Rafique's role as standard bearer for Bangladesh

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The Independent Online

Bangladesh's cricketers are friendly, excited and maybe a touch overawed by the attention. It is utterly off-limits, however, to ask them if they should be here, or indeed anywhere, playing Test matches.

Bangladesh's cricketers are friendly, excited and maybe a touch overawed by the attention. It is utterly off-limits, however, to ask them if they should be here, or indeed anywhere, playing Test matches.

Gentle enquiries on this theme are prohibited, to the extent that questions to the Beckhams about their dom-estic harmony would be welcome by comparison. This restriction is particularly unfortunate, because it can lead only to speculation about what the answer might be.

Since there is more chance of the Beckhams confessing all, whatever that might be, than of Bangladesh being excluded from playing Test cricket, they can afford to be more candid. But with Mohammad Rafique the topic only got as far as a shrug of the shoulders from the team interpreter, recognising that he was about to be barred from putting the question by the nearby public relations chap.

Rafique offered the party line on how tough he had found it to play at international level. "Bangladesh are becoming better and I don't find it as hard as it was. A lot of teams struggled initially, like Sri Lanka, for instance. We're improving a lot, and there are many young players coming through who will take us further." It was possible to wonder in which type of spin he has received more coaching.

Last month Rafique was named as Bangladesh's first Player of the Year. The citation seemed to indicate that this was as much for the startling emergence of his batting as for his orthodox slow left-arm bowling. He had reached 30 only once in 19 Test innings when he scored a century in St Lucia last June. True, he went in with Bangladesh having reached the rare riches of 250 for 7, but he became only the 13th player in Tests to score a century batting at nine.

But his bowling also advan-ced. He was prominent in Bangladesh's seminal Test victory earlier this year with first-innings performances of 69 and 5 for 36 (all right, it was only against Zimbabwe, but the team craved any victory after 31 defeats and three charmed draws in their first 34 matches).

Rafique has always been on the right side of adequate as a left-arm spinner. He has played in half of the country's Tests, including the first, and he started his one-day career in the mid-Nineties on their return to limited-overs matches after a five-year gap. It is not wholly misplaced to judge his quality by the stature of his inaugural Test wicket, Rahul Dravid.

His victims have also included Brian Lara, and he caused some embarrassment for England by dismissing each member of their top five at least once in the two Test matches between the teams the winter before last. As a bowler he does the simple things well, and although it would be silly to make outlandish claims, only Sanath Jayasuriya has taken his wickets for fewer runs among left-arm spinners since Rafique made his debut.

This tour excites him as it clearly excites all the party. Playing at Lord's on Thursday week will be the achievement of an ambition that would never have formed but for the International Cricket Council's decision to give Bangladesh Test status five years ago.

Rafique remembered it coming in the wake of the unexpected victory against Pakistan in the 1999 World Cup. He played in that match and suggested that it changed things forever. "Soccer was more popular in Bangladesh and more people played it than cricket," he said. "I was a soccer player first and foremost and used to play some street cricket with my friends from the village.

"The ICC Trophy was held in the country in 1997 and that helped to make cricket really popular with the ordinary people. But then came the World Cup win and the fact that we became a Test-playing nation after that."

The irony will never disappear that Bangladesh's application for Test status was given an enormous fillip by a World Cup victory over Pakistan the probity of which was subject to serious doubts. This subject is also off-limits.

Rafique is not the first sub-continental cricketer to be discovered playing in the street. Thrust into a second-division club team, he began as a left-arm seamer (as did Ashley Giles). He tried spin on the advice of Wasim Haider, the former Pakistan one-day player, and was shortly after in the Bangladesh squad, which he has never been out of since.

He turns 35 today, although he hardly looks it. He comes from a middle-class family, with a brother in the garment trade. There were no bold claims about how well they can do against England. Instead, there was an edge of realism. "We have come from a very hot place and England is very cold and that will make a difference," said Mohammad Rafique.

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