Batting, rookies the key
There is one statistic that is hard to ignore when looking at the two teams that will take the field for the first Test match at 10:00am today at the Zahur Ahmed Chowdhury Stadium in Chittagong. From August 3 last year, when Bangladesh's second Test against South Africa met a rainy conclusion, the home team have not played a single Test. England meanwhile have played 16 Tests in that period.
Then of course there is the fact that England are the oldest cricketing nation with an enduring emphasis on Test cricket while Bangladesh, as the newest nation, are still finding their feet in a format they play sporadically. Seven victories in 93 matches attest to that, and their longest gap between Tests in their 16-year history should not induce much confidence in their chances. But there is some hope to be gleaned from the form of the top order and some bright prospects who may get their first Test cap today.
However, much like head coach Chandika Hathurusingha who on Saturday said that winning the match would be a bonus, skipper Mushfiqur Rahim was apparently also not very optimistic about the chances of an eighth win, instead focusing on being competitive throughout the next five days and trying to bring their upward graph in ODI cricket to the Test arena.
England skipper Alastair Cook, who will become the most capped player in England cricket history today, agreed that they had an advantage as far as Test cricket was concerned.
"England as a cricketing nation plays more Test cricket than Bangladesh, which helps us, but we don't play a huge amount in these conditions," England's highest Test run-scorer said yesterday. "Home advantage and home conditions play a big part at the moment due to the length of tours [and] preparation periods. We have to learn fast -- three days of cricket [the two two-day warm-up matches against BCB XI, the first of which saw a first-day washout] isn't a huge amount of time for a lot of the guys to be in, and I haven't seen any of it. We have to think on our feet and be ready."
That is what Bangladesh will have to look to exploit over the next five days -- England's unfamiliarity with the conditions and the stifling port city heat. And that seems the arrangement if Mushfiqur's allusions to a different kind of plan that a side packed with spinners can exploit are to be believed.
While there has been much bemoaning the paucity of options in the pace department and the fact that four newcomers have entered the squad, there are two near-confirmed debutants who may provide cause for optimism.
The first is Mehedi Hasan Miraz, perhaps the best off-spinner in the country, picked specifically to neutralise England's army of left-handed batsmen. His exploits as captain in the Under-19 World Cup earlier this year, in which Bangladesh reached the semifinals, revealed a shrewd cricketing mind as well as a more than capable batsman. If selected, his partnership with Shakib Al Hasan, the country's premier spinner will be one of the things for Bangladesh fans to look forward to.
The other probable debutant is young batsman and limited-overs star Sabbir Rahman. The coach had said that they will look to find a place for him in the eleven and if that is the case he can be trusted to bring some aggression to Bangladesh's batting as asking him to curb his style for the longer form will be a disservice to him and the team.
He can afford to play that way because, unlike the bowling department, Bangladesh's top six bears a very firm and assured look.
"There are five, six batsmen who play all three formats," Mushfiqur said yesterday. "Whether it is Imrul [Kayes], Shakib, Tamim [Iqbal], [Mahmudullah] Riyad bhai, Mominul -- they are all in good form. So if someone from the top four can play a big innings and we get more than 300 in the first innings it will be a big plus for us."
That number of 300 is an interesting one because either Mushfiqur has set his sights painfully low or he knows that the pitch will turn from day one. Even if it does, the batting line-up is the only real positive going into this match and fans will hope that -- with so much doom and gloom surrounding Bangladesh's inability to take 20 wickets -- Bangladesh can bat England out of the match. Judging by the squad where 11 of the 14 selected are capable with bat in hand, that seems to be the plan.
At any rate, with the heat on full blast in Chittagong, it seems a no-brainer to win the toss and bat today, especially if the pitch will turn as much as expected. That is where the selectors may gamble a bit and go with the left-field option of playing Soumya Sarkar as the second seamer along with Shafiul Islam, an idea that has gathered some steam as he has been a regular bowler in the nets the past two days. On the other hand, another newcomer in Kamrul Islam Rabbi may get the nod as he has been known as someone who can bowl well with the old ball.
Regardless, there may be little else for the pacers to do than take the shine off the ball for the spinners.