For the Bangladesh Under-19 side, making the World Cup final was always the plan. Akbar Ali, their captain, said so in as many words before the tournament began and as the competition progressed, each game has vindicated them. Here’s a look at the steps they took since the last Under-19 World Cup.
The preparations
The plan to create a World Cup winning squad began a week after their quarter-final loss at the 2018 Under-19 World Cup. At the forefront of that was former Bangladesh captain Khaled Mahmud, then the technical director of cricket and now in charge of the country’s developmental system, who created a plan that went 24 months into the future. The first thing the team needed was more experience away from home. The second was a core group that stayed the same through the period.
“The main secret is we’ve played so much cricket,” Mahmud told ESPNcricinfo. “The BCB has arranged so many tours – England and New Zealand for starters. We played 30-plus games, won 18 of them.
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“We didn’t chop and change the squad for the last two years. From an Under-17 team in 2018, we selected a set of 20 players, from where we’ve picked the 15. Being together, they’ve matured and learnt their roles in depth.
“The switch happened last World Cup after realising that we were losing matches due to our inexperience in key moments. We didn’t bowl and bat well in the final overs. So when we appointed [former Sri Lanka batsman] Naveed Nawaz as the coach, we made foreign tours a priority. We made the board understand if we don’t play overseas, the team will be stuck at a level. The board said, ‘no, we’ll support you.'”
That strong Under-17 squad was the result of a paradigm shift in how the BCB has approached the sport in the past few years, going beyond the traditional cricketing centers in the country.
The process
Four years ago, the BCB made a plan to give the sport an equal footing in all 64 districts of the country. They organised tournaments across three levels – Under-14, Under-16 and Under-18 – to identify 45 players from each age group. Those 45 – a total of 135 players – were then split into three teams to take part in annual triangular tournaments. From the triangulars, the BCB handpicked a group of 15 that would receive a deeper focus.
“Now you see, most of our boys in the senior team are from the rural areas, like Mustafizur Rahman. Even in this Under-19 squad, there are just two boys from Dhaka,” Mahmud says. “Because of the way we are organising cricket at the Under-14, Under-16 levels, nobody gets lost in the system. Everyone is being tracked.
“Parents don’t need any convincing, they want their kids to play cricket – even in the rural areas. They think if their boy can play good cricket, he can earn good money just by domestic cricket, let alone international. Seeing Shakib [Al Hasan] and Tamim [Iqbal], parents know there’s a future. It’s helping us lose much lesser cricketers.”
Over the years, Bangladesh have been known as a unit that crumbles when the occasion is big. In 2018 alone, the senior team lost three finals, two of them on the last ball to India: the Asia Cup in Dubai and the Nidahas Tri-Series in Colombo. Not to forget that narrow one-run loss against India in the 2016 T20 World Cup. It happened once in the Under-19 level too, when in the Asia Cup final five months ago, Bangladesh had bowled India out for only 106 in a 50-over game and then crumbled for 101 in 33 overs. Mahmud acknowledges the problem and explains what’s different at this World Cup.
“Mental strength has come from two years’ practice,” he says. “If you see our batting, they are not batting hurriedly. When they get set, they know how to play when wickets are in hand, how to pace the innings. Even though they’ve won a lot of games, they have picked up lessons from their losses.
“In the top five, everyone is among the runs. Someday Tanzid Hasan will score, on other days Towhid Hridoy will score. Mahmudul Hasan had a lean run, but because we continued to back him, he delivered with a hundred in the semi-final.
“Even as a bowling unit, we have looked to not be one-dimensional. Fast bowling and legspin have been two key points in us coming forward. To play the top teams you need quality and varied bowlers, both with the new and the old ball. The boys have worked hard under Champaka Ramanayake, the Sri Lankan fast bowling coach at the academy. In four-five years, you’ll see a revolution in fast bowling.
“Because we couldn’t arrange a tour of South Africa in 2018 and 2019, we came to this country a month before the tournament. The bounce of the wickets was a bit high, so we took our time to get used to it. We played four practice games even before the warm-ups.”
The Bangladesh players and support staff celebrate with a victory jig ICC via Getty
The personnel
Strength and conditioning coach of the Under-19 team, Richard Stoinier, who has previously worked with the Afghanistan and Pakistan cricket boards, says: “The boys have had a lifestyle change. The one-percenters they’re doing, they’re willing to do it even when they’re not playing cricket. We’ve developed agility drills that athletes do in soccer and American football. They’ve become leaner and faster, getting closer to the global standards athletes in the west adhere to. They focus as much on recovery as they do on practice – it’s a total shift.”
Mahmud, however, believes what happens on the field makes up for only 50% of the team’s success. Off the field, the players have been taken care of by Bangladeshi members of the community. Overall, it’s a happy, satisfied environment in South Africa.
“I will give thanks to the management team – Shajul Chaudhary and Kawsar, our manager here,” Mahmud says. “The boys don’t want to eat steaks every day, so they have arranged food from outside. If you aren’t satisfied with what you’re eating then your mind won’t work. Some guys want rice and curries, so on most days we have arranged meals that will keep our boys happy.
“You need to play good cricket on the field, but off-the-field ethics are important. They are like their sons. They look after them like their children. When you’re abroad, you miss your family, you know Akbar suffered a loss in his family, but they mentally boosted him up.”
The road ahead
All those years of planning and preparation now boil down to one match – the final against defending champions India on Sunday. Reaching the final itself has been historic for Bangladesh. Mahmud says that players in the senior team have already gotten inspired by the juniors, irrespective of how the final turns out.
“For years we knew we aren’t any lesser than the big national teams, but now we have proof in the form of results,” he says. “As BCB, we have also learnt that if we give what the players need, they can do wonders.
“We can develop future teams from this template. The women’s team, other Under-19s, senior teams – each of them. Win or lose the final, we won’t let our successes be determined by one result on the cricket field.
“Even if they don’t win, I won’t be unhappy. You should see how the country got boosted by their performances. We are a very small country, with little facilities, and the way they have played their cricket, we are very happy.”