Mohammad Ashraful: The Bangladeshi enigma who could have done a lot more

Mohammad Ashraful © Getty Images

Mohammad Ashraful, born on July 7, 1984, is one of the most talented cricketers to emerge from Bangladesh. A clean striker of the ball, he was a struggling cricketing nation’s beacon even as his performances didn’t match his ability. His admission of involvement in match-fixing seems to have ended a fledging career that promised a lot but never quite got going. Nishad Pai Vaidya looks back at the enigmatic batsman’s career.

There are some players whose talent is just too obvious. At one glance, the observer is assured that they are a class apart and stand out from the rest. Yet, their performances do not justify their precocious abilities and they end up being the greatest enigmas of the game. Mohammad Ashraful, the Bangladeshi batsman is one such player whose talent knew no bounds, but results spoke otherwise.

As Bangladesh struggled for the better part of the 2000s, Ashraful was one player who symbolised their hopes. With the extra time to play every shot and a unique hand-eye co-ordination, he was a cut above his teammates — some of whom looked absolutely mediocre at the world stage. At his best, his short frame took on the might of the fiercest bowlers in the world and made the task look a cinch. But, as the years progressed his mere talent couldn’t keep him in the side as Bangladesh evolved into a more consistent unit in world cricket.

Early days

Born in Dhaka, Ashraful’s rise through the ranks was fairly quick. As a 15-year-old, he was picked to represent Bangladesh at the ICC Under-19 World Cup 2000 in Sri Lanka. In his two games at the tournament, he couldn’t do much as he recorded scores of five and naught. A few months down the line, he showed glimpses of promise at the ICC Under-17 Asia Cup when he smashed 102 against Nepal Under-17s at Karachi.

Then in November, 2000, Dhaka Metropolis picked him as an opener for their Green Delta National Cricket League encounter against Sylhet Division. In his maiden First-Class innings, he scored a 41 — an innings that contained seven fours and a six. A few days later, he made his List A debut against the same opposition.

Ashraful did not take time to settle into First-Class cricket. In only his second game, which was against Khulna Division, he recorded his maiden hundred. From there, he started building his career in First-Class cricket, even as his List A career didn’t quite take off. Early next year, he was picked for the Bangladesh Cricket Board XI to play against an Australian Cricket Academy side. An innings of 110 highlighted his class against a side that contained future internationals such as Adam Voges, Shaun Marsh and Andrew McDonald.

The performance that actually put him on the selectors radar for higher honours came against Chittagong Division when he scored 157 and also picked up a seven-wicket haul with his leg-spinners. A promising first season led to an instant call-up to the senior side.

A fantastic international debut

Ashraful made his One-Day International (ODI) debut against Zimbabwe in April, 2001, and scored only nine. He was handed a Test debut when Bangladesh travelled to Sri Lanka for an Asian Test Championship game in September 2001. The result was a foregone conclusion as Sri Lanka were far superior. Bangladesh batted first and were bowled out for a meagre 90 — Ashraful being the top scorer with 26. From there on, the Sri Lankan batsmen flogged the Bangladesh bowling as they plundered 555 on the board. So easy was the task that Marvan Atapattu retired after scoring his double. Sri Lanka only had to bowl Bangladesh out as a formality.

Even as Bangladesh kept slipping, they put up a more spirited show. Little did anyone know that history was in the offing. Coming in at No 6, the 17-year-old handled Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan with great maturity. He was using his feet to the spinners and confidently played the rest. An edge through the third-man saw him complete his ton off 167 balls and write his name in the record books. At 17 years and 63 days, he became the youngest Test centurion, beating Mushtaq Mohammad’s record of scoring a ton at 17 years and 81 days. There were murmurs that he was born on September 9, which would have made him a 16-year-old centurion, but nothing emerged on that front thereafter.

It was the stuff of dreams for this youngster from a team that was finding its feat. And, he did visualize it a day before it transpired. Ashraful told ESPNcricinfo, “I had difficulty sleeping last night as I dreamt about [Brian] Lara’s 375 and me scoring a century. I told my captain this morning and he told me I could do it, so I just decided to play positively.”

A star was born for a team that desperately needed one.

The rise of the star Ashraful

In the three years following that historic ton on Test debut, Ashraful was a regular fixture in the Bangladesh team. However, he was far too inconsistent and his performances did not live up to the promise he showed on debut. But, then came a period where he kept justifying his talent and gave glimpses of what he was capable of.

In December, 2004, Ashraful led a Bangladeshi fightback in the face of a huge Indian first-innings total at Chittagong. In a stroke-filled 158, Ashraful literally toyed with the Indian bowling and scored at a remarkable strike-rate of 81.44. In the process, he recorded the highest score for a Bangladeshi batsman in a Test match, beating Aminul Islam’s 145 against the same opposition in their inaugural Test in 2000. Sourav Ganguly, the then Indian captain termed it as “one of the best Test knocks” he had seen. He told ESPNcricinfo, “I think he is a quality player. He played an outstanding innings, played shots on all sides of the wicket, off both front foot and back foot.”

Mohammad Ashraful: The Bangladeshi enigma who could have done a lot more

The moment that made the world sit and take notice of Mohammad Ashraful (left) came on the sojourn of England in 2005. Chasing 250 against a formidable attack comprising Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Michael Kasprowicz and Brad Hogg, Ashraful essayed an innings of swagger on his way to a 52-ball knock of 94 © Getty Images

However, the moment that made the world sit and take notice of him came on the sojourn of England in 2005. When Bangladesh were up against Australia, it was the classic David vs Goliath contest. A young gladiator with a short frame was to take on Australia’s might and humble them with the power of his blade. Chasing 250 against a formidable attack comprising Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Michael Kasprowicz and Brad Hogg, Ashraful essayed an innings of swagger. He drove and cut with authority and also played a few cheeky strokes. A run-a-ball hundred setup a historic win as the Australians were shell-shocked. In the next game, he was severe on the English bowlers as he carted 94 off only 52 balls.

In early 2006, Ashraful was at it again as an innings of 51 that setup a victory against Sri Lanka in an ODI at Bogra. In the Test series that followed, he essayed another breathtaking hundred in the first encounter at Chittagong. Again, he was aggressive and hit the bowlers with disdain to march his way to 136 in the first essay.

At the 2007 World Cup, Bangladesh stunned everyone by beating India and qualifying for the Super Eights. Intent on proving that it wasn’t a fluke, Ashraful produced a gem of an innings to rally Bangladesh. His 87 was full of audacious strokes as he was unruffled by the South African pace battery. In fact, he looked at ease and lofted them easily over fine-leg and other uncanny areas. That helped Bangladesh put up 251 on the board, a total they defended by literally strangling the South African batting. Immediately after the World Cup, he bludgeoned the fastest Test half-century in terms of time against India.

All these performances assured confidence and the team management believed that he could go to the next level. He was handed the reins of captaincy a few months after the 2007 World Cup. Bangladesh were stepping into a new era and they saw the 22-year-old as the torchbearer.

The Captain

Ashraful’s time at the helm wasn’t a very smooth ride as Bangladesh didn’t produce the results that were expected off them. However, he did have his moments of individual brilliance, although the team failed to finish the job.

During the ICC World Twenty20 2007, Ashraful’s youthful Bangladesh side made it to the second round yet again and this time he played a pivotal role. In the crucial league game against West Indies, he made mincemeat of their attack and sent them to all parts of the ground to help Bangladesh qualify for the next round and eliminate the West Indies. He scored 61 off only 27 balls to help them chase 165 with ease.

In the Test arena, he failed to record a win, although two centuries against Sri Lanka would be etched in memory. The second one was significant. It came in late 2008 at Chittagong and almost inspired an unlikely pursuit of 521 in the fourth innings. However, after Bangladesh were eliminated in the first round at the ICC World Twenty20 2009, the selectors felt that they had enough and took the responsibility off his shoulders to allow him to concentrate on his batting.

The Slump and the possible end?

Bangladesh had clearly stepped into a new era with the emergence of players such as Shakib-al-Hasan and Tamim Iqbal. They were consistent, dependable and raised the bar for Bangladesh cricket. However, Ashraful remained as enigmatic as ever and continued to flirt with inconsistency. As a result, his place in the side came under question and he was dropped quite a few times after losing captaincy. He continued to frustrate as the talent wasn’t being justified. By the time the 2011 World Cup came about, he wasn’t a regular fixture in the side and often warmed the bench. There was one significant achievement when he was away from the main team as he led Bangladesh to the gold medal at the Asian Games in 2010.

The stop-start career continued, but then there was a ray of hope. In March, 2013, he scored a measured 190 against Sri Lanka in a Test match to show that he could play a matured role. He took his time and showed more patience than the typical Ashraful who tried to attack every other delivery. One felt that it may have been the moment he came of age and it was the possible start of a new era for Bangladesh.

However, a few months down the line he admitted to fixing a game during the Bangladesh Premier League (BPL) and cried in public following his admission. The news was received with mixed emotions as some lauded him for being honest, while others condemned another cricketer falling prey to temptations of riches. Why did he do it? No one knows and he has only himself to blame for his predicament.

One doesn’t know whether Ashraful would be seen on a cricket field again as the investigations are on. This came when it just looked like he would blossom into a matured and dependable batsman for Bangladesh. If he doesn’t play again, a Test average of 24.00 and an ODI average of 22.23 would be seen as proof of a wasted talent.

(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a Correspondent with CricketCountry and anchor for the site’s YouTube Channel. His Twitter handle is @nishad_44)