The three-match T20I series between Bangladesh and Pakistan, starting today in Lahore, may seem like the result of protracted diplomatic negotiations between the two respective cricket boards but with the focus shifting finally to cricket, the series carries greater importance than most recent assignments for Bangladesh.
When Bangladesh last toured Pakistan in 2008, the modern history of the country’s cricket had just begun to be written as it was one of the early instances in which the players that carried Bangladesh cricket over the next decade started playing together. 12 years on, it is hard to escape the feeling that the era that was in its infancy in 2008 is drawing to a close.
Today, only Tamim Iqbal and skipper Mahmudullah Riyad remain from that bunch. Other members of the Big 5 are not there -- Mashrafe Bin Mortaza has retired from T20Is, Shakib Al Hasan has been banned for a year for failing to report corrupt approaches from a bookie and Mushfiqur Rahim refused to tour because of security concerns.
Since the World Cup last year, there has been an increasing sense that the nucleus of Bangladesh’s decade of growth has been unravelling. With Shakib injured for the ensuing ODI series in Sri Lanka last July and ODI skipper Mashrafe missing out because of a hamstring injury, the World Cup remains the last instance of Bangladesh’s five big players playing together.
Before the current tour, Bangladesh coach Russell Domingo said that Mahmudullah was his skipper in T20Is and that as part of a larger trend of continuity leading into the T20 World Cup in October this year, he would want to see Mahmudullah leading in the World Cup too.
With that as backdrop and harbinger, this could be seen as the dawn of a new era for Bangladesh cricket. On the surface the focus will of course be on Tamim and Mahmudullah to lead with performance and example on and off the field, but the deeper examination will be of those who should by now be looking to form the new nucleus for the next decade.
On this tour, it will be Mushfiqur’s absence more than that of Shakib -- who has missed the odd series due to injury and rest over the past two years -- that will test Bangladesh. Over the last two years, Mushfiqur has scored the most runs in ODIs for Bangladesh, been second on the list in T20Is and third in Tests. And that does not take into account the intangible measures like the importance of match-winning innings -- the 35-ball 72 against Sri Lanka in the 2018 Nidahas Trophy and the 43-ball 60 to beat India in November last year are just two of the many instances when Mushfiqur turned matches in Bangladesh’s favour.
Therefore, while the writing has been on the wall for a while now, it is this tour that will test what stuff the likes of Soumya Sarkar, Liton Das, Mohammad Mithun -- three who have been around for a while -- and rookies Afif Hossain, Mohammad Naim, Nazmul Hossain Shanto, Aminul Islam and Mahedi Hasan are made of. Performances in the BPL are commendable, but it remains to be seen how they fare without the security blanket of Mushfiqur holding things together in case of disaster.
Also notable in the squad is the fact that there are no left-arm spinners -- a rarity for the Tigers -- and Bangladesh have gone with a pace-heavy contingent, including promising uncapped pacer Hasan Mahmud.
The message is clear. The vision is towards the T20 World Cup and beyond, which includes an uplift in performances away from home -- the one dissatisfying aspect of the 2010s. By the end of the third match, the picture of Bangladesh’s future will have become clearer, for better or worse.