Rishad Hossain, a package Bangladesh don't understand but can't ignore

Legspin is treated like high-brow art in Bangladesh – far too complicated, far too sophisticated, far too expensive.

Let’s take an average Dhaka club official. He runs a team in the Dhaka leagues, where all games are played in the 50-over format. He doesn’t want a bowler who will go for six runs an over. He would rather play a left-arm orthodox spinner. Or four.

Dhaka leagues are the lifeblood of Bangladesh cricket, the professional structure where cricketers compete and earn. It also has a majority say in the BCB, with twelve directors on the board. Whatever happens in the Dhaka league is reflected across Bangladesh cricket.

Among the (many) things that have held back Bangladesh cricket is this backward mindset about legspin. Big and small decision-makers are suspicious of it. As a result, only two genuine legspinners had played for Bangladesh between 1988 and the start of 2023. (Alok Kapali, a batting allrounder, took Bangladesh’s first Test hat-trick with his legspin – the most significant feat by someone bowling legspin in the country.)

The two genuine legspinners were Wahidul Gani, who played a single ODI in 1988, and Jubair Hossain, who played ten international matches between 2014 and 2015. The former became a well-known coach. Jubair’s career is a snapshot of how Bangladesh have viewed legspin.

In a time when legspin is so vital, especially in white-ball cricket, Bangladesh have been oblivious to what they have been missing out on. So last year, when Rishad Hossain made his T20I debut in a dead rubber against Ireland, no one thought much of it. Those who saw that game likely assumed that Chandika Hathurusinghe’s love for legspinners had prompted him to hand Rishad a debut. End of story.

In the 12 months since, though, Rishad has made himself an automatic choice for Bangladesh in T20Is – a 6’3″ legspinner who can hit sixes with the bat from the lower order too. Plus, he is a gun fielder.

He was one of the better performers in Bangladesh’s T20I series loss against USA last week. He may have taken only four wickets but finished the three games with an economy of 4.40, the best by a Bangladesh bowler in a bilateral series away from home.

“They don’t really trust legspinners in Bangladesh. They are more for left-arm spin, but the big man bowled beautifully today with a little bit of purchase.”

Former Bangladesh coach Stuart Law after Rishad’s showing against Law’s current team, USA

“They don’t really trust legspinners in Bangladesh,” Stuart Law, the USA coach, said after the final T20I, where Rishad returned 1 for 7 from four overs. Law, importantly, was once coach of Bangladesh. “They are more for left-arm spin, but the big man bowled beautifully today with a little bit of purchase. You don’t have to turn it square. You need a little bit, enough to make it difficult.”

Rishad had built up to the USA series with small strides in New Zealand last year. He struck a 54-ball 87 and took three wickets in the tour match, prompting Hathurusinghe to hand him an ODI debut. He came home to play four matches for Comilla Victorians in this year’s BPL and picked up a four-wicket haul. He broke through against Sri Lanka. He bowled well in the T20Is, often using his height to dip the ball into the blockhole. There was not much room to get under the ball and slog him, so when the Sri Lankan batters tried too hard, he picked up big wickets.

These were baby steps, but important ones.

Rishad was growing in confidence, while captain Najmul Hossain Shanto was also being confident about using him more.

“You need to have a bit of courage to bowl in international cricket,” Rishad told ESPNcricinfo shortly before he left Dhaka for Houston with the Bangladesh team for the T20 World Cup. “I want to play fearless cricket however long I play for Bangladesh.

“Last year, when I was in New Zealand, I found out just how challenging international cricket can be. They are a big team. The conditions, weather, pitches, are all different from here. There was a lot to learn on that tour.”

The other thing that worked in Rishad’s favour was a 30-ball 53 against Sri Lanka, which came with seven sixes, a Bangladesh record for most sixes in a T20I innings. Bangladesh batters, especially lower down the order, are not known for big hitting.

“I just feel like hitting sixes when I have the bat in hand,” he said. “I have always batted this way, since my childhood. I loved batting with Mushfiq [Mushfiqur Rahim] bhai in the third ODI [against Sri Lanka]. He is such a big player, and I was doing my thing at the other end. It felt amazing.” In that game, Rishad made the kind of fearless, match-winning impact he speaks of, hitting an unbeaten 18-ball 48 to take Bangladesh to a series win. It was the fastest 40-plus score by a Bangladesh batter from No. 8 or lower.

Rishad aced his next challenge – back in the domestic setup – as well.

Rishad is from Nilphamari, a small town 356 kilometres north of Dhaka. It is a million miles away from the cricketing mainstream in the country. Yet cricket, particularly legspin, is all Rishad has thought about since he was 12.

Being a legspinner, Rishad wasn’t certain of getting matches in this season’s Dhaka Premier League. He switched from champions Abahani Limited to Shinepukur Cricket Club, a side whose only goal was survival. He took 23 wickets at 12.73 with one five-wicket haul and a couple of four-fors. Shinepukur made it to the Super League for the first time in their history.

“I think both the DPL and the Zimbabwe series [five T20Is in May] went well for me,” he said. “Any achievement is good. I am happy to have contributed to my club team’s success in this season. It definitely helped that I was playing for Shinepukur.”

Rishad is from Nilphamari, a small town 356 kilometres north of Dhaka. It is a million miles away from the cricketing mainstream in the country. Yet cricket, particularly legspin, is all Rishad has thought about since he was 12.

“The day I first held a cricket ball in Nilphamari, I held it with the legspin grip. I always bowled legspin,” he said. “I didn’t understand it much. After I did well in school cricket, our district coach liked what he saw. I started playing for the district and divisional sides. I went to the Robi Spin Hunt, which is how I came to Dhaka.”

The Robi Spin Hunt is the kind of talent-spotting exercise that was common until the mid-2010s. Rubel Hossain, for example, was spotted at one of these. Sohel Islam, a senior coach, remembers Rishad standing out among the many left-arm spinners and offspinners at the talent hunt.

“We conducted a spin bowlers’ hunt in 2016-17 where I first saw him,” Sohel said. “I picked him from the Rangpur region. We brought ten or 12 of them for practice to Dhaka. He then went back to Rangpur to play Under-19 cricket. I used to see him from time to time in those days.

“His height helps him get bounce on wickets that don’t spin a lot. It probably doesn’t matter much on Bangladeshi wickets, where skiddy bowlers get more help. He was quite fit, but he couldn’t spin the ball early on. Coach Wahidul Gani bhai and I worked on increasing the revs he put on the ball.”

Rishad didn’t doubt that his primary skill alone – a legspinner in SLA land – would take him places. “When I reached the Under-19s, I realised that legspin, along with batting and fielding, will get me somewhere. I always believed in myself. I always told myself that I will use every opportunity in front of me. I cannot let go of any chance.”

For a while, those opportunities were rare. After making his first-class debut in 2018, Rishad only played in tour matches against visiting sides. The BCB often doesn’t play left-arm spinners in these games so that visitors don’t get an idea of what’s coming in the main games. Legspin wasn’t going to be served to them in the international fixtures.

He would also bowl a lot in the Bangladesh nets. Before the 2023-24 season, Rishad had played just three Dhaka Premier League matches, where teams make cautious choices in recruitment, preferring more economical bowlers. Survival in the league is a major factor in their decision-making. Shinepukur gave Rishad ten matches this season, true, but only after he had done well for Bangladesh.

Bangladesh will always benefit from the type of the bowler that Rishad is. I think it is a big deal that we have a wristspinner in the Bangladesh team. The team has to believe in him.

Former Bangladesh captain Khaled Mahmud

Former Bangladesh captain Khaled Mahmud, seen as one of the most influential coaches in the country, said that he regretted not playing Rishad more at Abahani. It was, in fact, Mahmud’s suggestion to Rishad that he move to Shinepukur, a lesser side but one that gave him plenty of game time, which Mahmud had anticipated.

“I think Rishad is a fantastic cricketer. He was unlucky not to play many matches,” Mahmud said. “He is a brilliant fielder. He can strike the ball in the death overs. We couldn’t take care of him [at Abahani]. We have the concept here that left-arm spinners have to be picked in the XI. I was always under pressure from the club [not to play Rishad]. I told him to play for Shinepukur, and thankfully he did well this season.

“Left-arm spinners are good but legspinners are wicket-takers. Bangladesh will always benefit from the type of the bowler that Rishad is. The more he plays, [the more he will be] courageous and the more he will develop. I think it is a big deal that we have a wristspinner in the Bangladesh team. The team has to believe in him.”

He is not the finished product yet. Sohel feels that Rishad has some natural advantages due to his higher point of release and his physical strength, but can add more strength to his bowling.

“Rishad always had a strong build. I think a wristspinner has to be as strong as a fast bowler,” Sohel said. “There’s a lot of strength needed, particularly in terms of counter-rotation. He has a high-arm action, unlike traditional legspinners. I initially tried to keep his bounce and drop on the ball. I think there’s still room for improvement in his action. His head falls off [at the point of delivery]. If he corrects this, he will have better accuracy.”

Seeing the support from Hathurusinghe, Rishad should be in good hands. BCB has hired Mushtaq Ahmed, the Pakistan legspin legend, as their bowling consultant for the T20 World Cup, which should help Rishad more than ever.

Bangladesh’s history with legspin is the downer in this story. It’s so discouraging that Hathurusinghe and Shanto have built a protective shield around Rishad, something they don’t usually do. They don’t talk him up too much. They don’t expose him in the death overs. They don’t want him in the media too often.

Hathurusinghe will be acutely aware of the perils, given how hard he fought, largely unsuccessfully, for a legspinner in his last stint as Bangladesh coach. In his first few months in the job in 2014, he saw Jubair in the nets. He handed him a first-class debut for Bangladesh A against Zimbabwe A. A month later, Jubair made his Test debut against Zimbabwe. He took seven wickets in his third Test, prompting Hathurusinghe to push for his inclusion in Bangladesh’s squad for the 2015 ODI World Cup.

Chief selector Faruque Ahmed rejected him, kicking off a long-running feud with Hathurusinghe. Domestic teams were also reluctant to pick Jubair.

Hathurusinghe and Shanto have built a protective shield around Rishad, something they don’t usually do. They don’t talk him up too much. They don’t expose him in the death overs. They don’t want him in the media too often.

When Jubair dismissed Virat Kohli with a googly in the Fatullah Test in 2015, it should have been the turning point in his career. Instead, a poor T20I debut against Zimbabwe later that year became his last international game. Jubair lost his mojo as opportunities dried up. He played a few seasons of the BPL but was reduced mostly to being a net bowler at the Shere Bangla National Stadium.

Now that Rishad has reached a certain level, his first coach Sohel wants him to play freely, and not think too much about what’s going on around him. “I want him to bowl according to his ability. I want him to bat with his normal approach. This is how he should be playing. He doesn’t have to take a lot of responsibility of the team.”

Rishad himself doesn’t want to think too far ahead either. “I don’t expect too much from the World Cup. I want to play to the best of my ability. The rest is up to Allah’s wishes. My personal goal is to play the second round [Super Eights], and then take stock of the situation.”

In a crowded field of legspinners at this year’s T20 World Cup, it might be hard to stand out. Rishad, though, is already standing out, and has a chance to do more than just help Bangladesh at the World Cup – a good show, and who knows, a decent BPL and/or DPL team may even ask him for a trial.

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo’s Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84

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