Tamim Iqbal wants Bangladesh to keep their eyes on the ball, both literally and figuratively, in their bid to turn a corner halfway through a dismal year. His biggest worry is the side’s fielding ahead of their ODI series against Sri Lanka, which is viewed as a must-win assignment with qualification for the 2023 World Cup in mind. Iqbal, who has shown great form of late with three fifties in four Test innings in Sri Lanka last month, wants his team to grab the small and often crucial opportunities that come their way.
Bangladesh began the year with a 3-0 win over West Indies, their fifth win in six bilateral ODI series at home. But they’ve gone winless in their next 10 international games – four Tests, three ODIs and three T20Is – over the last four months. As much as their batting and bowling, their fielding, often eye-catchingly bad, has also had to share the blame for this downturn.
There was a spate of dropped catches during the tour of New Zealand, including two potentially match-turning ones in the second ODI. Newcomer Nasum Ahmed suggested the light and weather conditions in New Zealand had played a part in the fielding lapses, but the problems persisted even on the tour of Sri Lanka.
Iqbal said Bangladesh are working hard on all aspects including fielding, but they have been unable to convert that productiveness into consistently converting the chances they get on their field.
“This is probably the one part that I am worried the most,” Iqbal told ESPNcricinfo. “If you have seen us in the last five months, fielding is the area, more than batting and bowling, where we have lost matches. The two Tests at home or the second ODI in New Zealand, the key moments were [related to] the fielding. Everybody sees what we are doing on game day but hardly anyone sees what we are doing in training. I think we are training extremely hard to get better.
“Each and every one of us wants to get better but we are making those mistakes in the key moments. Just like every other team, I feel that not all our fielders are brilliant fielders. But we have good fielders. We just have to make sure that according to our capability, whoever is fielding in those positions, do their best. They take those chances. They take a brilliant catch, get a brilliant run-out. If we start doing that, it will help us more with winning games.”
Looking back through the winless streak, Iqbal felt Bangladesh hadn’t been able too keep their shape in crunch moments with both bat and ball. “We had opportunities to win in most of these ten matches,” he said. “There were times when we were on top, but we made some mistakes which is why we lost the games.
“We were competitive, but now we have to grab those key moments, which decides the match. It can be a spell, a partnership or a catch. We have to be very focused when the key moment comes. We don’t want to miss those chances.”
Iqbal said there is hunger within the ranks, but the bottom line is about winning in international sport. “If you are not winning, [the dressing room] is not a happy place. But everybody is doing the extra yard. They want to win games.
“We can talk about the process and the future, but at the end of the day, winning is probably the most important thing. Our passionate supporters want us to do well, so winning is the best gift to give back to them.”
Iqbal was made the ODI captain shortly before Bangladesh went into lockdown last year. He took over following the long and successful reign of Mashrafe Mortaza, who won 50 of his 88 ODIs as captain. Iqbal is a veteran of 14 years at this level, but he has had to adjust himself through many an ebb and flow in the Bangladesh team.
His understanding of the team’s situation means he has kept his rallying cry to a simple one: be yourself; don’t hesitate.
“I want my team to express themselves,” he said. “By this, I mean I believe in each and every one of my team-mates. They have done well internationally and domestically, to be playing in the squad. I want them to do what they have been doing at the international and domestic level. If we are 50-50, whether to go or not to go, it won’t help the team or the individual. I’d rather express myself.
“If I get out early, its fine. If I don’t, then it is beneficial for the individual and the team. It doesn’t mean everyone has to bat at a 100 strike-rate. Someone can be batting at 80 or 85 strike-rate, but whatever the situation we are facing, we have to express ourselves. That’s how a team goes ahead. There will be times when you have to be a little bit careful, and at times you have to express yourself one hundred per cent.”
For that type of unabashed clarity about one’s game Bangladesh can take a leaf out of their captain’s book. Iqbal’s assaults on the Sri Lankan bowlers during the Test series last month was an example of a player who knows his own game inside-out.
“There are times in Test matches when you have to change your way. We didn’t know it would be such a flat wicket on the first day against Sri Lanka,” he said. “The ball did a bit in the first hour. A good ball could have got me out. I am aggressive in these circumstances. Hitting a few boundaries, it puts the bowlers back. Before the series, I also said to the coach that I am planning to be aggressive. If I get off to a good start, the team benefits out of it. I also enjoyed the way I batted.
“You can get out when you are playing shots early, but the best part was that I didn’t play any rash shots in those three innings. I just played to the merit of the ball, and it paid off. I was happy with the way I batted but disappointed that I couldn’t contribute more.”
Although the opponent is well-known, Bangladesh are only playing a three-match ODI series, so early slip-ups could leave them with an awkward task at hand. They have to make sure they get as many points out of this series as possible, so they have a better sense of the path that awaits them through the ODI Super League.
“There are a limited amount of games before the (2023) World Cup. We are probably playing another 25 matches,” Iqbal said. “There’s a point system, and you want to qualify directly. You don’t want to play that qualifying round. We are also not playing a lot at home, where Bangladesh is very strong. This is probably one of the very important series where you want to get as many points as possible.”
Iqbal’s batting is going to be crucial, particularly in an unsettled ODI top order that includes Liton Das and Najmul Hossain Shanto, who have struggled for runs this year. Shakib Al Hasan may be back at No 3, and Mushfiqur Rahim may have to take more responsibility in the middle-order. But what Bangladesh craves is leadership that can elevate them tactically and emotionally. Iqbal showed in New Zealand that he is capable of both, but he needs his fielders to take those catches first.
Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo’s Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84