As soon as you type ‘Mushf’ in the YouTube search bar, the autocomplete algorithm offers a few prompts: “Mushfiqur Rahim celebration against India”, “Mushfiqur Rahim nagin dance” and “Mushfiqur Rahim early celebration”. These search-prompts say more about us and less about Mushfiqur Rahim. But first, a brief digression on how the autocomplete algorithm works. This feature is predictive, not suggestive. Which is to say it tries to anticipate what we are looking for based on common searches or trends and not simply give random suggestions.
So what do those Mushfiqur prompts say about us? That for a very significant number of people looking him up on YouTube, Mushfiqur, one of the most watchable batsmen in world cricket at the moment, is more a tragicomic figure who starts celebrating wildly, as he did against India in the World T20 in 2016, even before his team has crossed the line. It underlines that we tend to ignore his great knocks and spectacular shotmaking and pick that one minor error of judgment for kicks. To a less degree, YouTube’s predictions also say something about Mushfiqur, too. That he is an emotional man, who wears his heart on his sleeve at all times.
Now hit the third prompt, “Mushfiqur Rahim nagin dance”. Among the top results is a video from the Nidahas Trophy 2018. Bangladesh have just defeated hosts Sri Lanka and whole team and the support staff assemble on the pitch and break into what looks like a rehearsed jig, with their hands on the forehead like a spectacled cobra’s hood. In this boisterous bunch, there’s one character more ebullient than the rest. Mushfiqur is vigorously swaying the body as if shock waves are passing through him. A few days later, Bangladesh go down to India in the final in a last-ball finish, triggering many Sri Lankans in the stands to do a snake dance in response. Of all those renditions of the snake dance, only Mushfiqur’s becomes a meme.
In their 2019 World Cup squad, Bangladesh have five senior players who have been serving the team for more than a decade. Their inspirational skipper Mashrafe bin Mortaza, the coolest head in the dressing room; Shakib Al Hasan, somewhat aloof but the best cricketer Bangladesh has produced; the likable Tamim Iqbal, BD’s most prolific batsman; the self-effacing Mahmudullah Riyad, the biggest big-stage player in the country. And Mushfiqur.
It’s difficult to describe him through a superlative. He is a really talented batsman, but Tamim is better. He is a clutch player, but Mahmudullah is perhaps more impactful. A good all-rounder, but nowhere in Shakib’s league. He is not even the best wicketkeeper in the squad (Liton Das is). Yet one description fits him like a glove. Mushfiqur embodies his team more than any other cricketer. His passion for the game and his expressiveness makes him, in the eyes of a neutral, the most Bangladeshi of all cricketers.
Mushfiqur Rahim was born in the northern district of Bogra in 1987, just a year after Bangladesh played their first One-Day International. In fact, all the above-mentioned famous five of this Bangladesh team were all born within a few years of each other. In that sense, they are perhaps Bangladesh cricket’s Midnight’s Children. Their rise has mirrored the growth of the game in their country. And Mushfiqur is the Salim Sinai of that lot.
Usually in the hierarchy of cricket, age-group cricket comes before the international game. For the diminutive Mushfiqur, it was the other way round. At 17, he captained Bangladesh to a quarterfinal finish at the 2006 Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka. Before that, at 16, he had made his Test debut, at Lord’s in 2005, shortly after their maiden Test victory. Now, the home of cricket can be an intimidating venue for anyone, but more so for a South Asian cricketer. The history, the slope and the claps can induce awe in even the most blase of batsmen. And the English conditions and the swinging Dukes can sow the seeds of doubt in the most assured of minds. Teenaged Mushfiqur was as nonchalant as they come despite the chaos around him. As the story goes, he even told Mohammad Rafique, 17 years his senior and a competent batsman, to watch and play the ball as late as possible to counter the swing.
For most Indian fans of this generation, Bangladesh came on our collective radar on March 17, 2007. The Men in Blue were facing them in Port of Spain. Now, Bangladesh had caused upsets before. They had even beaten India once. But the Tigers were still cubs, and this was a full-strength Indian team at the World Cup. On that day, however, Mashrafe, Tamim, Shakib and Mushfiqur all played crucial roles in that famous win. Mashrafe blew away India’s formidable top order, and Tamim, Shakib and Mushfiqur all hit fifties in the small but tricky chase. And it was Mushfiqur who cover drove Munaf Patel for arguably the most important run in Bangladesh cricket’s history: the 192nd that put them in the Super Eight stage, at the expense of the Indian team. World Cup cricket would never be the same again.
For the major part of its history, Bangladesh cricket has been about trials and tribulations interspersed with fleeting moments of joy. For every Port of Spain, there have been countless humiliating defeats, and many — more excruciating — close ones. None more painful in recent times than the World T20 loss to India in Bangalore in 2016. While he should have been defined by that 192nd run in Port of Spain, Mushfiqur has come to be associated with the winning runs that he didn’t hit.
With a quarterfinal spot on the line, Mushfiqur, smashed Hardik Pandya for consecutive fours to bring the equation down to three runs from three balls. The second of those two shots was where, having executed a delectable scoop between the keeper and the short fine leg fielder, Mushfiqur pumped his fists excitedly in Pandya’s face — celebrations that would come to haunt him later. With three required of three balls, Mushfiqur went for the glory shot but was caught at deep mid-wicket. In the next two balls, Bangladesh lost two more wickets to crash out of the tournament. The Bangladeshis walked about looking ashen-faced, struggling to grasp what had befallen them. Mushfiqur was inconsolable.
Days after that match, having endured trolling on social media, he found some solace in India’s misfortune. “This is happiness,” he wrote on Twitter in a post littered with exclamation marks and inundated with emojis after India’s defeat to West India in the semifinal. The backlash to this very public expression of schadenfreude was prompt and vicious, and he soon deleted the post.
Courtesy the internet, that defeat will remain a festering wound. Till, Mushfiqur, at some stage, in some other match of similar importance, finds personal closure.
“If there’s a chance, we want to play again against India,” Mushfiqur said long after that nightmare under lights in Bangalore. “We needed two runs. We didn’t do it, because I and Riyad (Mahmudullah) bhai were out at crucial stage. That match will not be back, but such a situation may come later. Then, of course, I’ll try, I’ll take the challenge.”
Interestingly, the team he says he loves to beat is not India but Sri Lanka. For a very long time, Bangladesh played against India only infrequently as it wasn’t financially a very lucrative engagement for the BCCI. Sri Lanka would fill in that gap. As a student of history (he is pursuing M.Phil in the subject), he remembers all painful lessons the islanders have taught them over the years.
“We have suffered at their hands for long. Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Dilshan would punish us. Sangakkara made two or three double centuries against us. He has a triple century. And, as a wicketkeeper, I have experienced it more intimately than others. So I try to give them the message that you are suffering this today because you made us suffer yesterday.”
Mushfiqur represents everything that is so fascinating about Bangladesh: their passion for cricket, the emotional investment in the national team and their very vocal — and just — need to be respected as equals in international cricket. This is not unlike the India of late 80s, 90s and even early aughts — though the sentiments here are amplified — when the wins were fewer than the losses, every celebration of the opposition was personal slight (Andrew Flintoff-Sourav Ganguly), and every controversial decision against the team an international conspiracy (Mike Denness-Sachin Tendulkar).
Bangladeshis still remember the no-ball reprieve against Rohit Sharma in the 2015 World Cup — it’s a thorn in their sides. They also talk about the ban on pacer Taskin Ahmed, whose action was deemed illegal midway through the 2016 World T20, ahead of the India match. Which partly explains why it was such an emotionally charged match of the Tigers.
Mushfiqur has the skills of an international cricketer and the heart of a fan. The fan in him doesn’t always work to the detriment of his cricket. It also urges him to improve his game all the time.
“Mushfiqur is so passionate, so dedicated and highly talented player,” says Dhaka-based cricket journalist and author Rana Abbas. “He is a fighter. Shakib, Tamim are also great batsmen, but when Mushi is out there in the middle, he is trust and reliability personified. He never skips an optional practice, and doesn’t take any game lightly — be it domestic or international cricket.”
His honest and occasionally emotional outbursts have meant he doesn’t lead the side anymore. He was relieved of the limited-overs leadership after frequently clashing with the selectors and speaking his mind in press conferences. And he stepped down from Test captaincy when he realised, in the middle of a series, he wasn’t up to it. Of course, he regretted the spur-of-the-moment decision later.
“I did express my emotions sometimes but I still believe that you won’t be able to achieve anything if you do not have emotion…if you don’t have passion,” he says in the book ‘Adhinayak’. “I realised the difference between genuine emotion and professional emotion. At times, despite your will, you have to act and I can’t do that.”
(This was originally published during the ICC World Cup on May 25, 2019)