With Bangladesh on the brink of a major defeat on the fourth day of the one-off Test against Afghanistan last month, Shakib Al Hasan appeared at the press conference in Chattogram. It is unusual for a captain to do a press conference on day four but Shakib said at the onset that he came to protect his team-mates from the media heat. He didn't hold back about his own team's performance but it was the question that Bangladesh players need to play more domestic first-class cricket that really got him going. He muffled a laugh, and shot back, without letting the questioner finish.
"I haven't had a problem not playing the NCL for the last four or five years," Shakib said. "For each and every cricketer, we have to find out their exact issue - is it playing the NCL or not playing the NCL. There could be problem with both. Playing the NCL could be a problem. They get to play such easy bowling attacks that they rack up hundreds and double-hundreds. Some of them have four or five double-centuries, but they find it difficult to score four or five runs in international cricket. So you have to figure out what works for each individual. The same medicine isn't applicable for all."
Shakib was asked if better planning was required, and again, without letting the questioner finish, he broke into another smile, and replied rapidly. "There has to be a very big plan in place, and we all know about it. Look, when we play badly, these plans are talked about, but whenever we win, we stop these discussions," he said.
"They get to play such easy bowling attacks that they rack up hundreds and double-hundreds. Some of them have four or five double-centuries, but they find it difficult to score four or five runs in international cricket" Shakib on the level of competition in the NCL
Shakib didn't elaborate on those big plans, but his assessment about the National Cricket League (NCL), Bangladesh's first-class competition, was damning. The NCL's poor quality has been an open secret for two decades. Many players, coaches, selectors and administrators have privately talked about it but with this one quote, Shakib, Bangladesh's biggest name, has ripped the cover.
Now into its 21st season, which begins on Thursday, the tournament continues to be derided as "picnic cricket", a nickname dating back to its early years. It certainly won't be a great lead-in for the Tests against India in November, but it is the only place for long-form match practice for Tamim Iqbal, Mushfiqur Rahim and Mahmudullah. While Mushfiqur and Mahmudullah turn up regularly, Tamim last played four years ago. Most domestic first-class matches clash with Bangladesh's international schedule and the board often allows players to skip the NCL when they are free. The Dhaka Premier League (DPL) or Bangladesh Premier League (BPL), however, matters to the players and the board. Those tournaments have context. They produce better contests. And they have more money.
Among Bangladesh's current top players, only Mahmudullah has played more domestic first-class games than Tests, while Mushfiqur and Tamim have played roughly one-fourth of their career's long-form matches in domestic cricket. Shakib has played only 14 domestic first-class matches in the last 14 years.
Shakib may be questioned about his opinions considering his lack of interest in the NCL, but first-class cricket's quality in Bangladesh has long been a cause for major concern. Despite being contested among regions, players often don't find any context in the competition.
The points system, tweaked several times over the last decade, and pitches - always slow, low and flat - do not inspire sides to push for results. Fast bowlers can only bowl 15 overs per day, a stipulation put in place by the board several years ago to prevent injuries, which has led to even more dependency on pitches that either are featherbeds or have something for the spinners.
Selectors, as a result, don't feel interested in players' performance in the NCL, rather weighing them by their numbers in the DPL one-day competition and lately, the BPL.
There's very little money in first-class cricket in Bangladesh too. This season, the BCB will pay a Tier-1 cricketer match fees of BDT 35,000 (approx. US $415) and a combined daily and travel allowance of BDT 4,000 (approx. US $47). A player of similar quality earns on an average four times this amount in the Dhaka Premier League which has, for six decades, supported professional cricket in the country. The BPL, meanwhile, like most franchise T20 leagues, pays excellently. Bangladesh's first-class wages don't even fall in the same ballpark as neighbours India - run by the richest board in the world - where a domestic player earns at least INR 35,000 (approx. US $492) per day in the XI, and INR 17,500 (approx. US 246) per day as a reserve.
"The Dhaka Premier League (DPL) or Bangladesh Premier League (BPL), however, matters to the players and the board. Those tournaments have context. They produce better contests. And they have more money"
Since it is the BCB that pays the players, and gives complete financial backing to these first-class teams, the divisional bodies have very little at stake in the NCL. The players and coaches have to ensure that despite the complete lack of facilities, they make the best of it.
Due to their initial success in the NCL, Rajshahi has a culture of pre-season training. But most of the other teams are only realising its importance now. Even then, most of the eight first-class teams only hold a three- or five-day camps before a grueling tournament. There's no real effort to improve the competition.
The belated announcement last month that all first-class cricketers must hit a score of 11 on their beep test was a reflection of poor planning. To attain a higher fitness standard, the divisional sides - players, coaches and trainers - should have been informed at least three months in advance so that they had enough time to have a proper fitness regime and diet in place. Instead, top performers like Tushar Imran, Abdur Razzak and Mohammad Sharif couldn't pass their fitness tests given such a short window.
One of the inherent weaknesses of the NCL is how it is set up. The BCB follows a regional model which doesn't quite work in Bangladesh's economic or demographic reality.
Theoretically, Dhaka Metropolis is so well equipped with facilities that it should trounce all the others. Chittagong and Sylhet are also wealthy regions while divisions such as Dhaka (made up of cricketers from all districts of the division except the capital city), Rajshahi, Rangpur, Khulna and Barisal have had to solely rely on talent.
And yet Dhaka Metropolis, Chittagong and Sylhet have been the worst performing sides in the competition's history, despite being the richest. Instead, it is the more impoverished northern parts of the country, like Rajshahi and Rangpur, that have picked up seven trophies between them. Khulna, by dint of a wide array of talented players, have also become a strong side in recent years, though it doesn't have much facilities centrally. Dhaka Division too did well in the mid-2000s, but has slowed down in recent times.
Chittagong and Sylhet spent several years without winning a single match. Sylhet, through efforts from senior cricketers like Rajin Saleh and Alok Kapali, have become a little better in the last couple of years. Chittagong, despite winning the competition's inaugural edition and having a culture that produced players like Minhajul Abedin, Akram Khan and his nephews Nafees and Tamim Iqbal, as well as Aftab Ahmed and Nizamuddin, is a poor cricket centre.
Perhaps the reason for Dhaka Metropolis, Chittagong and Sylhet's performance in first-class cricket is that they do not really need to do well in it. They still get to host international and BPL matches regularly, while other areas like Rajshahi, Rangpur and Barisal can barely dream of even a tour game.
These regions will always have limitations with the way the BCB is. The Dhaka clubs outnumber and have far more clout and representation in the board than the rest of the country. The economic setup of Bangladesh also dictates the direction of cricket talent. A division or district is only equipped to fully run a few age-group teams, after which cricketers use the BCB development system or the Dhaka leagues to become better, and ready for national call-ups.
The introduction of first-class cricket was one of the BCB's main mandates when the ICC sent observers before giving Bangladesh Test status in 2000. They were convinced by the big crowds in domestic matches, and the BCB hoped that the wave of cricket's popularity will improve first-class cricket. But as they close up two decades of their Test status, Bangladesh's first-class scene reflects almost exactly how its Test side has performed.
The BCB's age-group system works well but only one of its three domestic competitions is producing anything close to finished cricketers. Now that the ICC World Test Championship is a reality, how long can the BCB afford to ignore the first-class scene?