How Bangladesh is finding and developing its talent
"If it wasn't for my brother Poltu, I wouldn't have reached this stage today," Mustafizur Rahman told a packed press conference room after leading Bangladesh to their first win over India in three years on his ODI debut.
Whenever there was a trial, a training camp or a match in Satkhira, the district town in south-west Bangladesh, 38km from their village, Tetulia, Poltu would drive his younger brother there and back on his motorcycle. After two years of being ferried around, in 2013, Mustafizur made it to Dhaka through an age-level pace-bowling clinic.
Among the 13 Test debutants Bangladesh have had in the last two years, only Taskin Ahmed is from Dhaka. The rest are from smaller towns such as Jamalpur, Narayanganj, Satkhira, Dinajpur, Rangpur and Mymensingh, or divisional headquarters like Rajshahi, Khulna and Barisal. More than ever before, Bangladesh's cricketers now come from every corner of the country.
Bangladesh's population of 164 million is a hindrance in almost every aspect of its economy and society. Geographically the country is roughly the size of the Indian state of Odisha, which means its population density is more than twice that of India.
But when it comes to cricket, the population is a distinct advantage. The love and interest for the game, and the national team's recent success, has triggered a deluge of cricketers from across the country. Small towns and villages are now the prime producers of talents like Mustafizur, Mehidy Hasan and Mosaddek Hossain.
Mustafizur's path to the Bangladesh team from the fringes of the country's south-west was described by many as a fairy tale. But in reality, it was a triumph of the system - the Bangladesh Cricket Board's development programme and a robust talent-scouting network across the country.
The board's game development committee is headed by chairman Khaled Mahmud, the former Bangladesh captain, and there's a separate high-performance unit, run by Mahbubul Anam, the board's vice-president.
In the last ten years, the development programme has expanded to every district. At this level, the target is to create opportunities for all interested young players. After age verification through medical testing, teams are formed to play in the inter-district competitions (on matting wickets). The players then go on to to age-level divisional tournaments (played on natural turf) - two-day games for U-14 and U-16 and three-day games for U-18s.
There's also a three-team challenger series, a relatively new competition that features three-day matches, played by the best age-group cricketers in the country.
When debutant Mosaddek Hossain came to the crease at No. 8 in the first innings of the Colombo Test in March this year, Bangladesh were still 48 runs adrift of Sri Lanka's first-innings total. Facing Rangana Herath, who had taken nine wickets in the previous Test, Mosaddek used his feet to drive through the covers and then made room by skipping towards leg side to loft the ball over long-off.
Then in the second innings, towards the end of Bangladesh's tricky chase, Mosaddek stepped out and slammed Herath again, this time over cover. One man who was not surprised at the 21-year-old's confidence against one of the top-ranked spinners in the world was Nazmul Abedeen Fahim, the BCB's high performance manager. He believes that the path Mosaddek took - from his formative years in Mymensingh through the age-group system, then domestic cricket and into the international arena - helped him gain the ability to easily adapt to the match situation.
Fahim, regarded as one of the most influential coaches in Bangladesh in the last two decades, says that nowadays Bangladeshi coaches are instructed to find "impact" players.
"Mosaddek absorbs what's around him very quickly," Fahim said to ESPNcricinfo. "He is comfortable with his environment. Not many players can do this. He dissolves himself into the contest. It is rare to see a player like Mosaddek, who takes so much responsibility. We look for impact players, not the one who scores the most runs or takes most wickets."
Mosaddek came through the ranks in the age-group system, becoming an U-19 star before blazing a trail in domestic cricket. He starred for Abahani Limited, the country's most successful cricket club, in the 2016 Dhaka Premier League, and struck three first-class double-hundreds before making his international debut in 2016.
Fahim notes a similar attitude in Mehidy, who burst onto the international scene against England last year. Not long after Mehidy started training under Sheikh Salahuddin in Khulna, he was made captain at different age levels.
"Local coaches in Bangladesh now realise what type of cricketers are required at the international level," says Fahim. "Nazmul Hossain and Mosaddek are similar to Miraz [Mehidy] - they have the attitude and personality to play at the top level.
"These characteristics are being recognised, apart from players who are fearless, take ownership and are independent. We are encouraging the players' freedom of expression. They will know what to do and how to prepare for it."
Among these players, Mustafizur was a late developer, having to travel out of his village to get recognition.
Mufassinul Islam Topu, head coach of Satkhira district, saw Mustafizur playing in the town around 2011-12. "He came to our U-14 camp after a regional tournament, and straightaway I understood we had something special on our hands."
"We are mainly focused on finding players to push to the next level. The ultimate goal is to find a talent who can represent Bangladesh. That isn't possible every day, but I try to make sure that everybody gets an opportunity to show themselves."
After he was spotted by scouts in Satkhira, Mustafizur was included in a pace bowling clinic at the Shere Bangla National Stadium in Mirpur. That's where he developed his famous slower balls and cutters by bowling at many different types of batsmen. After playing in the 2014 U-19 World Cup, he was picked for the Bangladesh A tour to West Indies, and less than a year later, he played for the senior team.
Fahim says that the discovery of Mustafizur is shining proof of how well the board's development programme has spread across the country.
"We believe we can find any talent from anywhere in Bangladesh. It is slowly becoming a pan-Bangladesh effort, which gives boys from smaller towns more opportunities.
"Previously, a boy from a small town would have a hard time figuring out how to become a cricketer in Bangladesh. Now they have a local hero like Soumya Sarkar from Satkhira, Imrul Kayes from Meherpur, or Mehidy Hasan from Khulna. They now know the path to becoming a professional."
A player's success can also prompt an increase in grass-roots level participation in the region he comes from.
"I would say that [in Satkhira, because of Mustafizur] there has been at least a 50% increase in the number of kids who now flock to cricket training, especially at the youngest level," says Mufassinul.
For four decades Bangladesh found its cricketers through the Dhaka clubs, who scouted for players and provided them with financial support. Cricketers would have to catch the eye of a coach or a team official to make it. The club network grew from Dhaka to cities like Chittagong, Rajshahi, Sylhet and Khulna and then to smaller towns, but it was mostly down to the cricketers showing up at the right time, starring in the right tournament.
The BCB's development system was put in place soon after the country got Test status in 2000, but the foundations were, in fact, laid in the '80s.
Kamal Ziaul Islam, better known as KZ, was the board president from 1983 to 1987, and the driving force behind a school tournament that for long served as a feeder system to the clubs and the national team.
Islam's company Nirman Constructions bankrolled the tournament for 14 seasons, starting from 1982-83, and during that time, schoolboys in Bangladesh knew that the first step towards becoming a cricketer was to play "Nirman". The competition grew from 22 schools in the inaugural year to 410 by 1995-96. The BCB funded the event for two seasons after that before private banks arrived as sponsors. Participation remained high, with the number of schools crossing 1000 in the last decade. Prime Bank Limited have been sponsoring the tournament for the last two years, though only 508 schools took part this year.
Since the BCB formed its own development programme, the school cricket tournament has been more about participation and less about talent-sourcing. But between 1982 and 1996, Nirman produced future Test cricketers like Habibul Bashar, Khaled Mahmud and Javed Omar. They were the cream of the crop, but an entire generation of professional cricketers came through this tournament. A Nirman XI played in the Dhaka league system for about a decade. It had foreign coaches and even an English cricketer - Alan Fordham - playing for the side in the 1989-90 season in the Dhaka Premier League.
Contemporary cricketers like Mohammad Sharif, Sarkar and Nazmul also made their way to the national side after having started in the school tournament.
In a Bangladesh Premier League match in December last year, 17-year old debutant offspinner Afif Hossain took 5 for 21, including the wicket of Chris Gayle, against Chittagong Vikings. When journalists scrambled to get more information on this previously unknown player, it was found that Afif was an opening batsman who could also chip in as an allrounder.
Coaches in Bangladesh say there are many like him coming through the system. Zakir Hasan, who played in the 2016 U-19 World Cup, is a designated wicketkeeper, but one coach said he was a better general fielder than a wicketkeeper. He also opens the batting and is comfortable against pace bowling.
It has taken more than 15 years for Bangladesh to develop into a team that opposition sides truly respect. The passion for the game across the country, represented by the talent waiting in the wings, is proof that administrations must be patient when asking a country to develop their cricket. Bangladesh may not be an overnight success story, but they are slowly becoming a long-term one.
Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84