The Hathurusingha conflict | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 09, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, February 09, 2018

The Hathurusingha conflict

There is an inherent conflict in the current series between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Traditionally, Bangladesh cricket fans tend to be appreciative of and grateful towards foreign coaches who have enjoyed even moderate success during their time guiding the team. Mention the name Gordon Greenidge, and you will still hear fond memories about him overseeing the 1997 ICC Trophy win and the 1999 World Cup win over Pakistan. Dav Whatmore is perhaps most fondly remembered, giving Bangladesh their first taste of international success with the run to the second stage of the 2007 World Cup and beating India and South Africa along the way.

Yet the current Sri Lankan coach Chandika Hathurusingha, who till November 2017 was the Bangladesh head coach before leaving abruptly with nearly two years of his contract unfulfilled, already seems to have lost claim to the affections of the Bangladesh public, the media and arguably the players despite being the most successful Bangladesh coach of all time. Under him Bangladesh won 28 and lost 25 ODIs, including runs to the World Cup quarterfinal in 2015 and the Champions Trophy semifinal in 2017, and in between won home series against Pakistan, India and South Africa.

When he came in, Bangladesh had won just four of 83 Test matches. By the time he left, that number stood at 10 won out of 105 and among those six wins are historic triumphs against Australia and England at home and a rare away victory against Sri Lanka in Bangladesh's 100th Test in Colombo in March 2016. 

It will not be an unreasonable assertion to say that under Hathurusingha, Bangladesh cricket had truly reached heights that not many would have thought possible when he took over a struggling team in mid-2014. But after Bangladesh's 163-run win over Sri Lanka, the first time Hathurusingha's current team faced off against his former charges in their tri-series match on January 19, spectators in Mirpur could be overheard rejoicing in the win particularly because it was over the former coach, even as they lamented how he could have just left without saying anything.

Given how recently he left the Bangladesh post, the story of Sri Lanka's tour of Bangladesh was always going to be Hathurusingha returning with new troops to storm the castle that he helped build, but there has been a vehemence in the media's coverage especially when Bangladesh have done well, such as drawing the Chittagong Test on February 4. It is ultimately up to the public to judge whether such reactions are fair or unfounded, and perhaps a look back at the good and the bad of Hathurusingha's three-year tenure will help in doing that.

The repair job

It is not possible to overemphasise the extent of Bangladesh's despair in mid-2014 when Hathurusingha replaced Shane Jurgensen as coach. Not only were they losing every match in sight, even from winning positions, discipline was at an all-time low with now Test captain Shakib Al Hasan at the centre. Already in hot water for assaulting a spectator in Mirpur during an ODI against India in June—coincidentally Hathurusingha's first series as Bangladesh coach—Shakib, according to what Hathurusingha then told Bangladesh Cricket Board president Nazmul Hassan, threatened to quit ODIs and Tests when the coach asked him to return from the Caribbean Premier League earlier than the player had planned in order to join the national training camp. This communication with the president helped Hathurusingha draw a line in the sand against indiscipline, and the subsequent banning of Bangladesh's best and biggest player helped set an example of professionalism that would stand the Tigers in good stead.

Hathurusingha then let his strong suit—his planning and strategising ahead of a big series—shine with an extended pre-series camp in Australia before the 2015 World Cup. Although they lost all their warm-up matches, the team were primed for the conditions down under and won their first World Cup match against Afghanistan, but Hathurusingha's ambition was communicated loud and clear to the team when he admonished them for celebrating that opening win against a non-Test-playing nation with too much gusto. That admonishment carried the message of expanded expectations within the team, and that is possibly his most enduring gift to Bangladesh cricket. It helped buck a trend of being satisfied with too little.

Home wins bring focus on players

Already boasting a high quality core in ODI captain Mashrafe Bin Mortaza, Test skipper Mushfiqur Rahim, Mahmudullah Riyad, Tamim Iqbal and Shakib, the emergence of players like Soumya Sarkar, Sabbir Rahman and Mustafizur Rahman shaped Bangladesh into a force to be reckoned with at home. The resulting ODI series wins over India, Pakistan and South Africa in 2015 and a Test win over England in 2016—all unprecedented for Bangladesh—actually helped push the coach into the background as the public saw the heroic deeds from the players on the field of play. It also helped strengthen the notion that Hathurusingha had inherited a strong core and was further helped by the onset of a new generation of Bangladesh players.

Instead of recognising that trend, the BCB went the other way...

Chandika as selector: static player pool

Hathurusingha enjoyed a good relationship with the BCB president and in mid-2016 the unprecedented move of including him in the squad selection process can be identified as the point when things started to go sour. Coaches and captains are routinely involved in the selection of the 11 players that will take the field, but by being part of the squad selection process, Hathurusingha was placed clearly above the captains—a manifestation of his growing clout and what was increasingly seen as authoritarian tendencies within the dressing room.

More importantly, he did not stay in Bangladesh in between international assignments and so was not well-versed in domestic talent, which eventually resulted in a static player pool that was exposed on away tours of New Zealand and South Africa in 2017. It was an ill-conceived move by the BCB, but it was Hathurusingha who inevitably bore the brunt of the negative public perception. 

While it was commendable that he brought a tradition of giving all players equal focus during training, he did have his favourites as far as the selection process went. Soumya was brilliant in his early matches in 2015, but his form soon dipped because of his technical shortcomings. Hathurusingha's preference for opener Soumya was well known, but the coach's major failing was that he could not correct Soumya's issues, unlike what predecessor Jamie Siddons did earlier in the decade by moulding Shakib and Tamim into more complete batsmen.

His stubbornness in continuing to pick Soumya, despite repeated failures, had the effect of damaging Test number three Mominul Haque's confidence as picking a third opener in Imrul Kayes to give Soumya a safety net threatened Mominul's place and the batsman with the highest average in the team was dropped for the 100th Test in Sri Lanka after a short lean patch while Soumya continued playing regardless of irresponsible and inept batting.

Mashrafe's retirement, Mushfiqur's outburst

At the end of that Sri Lanka tour in April 2017, then T20I skipper Mashrafe announced his retirement from the format at the toss of the first of two T20Is. The suddenness of that decision hinted at emotion playing a part and it was rumoured that BCB boss Hasan and Hathurusingha wanted to look to the future in the shortest and least important format. There was nothing wrong with that outlook as Mashrafe was nearing the end of his career and was not likely to be around till the next World Twenty20. However, Mashrafe is a folk hero among cricket fans and thought to have played a role in his retirement, Hathurusingha's perception was dealt a body blow.

The players were not blameless. Some of the seniors, disturbed by the BCB handing the Sri Lankan so much power, spoke freely to the media off-the-record of their misgivings about the coach and that may have coloured the coverage. Mushfiqur went one better—on the first day of the second Test in Bloemfontein he complained about the “management” asking him to field on the boundary because they supposedly did not have confidence in his fielding abilities. After the innings defeat, Mushfiqur came out with this pearl: “The management gets the credit when the team wins, the captain gets the blame when we lose.”

Hathurusingha himself did not help matters during the tour of South Africa in September-October 2017 when he refused to talk to the media or give reasons for the team being hammered from pillar to post, even though as a squad selector and the coach he was best placed to answer the questions. Instead, the long-suffering captains in Mushfiqur and Mashrafe had to field the same questions over and over again, giving the impression that the powerful Hathurusingha had abandoned the team midway through the tour. The fact that he was later revealed to have quit midway through the tour indicated that that impression was not unfounded.

The manner of exit

Apart from an email to the BCB boss midway through the South Africa tour intimating his intention to quit his post, there was no communication between Hathurusingha and his former employers for almost a month. News then started to trickle in that he would take up the Sri Lankan job. This, after signing a new three-year contract with the BCB in June 2016. Also, he did not furnish the BCB with a tour report after a disastrous tour of South Africa. It was a highly unprofessional end for a coach who prided himself on professionalism, and it is a safe bet that the manner of his exit has played a part in the continued negative perception that has become a major sub-plot of the current series.

Sakeb Subhan is a sports journalist, The Daily Star.

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