. The building is at the end of the main Banasree Road. His house, on a corner plot, is named Ash, the lettering in bold red. An old man, possibly the guard, asks me where I am going, and when I utter the name of the owner, he lets me in.

One of the reasons I wanted to meet Ashraful was to understand if he was just another young man who had made many mistakes. Here was my chance to know more about a cricketer both loved and reviled - sometimes both in the space of two or three deliveries.

The living room of his plush house is filled with photos of distinguished visitors - including Sachin Tendulkar - and with large and small mementos. The interiors reportedly cost millions. Ashraful has come a long way: 13 years earlier, when the Daily Janakantha's Masud Parvez visited Ashraful's home, then in the eastern corner of Dhaka, after his spectacular Test debut in Colombo, he was offered the only chair available in the small house.

He deadpans when delivering a punchline. Then he laughs loudly at his own jokes

The big TV in the living room has a Sri Lanka-South Africa Test playing on mute. The match is at the SSC in Colombo, the scene of Ashraful's debut. He remembers the game well. As a baby-faced 17-year-old with buzz-cut hair, he walked in to bat in the second innings with Bangladesh at 81 for 4, still 384 runs behind.

"The large scoreboard was so complicated that I couldn't tell my score in the first innings," he says. "[Kumar] Sangakkara kept asking me if I want to be the top scorer, and I told him, 'I don't even know how much I've scored, forget about being the top scorer.'

"In the second innings, Durjoy bhai [Naimur Rahman] gave me his batting position, because I had played Murali well in the first innings. When Bulbul bhai [Aminul Islam] and I were batting, [Sanath] Jayasuriya subtly asked Murali to bowl the doosra, and every time I placed the ball here and there (gestures with hand) for two, or four. Murali kept saying, 'The doosra isn't working, he knows what I am bowling.' I really liked that (laughs).

"I think on 94, the ball went through keeper and slip. They took the new ball when I reached 98, so I needed a bit of luck. It was an amazing feeling. I became famous. The problem was that I thought I would get a hundred in every game. But the game isn't that easy."

The last roar: Ashraful's Test-best 190 came against Sri Lanka in March 2013, shortly before his world came crashing down

The last roar: Ashraful's Test-best 190 came against Sri Lanka in March 2013, shortly before his world came crashing down © AFP

The longer we talk the more it is clear that Ashraful has retained his composure and self-deprecating humour through the toughest phase in his life. Like many Bangladeshi cricketers, he deadpans quite well when delivering a punchline. Then he laughs loudly at his own jokes, which he usually enjoys more than his audience does.

Back in 1995, I attended a short training camp at the Abahani ground in Dhaka ahead of an Under-13 tour to Siliguri in eastern India. There were many slow left-arm spinners and all of them were curious about my chinaman bowling style. The only legspinner in the group was a boy who was also the coach's pet. He complained that many boys were trying to bowl the chinaman because of me. The angry coach asked everyone, including the legspinner, to run a few laps around the ground."

It was at the Abahani ground that Ashraful turned himself from a legspinner into a thrilling batsman who had plenty of time to play his strokes. The first thing team-mates and coaches noticed about him was his ability to handle genuine pace, especially off the back foot. "I always wanted to get behind the ball, even if I got hit," he says. "We used to shave tennis balls and play with the core. The ball skidded, so it helped with the cut and pull."

A few months after the U-13 camp, Ashraful played in the lower rungs of the Dhaka cricket league, was picked for more age-level teams, and was soon fast-tracked into domestic cricket. The kid was rapidly becoming a poster boy. The Bangladesh board held him up as an example to showcase their youth system, and the ICC was impressed, especially because Bangladesh's biggest competition among Associate teams, Kenya, were lacking on that front.

"I could score big hundreds but I never had the training to score runs every day"

Ashraful's debut was an injection of oxygen that the country's cricket needed. After Bangladesh's creditable inaugural Test, they were overwhelmed by a string of big defeats. Ashraful's electric 114 in Colombo captured the imagination. The BCB viewed his early success as a victory for the system. Yes, there were established cricketers in the team but none could pull and cut as well as him, none could treat Murali like just another bowler. Ashraful, they hoped, would herald a flood of young talent and justify Bangladesh's Test status. Even after he had made the Test team, they asked him to play at every level so that he could serve as an example.

Thirteen years later, Ashraful wishes the administrators and coaches had handled him better. "I played at every level - A team, U-19, national team," he says. "But I hardly got a chance to sit back and understand what my mistakes were. They thought maybe I will learn by playing more, but now I feel it was the other way that could have helped me.

"I never learned how to score runs, which the likes of Shakib [Al Hasan] and Nasir [Hossain] did from the nets. They have better game sense, picking the gaps. They do that simulation in the nets and have been doing it since their early days. When I trained, it was about technique, not finding gaps and scoring runs. I could score big hundreds but I never had the training to score runs every day."

Over the years, a pattern emerged: Ashraful would occasionally sparkle and then endure a long lull. Questions would be raised about his form as well as about Bangladesh's Test status. And Ashraful would respond with a splendid knock.

At Sichuan, the Chinese restaurant in Wari, which he owns

At Sichuan, the Chinese restaurant in Wari, which he owns © Anisur Rahman

"I spoke to Sachin [Tendulkar] twice before the 158 in Chittagong [in 2004]. I told him I started well in a series, but then found it harder to score. He said, 'Maybe opponents figure out your weak points and then you don't adjust.' The pitch in Chittagong had large cracks, but none of them were in the centre. I decided to play only deliveries pitched in the middle. Sachin told me to be positive, so I kept hitting. I made 60-odd before lunch and then made 92 in the next session. I dominated their attack."

A few months later, on the England tour in 2005, there were more ups and downs. First a forgettable Test series, then a golden run in the tri-series that followed.

"Against Australia in Cardiff in 2005, when I was padding up in the pavilion, Shahriar Nafees overheard me mumbling to myself. I was saying I had played 50 ODIs but I still hadn't done anything of note. I just averaged 17. He told me that I should think of this as a new start to my career.

"After scoring a hundred and winning the match, I realised it takes just three hours for a man's life to change. I was a zero, like a beggar, but now people wanted to take photos with me, take my autograph, shake my hands. Everyone was so proud of me. That was the best series of my career."

A year later, Ashraful was briefly dropped from the ODI side. He soon returned and in 2007 struck a scintillating 87 against South Africa in the World Cup - his favourite innings. He was appointed captain a few months later but sacked in mid-2009 after his glide against Ireland in the World T20 was caught at slip.

I ask why he often gave his wicket away when he seemed well set. "It was my minus point," he says matter-of-factly. "For the first 15-20 balls of any innings, I wouldn't think about the bowling, I wouldn't take any decisions. I would be batting with a clear mind. But when I would start to think and take decisions, I hardly played with a clear mind. On the days when I waited for the ball to come, I scored runs. On other days, I would get out."

"I know I made a mistake, but I never cheated my country for money"

Does he remember the good days or the bad ones? "I think of the bad ones more," he says. "I should have done better. It wasn't about the average. People respected me, they still do. Still, I felt I should have done much better."

From 2004 to 2009, Ashraful didn't miss a single Test. The streak was broken after he was dropped in early 2010. He played only two of Bangladesh's five Tests in 2011, and also stopped being a regular in the ODI side. In 2012, he didn't play a single Test or ODI. And he couldn't regain his form even in domestic cricket.

"I think the worst phase was before last year's BPL. In the National Cricket League, it was so bad, so bad. I just went and got out. It seemed I had forgotten how to hold a bat. Nobody wanted to pick me in the BPL, but then Dhaka took me… and trapped me," he says and laughs, following up with an awkward pause.

As is usually the case in these matters, the exact details are unclear. A lot of the information that was out in the local press in May last year was from leaks and unnamed sources. Ashraful was reportedly called to the Dhaka Gladiators office in late 2012 after he enquired about pending payments. The chairman of the team, Salim Chowdhury, allegedly said to him that he needed to prepare to captain the franchise in the upcoming 2013 BPL, where some matches were to be fixed. In exchange, Chowdhury purportedly said that Ashraful's payment from the 2012 BPL would be cleared. Chowdhury would later term these reports "ridiculous".

Cardiff, June 18, 2005: the win over Australia came in a series that Ashraful describes as the best of his career

Cardiff, June 18, 2005: the win over Australia came in a series that Ashraful describes as the best of his career © Getty Images

A few days later, after the BCB had suspended him indefinitely, I was part of a group of six journalists who met Ashraful in the garage of his apartment building. He tried to force a smile when he saw us and even giggled when asked if he would talk off camera. "Not talking in front of the camera got me into trouble in the first place," he said with a chuckle. He admitted to having made a mistake, and said he had tried to help the ICC Anti-Corruption and Security Unit (ACSU) with his confession. We asked several questions pertaining to his appeal and his future course of action, and he answered them patiently. About 15 minutes in, I asked if he regretted getting involved with the game's dark side, especially given his Test-best 190 had come a few months earlier, against Sri Lanka.

Barely had Ashraful started his reply when he broke down. He blubbered incoherently. "Obviously, I'm feeling very bad," he said weeping. "Please pray for me." One of his friends pulled him away from us and led him to his apartment upstairs. We stood in shock in the garage. I was embarrassed at having made him cry in front of the cameras. It was the day he realised he was not going to play cricket for a long time.

Websites and bulletin boards were flooded with comments and speculation. There was plenty of anger but most of it was tinged with deep disappointment. A fan, Mithun Biswas, captured the story of squashed hope. "In my dreams, I played his pull shot many times," he said to me. "If I were Habibul Bashar, then I would be caught at deep square leg; when I played it like Ashraful, it went for four."

These days Ashraful runs a Chinese restaurant in Old Dhaka, in a neighbourhood called Wari. Before independence and for a decade or so afterwards, Wari was one of the more fashionable areas of Dhaka, but it lost some of its lustre as the city stretched towards the north. Over the last five years many landowners in Wari have sold their properties to big real-estate companies, and several stores and restaurants have mushroomed in the neighbourhood. One of these is Ashraful's restaurant, Sichuan.

When he returns he will be 32, an age when some batsmen have begun the prime phase of their careers

"I go there to watch the World Cup football matches with friends," he says. "I play cricket on the roof of Anwar's apartment above the restaurant, where they have put on a net [Anwar Hossain is a former Bangladesh wicketkeeper]. We play three-a-side there. This is how I spend my time these days."

Ashraful has always been cricket-obsessed. "During the 1998 flood, we played on a road where the water was ankle-high," he says. "I used to play on Eid days, break glass in people's houses, get beaten by my mother for not studying properly… "

This September, while visiting friends and relatives in the US, he sometimes joined Bangladeshi kids for friendly hits in the parks of Queens, New York. He also joined friends in amateur club games.

Why did this cricket nut fall for the lure of fixers?

As the interview winds down, he brings up the topic. "I want to say something," he says unprompted. "I know I made a mistake, but I never cheated my country for money. Everyone says it is about money. But the time of my life was such that… I was the second-highest scorer in the first BPL [in 2011-12]. I was the icon player, and I was supposed to get $210,000. But I only got $90,000. Then the following domestic season, I didn't do well in the NCL in 2012-13. No BPL team showed any interest in me, but Dhaka took me for only $60,000. I was just in that situation. No, I just wanted to tell you… that I didn't do it for money."

What Ashraful doesn't take into account is that his wasn't a unique case. Over the years, many BPL players have not received money promised to them. And once he had a poor season, his value predictably dropped, and he had to take a pay cut the following year. What he seems to be hinting at - like he reportedly alleged in 2012 - is that Gladiators asked him to manipulate results in exchange for money he was supposed to have been paid a year earlier. I probe further. He says he has nothing more to add.

In September, the chairman of the Bangladesh board's disciplinary panel reduced Ashraful's ban to five years. The ICC and the BCB jointly appealed against the ruling, but as things stand, Ashraful could be eligible to return as early as August 2016. He will be 32, an age when some batsmen are in the prime of their careers. During the interview, he said he was determined to return. Even at 35, he said, he would play domestic cricket for a few seasons.

At his home in Banasree, in eastern Dhaka

At his home in Banasree, in eastern Dhaka © Anisur Rahman

When the ban was reduced I called him for a reaction. "What, are you sure? I don't know what you are talking about," he said from New York. I was slightly worried since I had already told my editors it was okay to flash the news. "Your lawyer just told me that your ban is reduced," I said. "I'm sure he called you first?"

He laughed, putting me at ease. "When I appealed, I had wanted a reduction," he said. "I'm very happy, now I can play [sooner]. I should have been punished, yes, but I think this is good for me."

For about ten years Ashraful's career mirrored the Bangladesh team's ups and downs. Like Ashraful, they would throw up a stunning performance once in a while. And like him, they would often struggle to make the most of their abilities. When on song, he could take your breath away. But the flip side is equally striking. Among batsmen in the top seven of all teams who have played at least 60 Tests, Ashraful has the lowest average. Among top-seven batsmen who have played at least 150 ODIs, his batting average is second from the bottom.

At some point in the next few years he will have a chance to redeem himself. Maybe he will find a second wind and finish his career on a high. Maybe he won't be able to summon the quick reflexes that made him such a thrilling batsman. The more important question, of course, is one of trust. How will we react when he throws away another great start? Can we forget? Will we forgive?

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84

 

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