As soon as Jason Roy’s mistimed chip flew to midwicket, Mashrafe Mortaza’s hand went up in anticipation. But Mustafizur Rahman’s effort was a feeble one, and it rolled away for four, taking Roy from 16 to 20. The breakthrough – and Mashrafe’s first wicket of the World Cup – had to wait. Roy hit 153 in 121 balls, and England won by 106 runs.
Mashrafe got his first wicket in this tournament in a later spell. In his third game. He finished with 1 for 68, the ten overs broken up in four. Reason for criticism to pour in from all corners. After all, a No. 9 or No. 10 batsman who doesn’t pick up wickets is, to many, not good enough. His leadership isn’t up to the mark for some, while for others, he is keeping Rubel Hossain out of the team. And there is the fact that he is now a politician, a member of parliament, and some suggest that he is using that clout to lead Bangladesh when he is well past his sell-by date. The fingers are not being pointed by former experts or people in positions of power. But, chiefly, by fans on social media. In Bangladesh, that’s a big deal. The players themselves acknowledge the supporters’ role in the team’s rise in recent times; they provide the team the little extra they need at times, around the world.
But is the criticism justified?
He had bowled all except one over into the wind. His last over went for 18, 1 for 68 from ten looking much less respectable than 1 for 50 from nine. But he took the penultimate over, sacrificing bowling figures and attracting more criticism.
In the first two games, he had bowled only 11 overs. In his customary role of keep-things-tight-from-one-end bowler, Mashrafe had let Mustafizur, Shakib Al Hasan, Mehidy Hasan and Mohammad Saifuddin choose their ends, get their choice of new or semi-new ball, and open the bowling himself. No different from how he has gone since 2011, even more since he took over the captaincy in 2014. Despite missing huge chunks of matches throughout his career because of injuries, Mashrafe’s consistency in the last five years has also been remarkable, especially considering that he is 35 and has rickety legs.
Oh, the legs. The last eight years have been all about speculation on that front. Ever since he was dropped from the 2011 World Cup, people have been waiting for him to retire. Then he took 3 for 80 against Australia just after the World Cup, and subsequently missed the next 12 games. The wait continued.
But an improved fitness regime and more awareness of dealing with injuries have meant that Mashrafe stopped missing ODIs after that. Not altogether, but significantly. Since 2011, he has missed over 35 of Bangladesh’s 89 ODIs, compared to 66.1% of 118 ODIs in his first ten years. Since 2012, he has also been Bangladesh’s second highest wicket-taker in four calendar years, while topping the list in 2016. It has been a different Mashrafe, slower, but cannier, more aware of conditions and pitches, and armed with more variations: the cutters, the slower bouncers; he is a natural inward mover of the ball, and Courtney Walsh, the bowling coach, has helped him with several subtle variations, which Mashrafe has been using.
“I think people are being harsh on him,” Steve Rhodes, the Bangladesh coach, told ESPNcricinfo. “People have short memories. He has certainly produced some good spells for us. I think that some of the teams are targeting him a little bit but, hopefully, we can use it to our advantage. He is canny, knows what he is doing. It might mean some wickets for us.
“I think Mash really is a warrior. People have put him under a bit of pressure. He is fine. I thought he bowled really well in the last game, that too from a difficult end. We couldn’t bowl spinners from that end but he bowled for a really long time. He was only clobbered from the other end. He is such a competitor. He likes to mix it with top international players. He has a lot of pride. I am also very proud of him. I don’t see any issues whatsoever with Mash as a captain or a player.”
His preparation is unique too. Forget the nets and the gym, where he spends more time than most others, he needs to spend around an hour every day to tape his legs – whether for training or for a game. It means he needs to shave his legs to make it easier to take the tapes off.
Perhaps the increased criticism in the past few months, leading up to and into the World Cup, is because he is now a politician too. A politician who is also the captain of the team at the World Cup will, understandably, attract criticism, pointed fingers at. Certainly, politicians take it as fair game, and Mashrafe isn’t seeing it differently. At the same time, his supporters build him up as a near-mythical national hero. He laughs that off too.
His philanthropic work in Narail, his hometown and constituency, is well known. That’s Mashrafe the politician. As for the cricketer, neither the BCB, nor the Bangladesh team management have complained about his game or his involvement since he won the elections. He has delivered for Rangpur Riders and Abahani Limited in the domestic competitions, and he has not missed a team meeting.
Managing expectations, however, is a different kettle of fish. As Bangladesh became a bigger and better team, winning more often than before, the fans have been dreaming of success at the 2019 World Cup. Mashrafe has also come to the UK with the trophy on his mind, but he knows that it’s a long way away. The team knows how tough the task is, but fans perhaps don’t. Therefore, the criticism after each loss. And the captain is the easiest target.
Mashrafe, like his bowling into the gust in Cardiff, against the most aggressive batting line-up in the world, deals with all of it like a professional must – a shrug and a smile. But one wonders how much longer he can go on for – he has already said it will be his last World Cup. But as long as he does, he should keep the criticism at arm’s length.