England’s Bangladesh debutants hope to fare better than unlikely 2003 trio
The cricketing challenge of Chittagong has increased as the cricketers of Bangladesh have improved and become more worldly wise.
Alastair Cook, contemplating the prospect of seven Tests in 62 days, has spoken of a “mountain to climb” – a fair analogy given the prospect of turning pitches in India and the twitching fingers of Ravi Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. In which case England are currently in the foothills as they begin their expedition in Chittagong.
This is England’s third Test here and their second in this stadium. The start of this campaign, however gruelling it may be, must trigger great anticipation and hope, especially among those new to Test cricket. Like the glorious sight of fresh snow on a winter’s morning nothing has been sullied yet. Optimism abounds.
The cricketing challenge of Chittagong has increased as the cricketers of Bangladesh have improved and become more worldly wise. But still it is not a bad place to start. Life will be more taxing in India but here the sun is just as hot; the pitch is dry and brown. For the newcomers a whole new world is opening up; there is the prospect of a life-changing international future.
But there are no guarantees in this job. Back in 2003 when England won here by 329 runs on their first Test trip to Bangladesh it was a little different in Chittagong. There was green, tufty grass on the pitch, England’s seamers took all the wickets and their solitary spinner, Ashley Giles, bowled only seven overs in the match. For the three novices in the team there must have been hopes of a burgeoning England career.
Martin Saggers of Kent was given his first cap here, albeit at 31. He was brought into the team in place of Gareth Batty, who had made his debut the week before in the first Test in Dhaka. Richard Johnson, then of Somerset and 28 years old, was playing his second Test match. So too was Rikki Clarke, who was 22, a precocious talent at Surrey and potentially more than just a Flintoff understudy for England.
For all three it went swimmingly. Saggers, a late-developing swing bowler, took three cheap wickets and on the last day took a staggering one-handed catch at fine-leg, which must have been a career best. Johnson, who could swing the ball late, took nine for 93 in the match. Clarke, as well as taking three for 11, contributed an important 55 – and it must have been a tricky pitch since Nasser Hussain described his six-hour 76 in the first innings as one of the best knocks of his career, an opinion hard to verify since even those at the ground could hardly bear to watch it in its entirety.
All three must have had high hopes of a substantial England career. But this is a cautionary tale. Saggers played two more Tests – against New Zealand in 2004 – after which, to his mild consternation, he was never selected again. He is now established as a first- class umpire. For Johnson there was one more Test in Galle, leaving him with an impressive tally of 16 Test wickets at 17 apiece. His body was always a little fragile, which meant he sometimes seemed happier talking about the theory of bowling rather than doing it.
Now Johnson can talk as much as he likes about the art of away-swing, which on his day he often mastered, since he is the much-respected bowling coach at Middlesex, who has the confidence of Steven Finn and the other pacemen at Lord’s. Most exasperating, perhaps, is the case of Clarke, who is still playing for Warwickshire.
His talent was obvious. Arthur Milton, one of the sagest observers of the game, would often reach a conclusion about a cricketer simply by watching him in the field. By this yardstick Clarke had massive potential. Even at 22 his ability to catch effortlessly at second slip had propelled him into the cordon for England. He hit the ball hard and when bowling he hit the bat hard. Sometimes he still does.
But there were no more Tests for Clarke and just a few forgettable ODIs, which is hard to explain. Duncan Fletcher, as England coach, drew his conclusions and he was not a man to change his mind. Moreover Clarke lost his way. He had a lucrative contract at Surrey that was seldom justified, then misguidedly headed off to Derbyshire before ending up at Edgbaston where he has played his most consistent cricket.
England’s fresh faces in Chittagong in 2016 – who could number as many as three if Ben Duckett, Haseeb Hameed and Zafar Ansari all get the nod on Thursday morning – will be hoping for rather more from their international careers.
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