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Mustafizur’s secret: An uncluttered mind, unaffected by pressure

Wisden India logo Wisden India 25-04-2016
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There are famous quotes and there are famous quotes – but the coolest one around cricket I know of is Keith Miller’s “Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not”.

Pressure – do we make too big a deal of it? Is it, as Michael Johnson once said, nothing more than the shadow of a great opportunity? How does Johnson not feel it? Why do some people crumble when the going gets tough? And others – MS Dhoni, for example – brace for it and toughen up? Did Miller feel it on the cricket field before he knew what a Messerschmitt up the arse was all about?

It must come down to individuals and circumstances.

Now, Mashrafe Mortaza’s take on Mustafizur Rahman will probably never make it to a list of great cricket quotes, but it was rather revelatory.

This was during the Asia Cup earlier this year, when the youngster had quickly become all the talk in Dhaka and Mirpur.

Just 20 now, thin rather than well built, Mustafizur had burst onto the domestic scene only in 2013 as an exciting young paceman who could touch 140 kph, bowl a mixed bag of slower deliveries and yorkers and, by 2015, send in the left-armer’s offcutter at different speeds and at various lengths.

Isn’t he too young to be shouldering so much responsibility, that of being Bangladesh’s No. 1 bowler, especially in limited-overs cricket; isn’t he feeling the pressure, we asked Mortaza that day.

“He is totally unaware about who says or writes what about him, and even if he does, he doesn’t bother with any of it. Actually, I don’t think he reads the papers. He just plays the game. I think it is something he was born with, that he doesn’t really take pressure upon himself,” said Mortaza in Bengali, sounding much like the older brother everyone says he has become to Mustafizur – or Mustafiz, and, of late, The Fizz. Bangladeshi papers also call him ‘bishmoy balok’, wonder kid.

Mortaza also said, somewhat uncharitably but affectionately, that Mustafiz was so clueless about things outside of his craft that he needed his fields to be set for him.

Could all this really be true? In this age of IPL contracts and social media and so much fan adulation?

I met Mustafiz briefly in Dhaka. To be honest, the word that came to mind was unspoilt. It wasn’t a proper interview; he hardly had answers. Instead, he was full of all sorts of questions. About India. The IPL. About the food in Kolkata. We chatted for a bit. Then he said he had to rush back because someone from the team management, I forget who, had asked him not to hang around in the hotel lobby for too long.

So, as local journalists informed me, Mustafiz himself stays away from the media as far as possible, and also, there is a serious effort on the part of the team management, seemingly on Mortaza’s insistence, to shield Mustafiz. In Bangladesh, the presswallahs are very close to many of the players and, while there is room for criticism, journalists tend to back their team, no premium placed on neutrality. So the request to stay away from Mustafiz is respected, by and large.

All of this compounds the mystery and mystique around the young man.

On TV, you see commentators use split screens to analyse the different grips he uses, try to figure out lines and lengths and trajectories; surely opposition teams do so too, but so far, the mystery has remained unsolved. Interestingly, Mustafiz isn’t burdened by thoughts of which batsman can do what against him and other such mundane matters. “Ami amaartai dekhi,” he had said simply that day, which roughly translates to “I only look at what I can do.”

Mortaza suggests that the secret to Mustafiz’s success is an uncluttered mind. You’d have to agree with him there.

And it is with that uncluttered mind that Mustafiz has come to India for the IPL. The IPL, where the razzmatazz really can make even the sanest of heads go woozy.

So this could well be the test Mustafiz has to pass to remain the level-headed young man he is. His performances so far have been magnificent, none better than in Sunrisers Hyderabad’s win over Kings XI Punjab on Saturday, when he ended with 4-1-9-2; at one stage, his figures read 1.3-1-0-1, and then 2-1-1-1. In those first couple of overs, Manan Vohra first and then Shaun Marsh hardly managed to get bat on ball, and when they did, they didn’t quite send the ball where they wanted to. Mustafiz got the ball to do The Fizz all right.

And now, it would be interesting to see what our man does the next time he goes head to head with Virat Kohli. He has told Bangladeshi newspapers about how highly he regards Kohli and what an inspiration the Indian is for him. Kohli, for his part, praised Mustafiz to high heavens in Dhaka, saying, “He has spiced the game up a bit more, which is always exciting. […] As a batsman also, you feel okay, this guy has got a different set of skills, and you’ve got to prepare differently, tackle him differently. So you improve your game.”

When Kohli met Mustafiz the first time around in this IPL, it was the Bangladeshi’s first game ever in the tournament, and he returned 2 for 26.

Kohli scored 75 in 51 balls. They faced off nine times that evening in Bangalore; there were five dot balls, two singles, a double and a four – Kohli beaten all ends up on one occasion. So honours even, one has to say; maybe a tad in Mustafiz’s favour. He was by far the best bowler for his team on that occasion, an economy rate of 6.50 against an innings run rate of 11.35.

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The next Kohli v Mustafiz date is April 30, when their teams play in Hyderabad. Since that first game, Kohli has scored 79, 33, 80 and 100 not out, while Mustafiz has returned 1-29, 1-32, 1-19 and 2-9. That should be the real deal then. Mustafiz, pacer though he is, is quite the new Sunil Narine, the one everyone is struggling to score freely off even if it seems that you know what’s coming your way. It looks like batsmen can pick the offcutter but still not get their stroke right. And Kohli – well, he is the best Twenty20 batsman in the world now, isn’t he? And Kohli will likely have AB de Villiers by his side – that day, Mustafiz to AB read 1, 0, 1, 0 (this one AB, then on 82, tried to scoop but missed and ended up on the floor) and W, caught at mid-off trying to hoick the offcutter.

Irrespective of where he goes from here, that game will tell us just how far the Bangladeshi star has come. “I want to play for a long time, so everyone in the world knows about me,” he had said that day. You can be moderately sure that after the IPL and his stint with Sussex, more franchises around the world would be making a beeline for him, something Mortaza is a bit worried about.

But if he can get out of the IPL with his mind still uncluttered, we’ll know for sure that Mustafiz has the temperament to go with his immense skill, and we’ll know whether he has it in him to deal with big-time pressure – anything short of a Messerschmitt up the arse, that is – as the going gets tougher and tougher, when the mystery starts to get solved.

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