Nihal Koshie tracks down Mohammad Ashraful running a Chinese eatery, as the poster-boy of Bangladesh cricket picks up the pieces of a career that went rogue as he slipped down the slopes of match-fixing
Rankin Street in Old Dhaka is not the easiest to locate for an outsider and even more daunting if you don’t speak the local language. It is one among a series of inter-connected alleys, one not too dissimilar from its parallel next. If you can’t read Bengali, the signboards are pretty much useless. You can get lost and giddy in this maze of poorly-lit alleyways.
The address looks fairly simple: Schezwan Garden, 1/1, Rankin Street, Wari. Should be easy to spot, given the snail’s pace at which you move through evening traffic from Mirpur to Dhaka to reach the periphery of the Bangabandhu Stadium. Or so you believe. The address is lost in pronunciation.
A man on the street, another at the tea stall and the entire pack of rickshawalas can’t pick up my accent. I fail to understand theirs and none of the directions they try to give me as their patience begins to wear thin.
I call the owner of the Chinese restaurant. The appointment’s for 6:30 pm, it’s already 7, and there is an overwhelming sense of being lost. “Don’t go by the address. Just tell a Bangladesh person you want to go to the Ashraful restaurant,” the voice on the line says.
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The man on the scooter, scowling a few minutes ago, breaks into a smile. “Ashraful restaurant? Why didn’t you tell me earlier? I will take you there,” he offers congenially, pointing to his two-wheeler.
Schezwan Garden seems a popular joint. Business is just picking up on a Monday evening. The flat television on the first floor is beaming images of the toss before the World T20 match between Sri Lanka and The Netherlands. Mohammad Ashraful is on a couch in one dimly lit corner with one eye on the game while talking on the phone.
Since being asked by the Bangladesh Cricket Board ‘to stay away from any form of cricket’ after admitting to alleged ‘match-fixing and spot-fixing’ in the second edition of the Bangladesh Premier League, Ashraful is at this restaurant every other evening. He trains four times a week in Gulshan, is part of a morning radio show and appears on a panel of experts for television on the eve of Bangladesh games.
“I keep myself busy these days. I am hoping to get married soon. My family is looking for a girl,” he says. No girlfriend? Ashraful blushes.
The 29-year-old shrugs and changes tack. “I was too busy playing cricket all these years. But since I have more time on my hands now I could go to Haj.” The pilgrimage or the beard he sports is not a sign of some new-found faith in God, he insists. “I was always religious, but because of my cricket schedule, I could not dedicate as much time as I wanted to God,” he adds.
Since shattering the faith of the nation by admitting to being involved in tanking a match when leading Dhaka Gladiators against Chittagong Kings, the original boy-wonder of Bangladesh has found “inner peace”.
On arrival from a tour of Zimbabwe, Ashraful was questioned by the International Cricket Council’s Anti-Corruption and Security Unit regarding the February 2, 2013 match, were the Gladiators finished at 88 for 8 in 20 overs chasing 142.
“Initially, for the first one hour of questioning, I denied everything,” he says. “But then a simple thought came to my mind. I knew that I would be banned or stopped from playing cricket. So I thought to myself, ‘Why should I lie and then be banned? I’d rather tell the truth, admit I did wrong and then get banned.’ All over the world, those who have been allegedly involved in fixing have never admitted to being involved. Hansie Cronje is an exception but he also admitted only later. I didn’t want to lie. Bangladesh cricket had given me everything. I am loved by the people, the fans and was popular. I didn’t want to lie and let them down again,” Ashraful says.
A combination of factors had gotten Ashraful to veer towards the wrong bend. His stock was on the decline. He wasn’t picked for Bangladesh after the previous edition of the World T20. Ashraful had learnt to deal with the disappointment and insecurity that come with being in and out of the team since being removed as skipper, after the World T20 in 2009.
But what he wasn’t prepared for, was the complete loss of form in domestic cricket in 2012.
He never had lived up to the expectations around him that exploded after he made a Test century on debut against Sri Lanka in 2001 as a 17-year-old and changed the profile of the sport in a country obsessed with football. For a country eager to latch onto anyone remotely talented and push him into a superstar’s orbit, Ashraful’s prodigious entry into cricket had been nothing short of a phenomenon. Yet, now he was facing unprecedented failure against bowlers he could’ve smashed in his sleep. He made 110 runs in 10 innings, his worst domestic season ever.
The timing of this horrid run was worse because it was right before the auction for the second season of the Bangladesh Premier League.
Before the Tamim Iqbals, Mashrafe Mortazas and Shakib Al-Hassans became darlings of the sponsors, fans and team owners, it was Ashraful on whom the whole of Bangladesh had pinned its hopes and piled its expectations.
Now, everyone had rapidly fallen out of love with him.
Fearing that he would not be bought at the auction, Ashraful called up a few owners and some of his former team-mates. “Frankly, I felt unwanted. Nobody showed interest in me. I hadn’t scored runs, even in domestic matches. The future looked bleak,” Ashraful said.
Fortunately for him, the Dhaka Gladiators successfully bid 48 lakh taka for Ashraful. It came as a relief that he would play in the BPL, but his value as a player had plummeted.
In the first season he had been bought for 1 crore and 60 lakh taka by the Gladiators. Of this amount, he was paid only 86 lakh taka. Of the 48 lakh taka he was to be given in the second season, he received only 15 per cent. But at least, he had not become not a BPL outcast. However, he felt indebted to the Dhaka Gladiators and its owner for not falling off the radar.
“Before the auction I got the feeling that nobody wanted me in their team. So when Dhaka bought me, I felt that they had done me a big favour,” Ashraful says ruefully.
So when pressure came from all quarters within the team to under-perform in the last league game, Ashraful says he gave in because he felt indebted. “I was offered 10 lakh taka to ensure Chittagong wins,” he says.
But he is quick to add that more than the lure of money, it was the ‘huge debt’ he owed the Dhaka Gladiators for picking him that compelled him to say ‘yes’ and not ‘no’.
“I resisted the initial offers but beyond a point, I couldn’t. It was the only time I wasn’t honest,” he says.
Ashraful cites the example of the offer from the now-defunct Indian Cricket League to show that he was had never been tempted by money in the past. “I was offered a contract of 15 crore taka by the ICL. I didn’t take it up because people in Bangladesh would think that I went to play for money. My father told me at that point ‘whatever we have, is more than enough. Don’t go chasing money. The fans love you for your cricket and not money’. It made sense to me,” Ashraful adds.
His career can be broadly divided into three phases – before becoming captain, captaincy and post-captaincy.
During all three periods, Ashraful had to deal with the failure of living up to expectations.
He was named full-time skipper of the Bangladesh team after the 50-over World Cup in 2007. “We lost a few players to the ICL, including Alok Kapali, Dhiman Ghosh, Farhad Reza. Plus, senior players like Habibul Bashar, Khaled Mashud retired. I was in my 20s, the team was in a rebuilding phase. It was tougher being captain because I was scoring runs but not enough to lead from the front. I feel I could have done much more as Bangladesh skipper. It was my dream to lead the national team.”
For someone referred to as the Tendulkar of Bangladesh, the feeling of not being able to fulfill the grand future predicted for him is the common thread running through Ashraful’s career. It began with his debut century in 2001.
“My life changed after that knock against Sri Lanka. The innings gave me belief. I was 17 years, 63 days old. I felt that it was just the start of a bright future for me and Bangladesh cricket. But it didn’t work out like that,” he rues.
He scored his next Test century in 2004, after 22 Tests and more than three years after his knock at the Sinhalese Sports Club. The unbeaten 158 against India at Chittagong couldn’t have come sooner.
“Every time I walked out to bat there was pressure on me to score a hundred. If I was out cheaply, no matter if others had scored more runs, my photo would be the lead in newspapers. No matter what, whether we played well or badly, lost or won, at that point in time, Bangladesh cricket was ‘Ashraful’.”
He set high standards for himself and when he failed to achieve them he was left frustrated. “I am also to blame because I too wanted to score a hundred in every match.”
The selectors also made him play as much as possible. He played Tests, ODIs, in the Under-19 World Cup and for Bangladesh ‘A’ after his debut.
In the first three years after his debut, he spent hardly one month at home. “I wish there was someone to guide me. I am someone who cannot say ‘no’. On the field I was aggressive but off it I was mild-mannered. So I played continuously. I didn’t have time to breathe, let alone study my game, and see that I was doing wrong.”
A One-Day International average of just over 22 with three hundreds and a Test average of 24 with six hundreds, four of them against Sri Lanka, points to a career that remains unfulfilled.
Of these centuries, the last one was 190 versus Sri Lanka at Galle in March of last year. Ashraful batted for nearly 500 minutes and faced 417 balls. He had developed patience and figured the art of batting for long periods in a Test match. Coming as it did after a blitzkrieg of a century in the BPL, it was believed that he was finally batting with the maturity that is expected of a cricketer with his kind of experience.
He was fortunate to be part of that Test squad after 15 months because he was picked only as a replacement for an injured Shahriar Nafees. The comeback lasted another three Tests. By the time Bangladesh’s tour to Zimbabwe had ended, the anti-corruption officers had leads into corruption during the BPL held earlier in the year.
The customers at Schezwan Garden give Ashraful a knowing glance as he leaves the private seating floor and enters the restaurant below. By this time Sri Lanka have bowled out The Netherlands by nine wickets and with 90 balls to spare in the World T20 match.
“Only Sri Lanka can do this. They have bowlers with so many variations. I am happy that I have scored hundreds against Muralitharan and Malinga,” he says dreamily into the television.
His childhood friends, with whom he has played age-group cricket, are Ashraful’s business partners. None of them scaled the dizzy heights as Ashraful, but when he tripped and fell, they formed the safety net. They sit around him at the dinner table and recall stories of Ashraful bunking his exams to play cricket. On one occasion, he returned home after a match but his father caught the bluff because his classmates were still writing their exams at school.
At 29, Ashraful claims he still has the school-boy passion for the game. “I hope I get another chance to play for Bangladesh. I have earned so much love from the fans but I have not given them the joy and happiness they deserve. I have admitted that I was corrupt during the BPL. I hope fans forgive me and I get another chance to start with a clean slate.”