‘It is just a game after all, isn’t it?’

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All-rounder Shakib Al Hasan (R) talks with chief selector Minhajul Abedin during training at Kimberley's Diamond Oval yesterday, ahead of the Tigers' first ODI against South Africa tomorrow. PHOTO: SAKEB SUBHAN

There were finally some fighting words from the Bangladesh camp two days before the first ODI against South Africa. The last time anything remotely positive, or at any rate realistically positive, emanated from the team was on the eve of the first Test more than two weeks ago when the current tour of South Africa still seemed full of possibilities. But over the course of two bruising Test defeats — barring some empty bluster during the Tests from youngsters – and murmurs of discontent within the dressing room, the team bore a hunted look.

Yesterday, during training at Kimberley’s Diamond Oval — the mini-pep talk came from an expected source – Shakib Al Hasan. It may be thought that the top-ranked all-rounder has a more rejuvenated outlook than most in the team after seeking and being granted rest from the Test portion of the tour, and that may be so, but Shakib has always played and talked from a perspective that separates the game of cricket from the hysteria that often surrounds Bangladesh cricket.

Mushfiqur Rahim, the Test captain who seemed a little broken after the thrashing in the two Tests, had talked about holding on to the respect that Bangladesh had earned over the last two and a half years. Shakib reminded the fans, the media, and perhaps his teammates, exactly what the team were there for.

“It’s a game, isn’t it? To talk about it like this or think about it like this seems a little funny to us,” he said with a wry smile when asked if Bangladesh can uphold the respect in the upcoming ODI series. “I believe that we have come to play a match, and wherever we play our target is to win and do well. Sometimes we will win and sometimes we won’t.”

The fighting words soon followed. South Africa skipper Faf du Plessis, before the Test series began, had put pressure on his opponents to prove themselves abroad, with the implication perhaps being that Bangladesh’s successes at home were somehow diminished by their failures abroad.

“The last time South Africa went to Bangladesh they lost [2-1 in the ODI series in 2015]; no one expected them to lose, but it’s not like everything fell apart for them,” Shakib said. “And since they have been playing here since their childhood, a lot of things will be easy for them that aren’t easy for us. It doesn’t matter if we are here for three weeks, four weeks, if we do a camp of one or two months, we won’t get that. A two-month camp and 20 years of practice is not the same.

“No matter how many times they visit or how long they train in our country — one month, a month and a half — they will lose even then, considering the team we have now. I believe that.

“There is not much to be worried about. I think that we need to focus on what we have and what we are good at. I believe that we have quite a few world-class players, we have world-class performances on big stages.”

Further evidence of Shakib’s healthy perspective emerged when he was asked about the practice match against a South Africa Invitational XI on Thursday, during which – apart from fifties from Shakib himself and Sabbir Rahman – all other batsmen failed to make use of a belter of a wicket and a middling bowling line-up and put the horrors of the Test series behind them.

“The important thing is scoring in the main match. If someone scores a hundred in the practice match and does not score in the main match, that’s not important,” said Shakib. “It is very normal that in one match every batsman will not be able to do well. I think it’s important that we try and do as well as possible up the order so that it becomes easier for the batsmen to follow.”

The team has also been reinforced with the return of ODI skipper Mashrafe Bin Mortaza and the more than even chance of the injured Tamim Iqbal’s return by the time of the first ODI on Sunday. Tamim was batting in the nets yesterday, and when Shakib was asked how his teammate looked, the reply was typical.

“I was just playing football,” he laughed and ended the press session.

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