Shak attack: Shakib Al Hasan continues to inspire young Bangladesh cricketers to take up left-arm spin, but there are few replacements yet
Shak attack: Shakib Al Hasan continues to inspire young Bangladesh cricketers to take up left-arm spin, but there are few replacements yet
The story of how one genre of bowling came to dominate Bangladesh cricket, and of the men who made it happen
The captain signalled to me to bowl the final over. On strike for Acme Laboratories was
And here was Rafique staring me down from the other end of the pitch. All my infielders were on top of the 30-yard circle, I had two guys on the deep leg-side boundary, long-on and long-off were in place, so was a sweeper cover.
I darted the first two under his bat. Rafique shook his head both times. After the third ball, also full and into his pads, Rafique, while running the leg-bye, told me to bowl like a spinner. I had nothing to say to him. I felt like a cheat. Here I was bowling at Bangladesh's greatest bowler, and he thought I didn't even bowl like a spinner.
When Rafique got back on strike for the fifth ball, I tried to beat him in the flight. He smacked me for a six over extra cover. Now I felt cheated.
As I returned to my mark with my head bowed, a voice spoke to me. Correction: shouted at me.
"Are you stupid or something? He just told you to bowl like a spinner and you gave him a slow one?"
Nope, it wasn't my inner self or anyone from above. It was the umpire:
In the nine months that Rafique, Razzak and Shakib played together Bangladesh had an ODI win-loss ratio of 1.8, which was very high for that period in their history
A few minutes later, as we walked back to the pavilion, Moni put a hand on my shoulder and said that things like this would keep happening to me if I let batsmen literally dictate terms. In Bangladesh, even for a fringe cricketer like myself, advice on left-arm orthodox spin wasn't hard to find.
I had become a left-arm orthodox spinner at the age of 16, after my cousin Atiar Rahman, at one time considered the second-best wicketkeeper in the country, instructed me to switch from left-arm unorthodox. He had seen me take a four-wicket haul in a school competition but I had gone for 67 runs in seven overs. I was a little sad to give up my dream of becoming the left-arm Shane Warne, but I could tell that it wasn't going to work out in left-arm-orthodox-mad Bangladesh, where the bowlers who topped the wicket charts in every league, age-group competition or semi-professional tournament were all left-arm orthodox.
You may find it unattractive, workmanlike and bland, but left-arm orthodox spin has sustained Bangladesh cricket for 25 years. The style of bowling can best be described as steady. Deliveries sent down by left-arm fingerspinners are not shrouded in mystery. But for even the best batsmen in the world, accuracy is kryptonite. And it is not only boredom that the likes of Rafique, Shakib Al Hasan and Abdur Razzak have preyed on. Their subtle changes of pace and angle, using a combination of shoulder, elbow and wrist, have greatly influenced, for better (at home) and for worse (abroad), the way Bangladesh play cricket.
A quick look at the numbers. Between November 2000, when Bangladesh joined Test cricket, and December 15, 2020, their left-arm orthodox spinners took 1405 international wickets. The next highest, India, are about 500 wickets behind. The lead is largest in ODIs, where Bangladesh's left-arm orthodox spinners have snaffled 690 wickets, ahead of India by 260. They also top the T20I numbers, with 167 wickets, above New Zealand by 58. In Test cricket, their 548 wickets are behind Sri Lanka by one, but those translate, in Bangladesh's case, to 41.7% of their total wickets, against Sri Lanka's 19.5%.
Ishita Mazumder / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Ishita Mazumder / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
One bowler - Shakib - possesses two-fifths of Bangladesh's 1405 wickets from left-arm orthodox spin over the last two decades, with 562 international scalps. He tops Bangladesh's all-time Test and T20I bowling charts, and he is nearly there in ODI cricket. He is one of six left-arm spinners in Test history to have taken 200-plus Test wickets; only Rangana Herath and Daniel Vettori have more five-wicket hauls than Shakib's 18.
Shakib is also currently the sixth highest wicket-taker in T20s, racking up 360 wickets in 317 games. He has won nine trophies with seven franchises in the IPL, CPL, PSL, BPL and Bangabandhu T20 Cup, making him a popular choice in auctions and drafts around the world.
Shakib's globetrotting exploits are a world away from the 1950s, when Indian allrounder Vinoo Mankad's left-arm spin caught the attention of the region during the 1955 India-Pakistan Test in Dhaka. Kamruzzaman, the doyen of Bangladeshi sportswriting, often gushes about Mankad from those days. Indian left-armers like Bapu Nadkarni and Salim Durani were names from the 1960s that featured in radio commentary from across the border.
It was at this time that a 22-year old left-arm spinner called Ramchand Goala would travel 120km from the small town of Mymensingh to play in the Dhaka league, which, in those days, featured two-day matches played over the weekend. Goala, whose first club was Victoria Sporting Club, is the best-known left-arm spinner from the East Pakistan days, and even after Bangladesh's independence in 1971, he was the leading practitioner of the trade.
"I always felt that I needed to bowl 20-25 overs in the nets even to prepare for an ODI. I thought bowling three or four overs in the nets was like giving up too easily"
"There used to be only two left-arm spinners when I started playing cricket in the 1980s," remembers Aminul Islam, the former Bangladesh captain, who made his ODI debut in 1988. "Goala da was a prominent figure who played for Abahani for a long time. We also had someone called Baten bhai [Baten Rashid], who played for Biman and Azad Boys."
Goala was a tall and exceptionally accurate bowler. Dhaka league giants Abahani signed him when he was 41, ahead of the 1981-82 season. He played there for ten years, winning several trophies and retiring at 53, turning out in a few unofficial matches for Bangladesh along the way.
While Goala was still playing, other left-arm spinners started to appear. Sharfuddoula Ibne Shahid Saikat and Moni emerged in the early 1990s. Moni, who bowled with a side-on action and gave the ball plenty of air, had started as a medium-pacer in the late 1980s, only to switch to left-arm spin, mid-match, in his third season in the Dhaka Premier League. He made an inauspicious ODI debut against New Zealand in Sharjah, however, going wicketless for 72 runs, and took seven years to pick up his first international wicket (in his eighth ODI).
Sharfuddoula, picked as Moni's understudy in the 1994 ICC Trophy side, preferred to bowl with the new ball and liked to bring the ball into the batsman. But a long-standing back injury limited him to just a few matches in the tournament, and with Bangladesh failing to finish in the top three, he was among those who got the chop.
Bangladesh, in those days at the Associate level, had a robust middle order and a revolving door of talented opening batsmen, but their bowling attack was hardly penetrating. They needed someone who could bowl accurately for an entire spell and force himself on batting line-ups. The man they got would come to be regarded as the father of left-arm spin in the country.
Enamul Haque Moni was the first left-arm spinner to play for Bangladesh. He went on to become an international umpire after retirement
Graham Chadwick / © Getty Images
Enamul Haque Moni was the first left-arm spinner to play for Bangladesh. He went on to become an international umpire after retirement Graham Chadwick / © Getty Images
In an uncannily similar story to Moni's, Rafique also converted to left-arm spin in the middle of a Dhaka Premier League match, in the early 1990s. The story goes that after Rafique bowled five wicketless overs of left-arm pace against Abahani, his Biman team-mate Wasim Haider, the Pakistan allrounder who featured in the 1992 World Cup, told the captain that Rafique should try a bit of left-arm spin. Apparently, the previous afternoon Rafique had bowled spin to Haider in the nets. He took three wickets with spin in that match, 14 more in the remaining league games, and became a left-arm spinner for good.
Rafique bounded in across the umpire to deliver with a roundarm action, with his bowling arm coming down far from his left ear. He was certainly quicker through the air than Moni or Sharfuddoula, or any spinner of that era.
Aminul Islam, who grew up in Old Dhaka would often come across Rafique in local tournaments.
"I knew Rafique from my childhood," he remembers. "He was a furious fast bowler who could bowl bouncers; he was a threat on matting wickets. His new spin-bowling action was similar to his pace-bowling action, but just as any spinner would require the correct line, length and lob [the flight path], Rafique quickly understood the nuances of a great line and length and a very consistent flight. These factors made him a perfect one-day bowler. Rafique was very accurate."
On his ODI debut, in the 1995 Asia Cup in Sharjah, Rafique bowled Sachin Tendulkar off the inside edge. The team went wild in celebration. It was Bangladesh's tenth ODI, and while they were always competitive at the ICC Trophy level, their top-level trysts were one-sided. So when Rafique removed Tendulkar, in the middle of an onslaught, it made him, and left-arm spin, very important to Bangladesh. A little-known spinner became a big deal overnight.
"Defending him was dangerous. He could bring the ball in without even knowing [he was doing it]. I asked him. He said he had no idea"
Two years later Rafique shone at the ICC Trophy in Kuala Lumpur. The tournament was felt to be Bangladesh's last shot at World Cup qualification: they had failed on five previous occasions. Rafique took 19 wickets at 10.68, finishing as the joint highest wicket-taker. In the last two matches, two of the most pivotal in Bangladesh cricket history, his performances elevated him to a hero. He took a four-wicket haul in the semi-final against Scotland, to go with a late-overs cameo. In the final, his 3 for 40 slowed Kenya down in the slog overs, and then the next day, chasing 166 in 25 overs, his 15-ball 26 as opener set the pace. Bangladesh had discovered their first genuine match-winner.
For Bangladeshi kids in the 1990s, Rafique was the closest thing to Sanath Jayasuriya or Shahid Afridi. The comparisons gained strength when Rafique took three wickets and made 77 runs opening the batting, powering Bangladesh to their maiden ODI win, against Kenya in 1998.
But soon after he had bowled 50-plus overs in Bangladesh's inaugural Test, against India in 2000, Rafique was reported for a suspect bowling action. It took him nearly two years to get it cleared, and in that period, between April 2001 and April 2003, he featured in only one of Bangladesh's 17 Tests.
When he returned to the side in May 2003, he took 6 for 77 against South Africa in Dhaka. A spinner used to only limited-overs cricket became Bangladesh go-to Test bowler for the next five years with remarkable ease. Rafique puts that down to his years of training.
"I was actually well prepared for Tests even before we got the Test status," he remembers. "I used to bowl really long spells in the nets, to all the batsmen, day in day out. I always felt that I needed to bowl 20-25 overs in the nets even to prepare for an ODI. I have bowled ten overs in one go many times in one-day matches. I always thought that bowling three or four overs in the nets was like giving up too easily."
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© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
At the time, innings defeats were the norm for Bangladesh, and it was normal for players, coaches, administrators and fans to hope for a four- or five-day defeat, rather than a win or a draw. In these doldrums, Rafique was Bangladesh's hope, prising out the odd big wicket when other bowlers struggled. He dismissed Kumar Sangakkara, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly five times each in his international career, Mahela Jayawardene and Adam Gilchrist four times, and Tendulkar thrice. He was called on to bowl at every stage of an innings: with the semi-new ball, when all options had been exhausted, when Bangladesh were waiting for a declaration, while an opposition batsman headed for a milestone. Rafique wouldn't settle for a defensive line or length. He would bring some solace to the rest of the drained team by taking that wicket.
Rafique says that he was a big believer in only looking at a batsman for what he could do against him, and not who he was.
"Batsmen like Tendulkar, Lara and Gilchrist have different qualities. They were all match-winners of a different class for their respective teams. But I never looked at anyone as a top batsman or an ordinary batsman. I always thought that I will bowl to him and if he can force the runs out of me, good for him. I believed that if I thought they were going to dominate me before I bowled to them, then I had already lost. I know that the opposition talked about playing out my overs and being careful against my bowling. I think that's a huge compliment for any bowler, and it gave me a mental edge."
Rafique saw other seniors like Akram Khan, Aminul Islam and Khaled Mahmud make unceremonious exits, but he got better with age.
"I have a firm belief that if you keep thinking about the past, you cannot improve your future," he reflects. "I have said this many times to everyone I have ever played with. If you have scored a century, it won't be there in your next match. You have to always think of playing better than your last game - how do I take seven wickets after I have taken five? Shakib is a great example, and this is the reason he has become a world-class allrounder. I could tell from our time at the 2007 World Cup that we have someone special in front of us."
I was a little sad to give up my dream of becoming the left-arm Shane Warne, but I could tell that it wasn't going to work out in left-arm-orthodox-mad Bangladesh
Rafique's life story was relatable, and it was one of the reasons people took a liking to him. Years ago he appeared in a short documentary that featured his journey from his home in Keraniganj, a suburb just outside Dhaka on the banks of the river Buriganga, to the Bangabandhu National Stadium. Rafique would take his mother's blessings and walk to the nearest ghat to get a ride on the commercially busy river on whose bank Dhaka was built by the Mughals and the British. On arriving in Dhaka, he would take a rickshaw or walk through some of the capital's busiest streets, where shops would be setting up for the day. At the Bangabandhu, he would cease to be an everyman and make it his centre of excellence.
At a time when the Bangladesh Cricket Board was pushing for Test status by promoting cricket as the country's No. 1 sport, the tale of a cricketer from a humble background, crossing a river every day to reach the stadium was the perfect portrayal of the passion for the sport in the country.
"I learned cricket by watching it on TV," Rafique said in the documentary. "We didn't have coaches and neither were bowling tips readily available. I have worked under coaches like Altaf [Hussain] bhai, and Osman [Khan] bhai. They taught me as much as they knew, and the rest we learned off TV."
Rafique's match-winning contributions in Bangladesh's early years planted left-arm spin in such a deep-rooted manner that it would come to define the bowling attack. And he did it all pretty much by himself.
"Recently while working on a research on Afghanistan cricket, we found that the key to the success of their spinners was longer-version cricket on turf wickets, and inspiration," Aminul, now the ICC's development manager in Asia, says. "They have a lot of mystery spinners to look up to. Rafique had no one in front of him. He only knew Moni and Goala da. He went through the transformation from being a fast bowler to left-arm spinner, again on his own, and then became the first bowler in Bangladesh to take 100 Test wickets."
Rafique to the rescue: whenever Bangladesh needed a breakthrough, Mohammad Rafique was the one they turned to
Mir Farid / © Associated Press
Rafique to the rescue: whenever Bangladesh needed a breakthrough, Mohammad Rafique was the one they turned to Mir Farid / © Associated Press
Soon left-arm orthodox spinners were coming out of every corner of the country. Manzarul Islam, Abdur Razzak and Shakib from the south (Khulna region); Enamul Haque Jr and Nabil Samad from the east (Sylhet); Sohrawordi Shuvo and Saqlain Sajib from the north and north-west; the two Sunnys, Arafat and Elias, and Mehrab Hossain Jr, from Dhaka.
Razzak, who later became the first Bangladesh bowler to 200 ODI wickets, was born in Bagerhat, a small town 40km south-east of Khulna. In the mid-1990s he had hopes of becoming a pace-bowling allrounder, but a back injury set him on a new path. The coaches at Bangladesh Krira Shikkha Protishtan (BKSP) realised he was good at spin and told him to stick to it.
Razzak made his ODI debut in 2004 and remembers the profusion of left-arm spinners at the time. "It was like, you miss out and someone dominating domestic cricket or the A team is already knocking on the door."
Shortly before Razzak's ODI debut, the selectors had fast-tracked Enamul Jr into Test cricket. At 16 years and 320 days, he became the third youngest from Bangladesh to play Tests.
Enamul Jr's ability to impart spin and drift on the ball distinguished him from his contemporaries. He put his whole body, albeit a thin frame, into the delivery, twisting his hip around as he brought his left arm over from high above his shoulder. Some considered his skills beyond his age and the existing coaching knowledge in Bangladesh at the time. Enamul Jr himself recalls that he didn't know much about the nuances of spin bowling at the time of his Test debut. All he did was stick to what he knew best: give the ball a rip.
"You have to always think of playing better than your last game - how do I take seven wickets after I have taken five?"
"I had very little idea about field settings, for example," he says. "Sujon bhai [Khaled Mahmud] used to set my fields. I could bowl with a very stable seam, and I had drift on the ball. Drift was my main weapon. But I didn't know what grip on the seam would give me more turn. We didn't have a bowling coach back then. We only had Dav Whatmore as the head coach. He, however, didn't focus on the technical side."
Enamul Jr's breakthrough arrived against Zimbabwe in early 2005. "I remember the team management was petrified ahead of the series," he says. "Zimbabwe had lost a number of their main players, so this was in a way our big chance to win a Test. I remember many in the media would openly talk about taking away our Test status."
Bangladesh registered their first Test match and Test series win. Enamul Jr took 18 wickets and was adjudged Player of the Series. In the second Test, he became the first Bangladeshi to take a ten-wicket match haul, and the youngest bowler from anywhere to do so. Later in the tour, Rafique, Manzarul, Enamul Jr and Razzak shared 20 wickets in Bangladesh's maiden ODI series win.
"That evening spell was one of the best sessions of my career. I was totally focused on bowling up to Clarke and making the ball turn. Mind you, Clarke was a very good player of spin. I was about to bowl the second ball of the over. I kept telling myself that I had to pitch the ball up and spin it away from Clarke. This one in particular turned out to be a dream delivery. The ball drifted slightly, pitched on the stumps, Clarke went to defend, but the ball hit off stump. I may have bowled a better delivery to get Shane Warne's wicket later on, but nobody remembers it. The Clarke wicket is the most talked about."
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© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
But Enamul Jr's career never really took off. He was unofficially tagged as a Test specialist, which meant that he played after long gaps. And with the 2007 World Cup less than a year away, the BCB had to focus on building an ODI team. Rafique needed at least one bowler at the other end to keep the scoring rate down. By August 2006, he got two.
Razzak was recently made available following a correction to his bowling action. And chief selector Faruque Ahmed brought in a bright young allrounder thought of at the BKSP as a future Bangladesh cricketer. Shakib would effectively be replacing Manzarul, another left-arm spinner and left-hand middle-order batsman.
With pitches in the Caribbean expected to be on the slower side, Bangladesh decided to give the Rafique-Razzak-Shakib combination a long rope. They repaid that trust, combining to take 103 wickets at an average of 25.96 and an economy rate of 3.80 over the next nine months.
Razzak used to bowl in the Powerplays and slog overs, while Shakib and Rafique bossed the middle overs.
"I have opened the bowling against Adam Gilchrist, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Chris Gayle, and I would also often bowl four or five overs at the death," remembers Razzak. "Shakib and Rafique bhai used to bowl in the middle overs mainly. Rafique bhai was always in the thick of things, and would often bowl in the last five overs. If you bowl well for 30 overs in a 50-over innings, the opposition can score 250 at most."
For those who remember Bangladesh's momentous win over India in Port-of-Spain, it is usually Tamim Iqbal's big-hitting or Mashrafe Mortaza's wickets that comes to mind. But it was the left-arm spinners who broke India's batting line-up.
"I remember all our New Zealand batsmen having nightmares about Bangladesh's left-arm spin bowlers. It wasn't just because they had lots of them. They had lots of good ones"
As over the previous eight months, Razzak was the first of the three to be introduced into the attack. Just as commentator Athar Ali Khan was explaining how picking three left-arm spinners actually gives the team an all-round balance, Razzak burst one through an advancing Tendulkar, who got into a tangle, inside-edged the ball onto his pad, and the young wicketkeeper, Mushfiqur Rahim, completed the catch excitedly. After a brief lull, Rafique pinned Rahul Dravid in front of the stumps. India recovered through an 85-run stand between Sourav Ganguly and Yuvraj Singh, but just as they were about to put on the accelerator, Razzak and Rafique combined to take four wickets that knocked the wind out of India. From 157 for 4 to 159 for 8 in the space of 11 balls. The 30 overs of left-arm spin went at 3.90 per over and fetched six wickets.
The trio also took six wickets each in Bangladesh's other two wins, against Bermuda and South Africa. In the latter - a match South Africa were expected to breeze through to the 252-run target - they finished with 6 for 96 from 29.4 overs. After the match, captain Bashar hailed his bowlers.
"They are three different kinds of bowlers, and they always bowl in different kinds of positions," Bashar said. "But whenever I give them the ball they've always done the job for me."
In the nine months that Rafique, Razzak and Shakib played together Bangladesh had an ODI win-loss ratio of 1.8, which was very high for that period in their history. Returning from the West Indies, however, the team did not receive a warm reception. Bashar, under pressure for his poor form, quit the ODI captaincy. The chief selector Faruque and the coach Whatmore left too.
Rafique's poor showing in a Test series in Sri Lanka and his sudden withdrawal from the subsequent ODI series didn't sit well with the new selectors. He was dropped for the 2007 T20 World Cup, as well as Bangladesh's tour of New Zealand; the new chief selector Rafiqul Alam felt that Rafique's form and attitude were poor. He was given a final Test series in 2008, in which he reached one of the most significant milestones in Bangladesh cricket: a 100th Test wicket.
Enamul Haque Jr on his "dream delivery" to Michael Clarke: "The ball drifted slightly, pitched on the stumps, Clarke went to defend, but the ball hit off stump"
Farjana K Godhuly / © AFP/Getty Images
Enamul Haque Jr on his "dream delivery" to Michael Clarke: "The ball drifted slightly, pitched on the stumps, Clarke went to defend, but the ball hit off stump" Farjana K Godhuly / © AFP/Getty Images
"I am thankful to Allah for finally achieving this in my last international match," Rafique said after the match. "Bangladesh will stay at this level, and so many players will achieve this feat but everybody will remember me as the first Bangladeshi who got 100 wickets in Tests."
When Bangladesh played their next Test, the landscape had changed significantly. Several of their top players had left to play in the unsanctioned Indian Cricket League, following which New Zealand arrived on their shores. Ahead of the first Test, the new coach Jamie Siddons declared that Shakib was now their bowling leader.
To hear that a bowler with only three Test wickets would take over for a 100-wicket bowler might have been jarring to some, but that was how much Siddons believed in Shakib's ability.
Shakib delivered immediately, with 7 for 36, surpassing Enamul Jr's 7 for 95 as Bangladesh's best figures in an innings. He followed it up with a neat 71, and although the home side lost narrowly, the newcomer had the skill and confidence to go toe to toe with Daniel Vettori, who also made a fifty and took nine wickets in the match.
In a beautiful coincidence, Vettori is now Bangladesh's spin bowling coach.
"I remember all our New Zealand batsmen having nightmares about Bangladesh's left-arm spin bowlers," Vettori says about those days. "It wasn't just because they had lots of them. They had lots of good ones. Rafique was around back in the early 2000s, and then handed off to Shakib."
"We don't have left-arm spinners now. Shakib is the only one left. We have probably neglected our strength to find something new"
Both Rafique and Shakib kept batsmen guessing ball after ball; both tended to bring the ball into the right-hander, surprising them with the delivery that spins away.
"One of the most dangerous balls you can bowl as a left-arm spinner is being mid-crease or closer to the stumps, and that ball that goes straight on," says Vettori. "Sometimes you don't even know you are going to do it. It is just the fact that you actually bowl a good ball and hit the under part of the seam or leather, and it skids on. They were so accurate that they brought the element of doubt into which way it is going to spin, whether it is going to skid on or spin a lot."
Shakib took two more five-wicket hauls in South Africa in Bangladesh's next Test series, and not long after became the world's No. 1 ranked ODI allrounder.
Enamul Jr, who played with Shakib in four Tests and seven ODIs, thought Shakib a "different bowler from everyone".
"Defending him was dangerous. He could bring the ball in without even knowing [he was doing it]. I asked him. He said he had no idea. I remember how Mahela Jayawardene struggled against him. He went on the forward defensive, but the ball moved away at the last minute and took the off bail. Next time he tried, it hit his stomach, from the same spot. He did the same thing many times during his county stint. They used to go mad trying to pick him. He could produce power from his front foot. Shakib used to have a very good speed as a result."
Shakib starts his run-up as though on a catwalk, but then he puts his whole body into the action, twisting, as Enamul Jr pointed out, on his front toe, while getting his bowling arm close to his left ear.
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© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
In the West Indies in 2009, Shakib was instrumental in Bangladesh's first overseas Test series win, when he took over as captain mid-game in
He was blossoming into a leading Test allrounder. In a 2011 Test against West Indies, he got two fifties and a five-for; the same year he got a hundred and a five-wicket haul against Pakistan. Three years later against Zimbabwe, he became only the fourth cricketer, and the first in 31 years, to make a century and take ten wickets in a Test. In terms of opposition quality, however, Shakib's pinnacle was the ten-wicket haul and 84 in
Bashar, who handed Shakib his Test cap in 2007, believes that Shakib the batsman had to make a lot of sacrifices to accommodate Shakib the allrounder.
"I knew Shakib as a batsman before he became a bowler," he told the Cricket Monthly last year. "He was a part-time bowler then. I miss that Shakib. I know he bats well now, but he was a No. 4 when he started off. If he hadn't concentrated on his bowling, he would have had many more Test centuries. He was a genuine, class batsman. He still is, but the bowling certainly affected his batting."
Perhaps Shakib missed out on scoring some runs because of his long spells, but it made him one of the great allrounders of all time. And within four years of Rafique reaching 100 Test wickets, Shakib got to his three-figure mark. In another six years, he became the first Bangladeshi to reach 200 wickets. Taijul Islam also impressively reached 100 wickets in 2019, although he has a hugely lopsided home-away record.
"Rafique was a furious fast bowler who could bowl bouncers. His spin bowling action was similar to his pace action, but he understood the nuances of a great line and length, and a very consistent flight"
The bowling attack's overdependence on left-arm spin diminished slightly when offpsinner Mehidy Hasan Miraz stormed England in 2016. Shakib, Taijul and Mehidy formed a bowling trio to win regularly at home for two years. More recently offspinner Nayeem Hasan has arrived with his dip and bounce. In Shakib's absence over the last year, Taijul has been considered the leader of the attack. But, like with a kid from an illustrious family, there have been too many expectations and not enough appreciation.
From a novelty bowling option in the league scene of the 1960s and 1970s, to making household names out of cricketers since the 1990s, left-arm spin has served Bangladesh very well. The world now recognises that if a left-arm spinner comes out of Bangladesh, he's probably pretty good. It is true that kids don't aspire to become left-arm orthodox spinners as readily as they do fast bowlers, but it has become a career path for many cricketers who see Shakib as a hero. Many young left-armers have actions like him, just as many took to left-arm spin in the 1990s after Rafique.
Yet, Shakib's ability to shoulder the workload, the worldwide craze for legspinners, Bangladesh's quest for a pace attack - for some or all of these reasons, left-arm orthodox seems to be falling away at the highest level.
The BCB has expressed its support for legspinners, even though there are probably only four or five in all of Bangladeshi professional cricket. Left-arm spinners still have massive appeal in domestic cricket, but even there, the numbers have dropped off in recent seasons. In the 2019-20 season, Razzak was one of two left-arm spinners among the top ten wicket-takers in the two first-class competitions combined. In the 11 preceding seasons, there were on average four left-arm orthodox spinners in the top ten; in 2013-14 there were as many as eight.
Razzak, a domestic giant with 500-plus first-class wickets, observes the trend with concern. "Shakib is the only one left. Nobody else is standing out. We have probably neglected our strength to find something new. Left-arm spin is the sort of bowling you can use in any situation of a match. It has proved to be a match-winner for a long time, so why not keep using it?
Like Rafique, Abdur Razzak also started out as a fast bowler, but a back injury forced him to turn to spin. He went on to become the first Bangladesh bowler to take 200 wickets in ODIs
Clive Mason / © Getty Images
Like Rafique, Abdur Razzak also started out as a fast bowler, but a back injury forced him to turn to spin. He went on to become the first Bangladesh bowler to take 200 wickets in ODIs Clive Mason / © Getty Images
"Our pace bowling has improved, we now have a few pace bowlers who are doing well. But we can improve both side by side. Every team now has a left-arm spinner and probably they were influenced by our strategy. But now we are mulling playing without left-arm spinners. Just look at the numbers and you will understand how important left-arm spin has been."
One of the reasons for the decline, Razzak says, is that contemporary spinners "only think about bowling quick and straight".
"I bowled quickly, but I always tried to spin the ball," he says. "You cannot survive in international cricket if you don't bowl at a certain pace, but it doesn't mean you cut down on your spin. It is essential to work on these areas, otherwise the number of left-arm spinners will keep dwindling."
Bangladesh's impressive numbers for left-arm spin over the past two decades obscures the fact that they were achieved without much by way of coaching or systemic support. But the BCB has never really delved deeper into left-arm orthodox spin to find out what works and what doesn't. A bit of research, given its resources at the High Performance Unit, could go a long way into replenishing its greatest asset.
There is obviously a need for offspinners and legspinners in bowling attacks, and the lack of legspinners in Bangladesh is a huge embarrassment. But left-arm orthodox has always done the business in a country where the batsmen are predominantly right-handed and where most pitches are slow turners that progressively break up. It is hard to imagine Pakistan feeling embarrassed by its fast-bowling riches and ignoring them to the point of abandonment. The string of quality Bangladeshi left-arm spinners over the past 25 years means there is enough inspiration for the next generation to keep this long and fruitful tradition going.
Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84
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