Spin-to-win template could hurt Bangladesh in the long run

Shoriful Islam struck on the first ball of his second spell to dismiss Henry Nicholls
December 06, 2023

After the first day's play in Dhaka, where spinners took 13 of the 15 wickets that fell, a familiar question hangs in the air: how much home advantage is too much home advantage?

The Shere Bangla National Stadium is the home of Bangladesh cricket for a reason. It houses the cricket board, and it is also the venue the senior team banks on for big wins. It is at this stadium that Bangladesh built their reputation of being a highly competitive team, but it is also, perhaps, one reason for Bangladesh not being quite as good when they play on flatter surfaces anywhere else in the world.

The debate rages on: are Bangladesh just maximizing their strengths? The question, though, could be worded differently: do Bangladesh feel that their spinners are their only strength? They may have reason to feel this at present, given that their two best fast bowlers are out with long-term injuries, and also because their batters have endured a difficult year, particularly at the World Cup.

At that very World Cup, though, a number of Bangladesh's players spoke about the need for preparing truer pitches for home games. Some of the difficulties Bangladesh faced in India stemmed from their inability to adjust to good batting pitches. A team that usually play ODIs that produce totals in the 240-260 range can't really be expected to thrive on pitches where 300-plus totals are par.

What Bangladesh did in Dhaka was something of a reversion. Having beaten New Zealand comprehensively on a decent though slow batting surface in Sylhet, they went back to the Dhaka norm: a square turner. Head coach Chandika Hathurusinghe had been dropping hints that this could happen even during the build-up to the series, stressing on Bangladesh's need for home wins in this World Test Championship cycle. It was a strong direction of the direction they want to take in Test cricket.

Bangladesh and Hathurusinghe aren't alone in this. India coach Rahul Dravid has similarly reasoned that the pressure of needing to maximise WTC points has led teams to prepare more result-oriented pitches.

Day one in Dhaka was reminiscent of Hathurusinghe's 2016 blueprint of raging turners at home. Bangladesh pulled off Test wins against England and Australia in Dhaka that season, but after the team lost to Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and West Indies between 2018 and 2021, the template came under criticism for being too one-dimensional. Russell Domingo, who coached Bangladesh from 2019 to 2022, oversaw a change to more sporting pitches in some series.

Hathurusinghe, interestingly, was in charge when Bangladesh beat Afghanistan by 546 runs in June, on a rare fast bowlers' pitch at the Shere Bangla National Stadium. That pitch, though, was prepared keeping in mind Afghanistan's perceived weakness against short bowling. It was also a non-WTC game, so they could take that chance.

After Wednesday's play against New Zealand, spin-bowling allrounder Mehidy Hasan Miraz said Bangladesh would have to maximise home advantage especially when WTC points are involved. This pitch, he suggested, wasn't impossible to bat on, particularly once the ball was more than 30 overs old.

"Sylhet had a slow pitch with some help for batters at first, and then for spinners," Mehidy said. "We are habituated with the Mirpur wicket. Whenever we play abroad, those teams take home advantage. We try to take it in Test cricket. If we can get these points in the WTC, we will be in a better position in the points table.

"It is slightly challenging for batters, but if they are committed to their shots, they can play. Batters have to take these responsibilities. The first 30 overs are challenging, but when the ball gets old, it gives the batters an opportunity. The ball doesn't do much when it gets old on this surface."

Mehidy, who took three wickets to help reduce New Zealand to 55 for 5 after Bangladesh were bowled out for 172, said he had tried to keep things simple. While speaking about the wicket of Kane Williamson, who was caught at short leg off a ball that turned and bounced sharply, Mehidy stressed on the importance of planting doubt in the batter's mind.

"It is important to keep things simple for bowlers," he said. "I tried to turn the ball in the first few overs. I tried to keep my spot knowing that the pitch will play its part.

"I didn't try anything big, but I just tried to confuse him [Williamson]. A confused batter is bound to make mistakes on this pitch. I wanted him to think which way to play against me. I tried to keep him under pressure. This dilemma often produces a wicket."

Mehidy made a distinction between red- and white-ball cricket when asked whether Bangladesh need to play on better batting surfaces at home.

"Players try to adjust to the conditions whether it's a good wicket or not," he said. "I think we can take these advantages in Tests, but we probably should play on better wickets in white-ball cricket.

"But look, if we can't bowl them out, it is hard for us to win. We usually bowl sides out after conceding a lot of runs in overseas Tests. I think it will take time for things to change."

What this template does to fast bowlers could be a big question going forward. Tim Southee and Kyle Jamieson bowled only 9.2 overs between them in Bangladesh's first innings, but they know it's a one-off for them. They will mostly play in conditions that aid fast bowling in some form. But for it's a cause for concern for Shoriful Islam, or Bangladesh's wider fast-bowling group.

Shoriful was Bangladesh's lone seamer in both Sylhet and Dhaka. He will go to New Zealand from here, where he has to bank on the memory of bowling on helpful conditions. Others like Hasan Mahmud, Mustafizur Rahman and Tanzim Hasan will go underprepared, without having built up a Test-match workload in the home season. In the past, the adjustment between minimal bowling in home Tests and shouldering a major burden overseas has cost Bangladesh's fast bowlers.

New Zealand hasn't said anything negative about the nature of the pitch, but that may be because their one press conference in this Test match so far involved a spinner, Mitchell Santner, who was playing his first Test in two-and-a-half years. Santner took 3 for 65 as the New Zealand spinners picked up eight of the ten Bangladesh wickets.

"That's the challenge when we come over to this part of the world," he said. "It does spin, and that's cool. It's good for us to come in and challenge ourselves on these kind of wickets, because when we go back home, we make green ones that can nip around.

"We know how good Bangladesh are at home, and they're very tough to beat in these conditions, and they showed in the first Test the blueprint of how to go about their work on these kind of surfaces."

If the unseasonal rain stays away from Dhaka, the second day could be decisive, and the match could be over on the third day. Either way, the Dhaka Test is unlikely to see a turnaround for batters, with the pitch only expected to get harder to bat on. It could put the venue under the match officials' radar too. The Shere Bangla National Stadium has incurred demerit points in the past.

Ultimately, the merits and demerits of a one-sided pitch are felt by the home side's decision-makers. If there is an advantage to be had, they will take it. Bangladesh aren't going to complain about Dhaka pitch - at least not until they see a flat one or a green one somewhere else in the world.

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