Is Litton turning into another Ashraful?
Watching Litton Das bat is delightful but enraging, amazing but frustrating, blissful but awful.
Every time Litton goes out to bat, Bangladesh cricket fans hold out hope, ‘Maybe this will be Litton’s day’.
In almost every match, Litton plays shots that border on perfection, shots that have a perfect blend of grace and aggression. His head stands still as his body puts him in the perfect position to execute a textbook cover drive, or maybe a cracking square cut, perhaps an elegant leg glance or best of all a heavenly straight drive.
He looks like he is in terrific knick, bound to score many runs, a 50, a 100 or even more.
But then, more often than not, the right-hander finds a way to lose his wicket.
Even his mode of dismissal is getting predictable. In his 73-match-long One-Day Internationals (ODI) career, he has gotten out caught 43 times.
Most fans can recall Litton mistiming a shot straight to a fielder inside the 30-yard circle after a good start, or top-edging a ball to the fielder's hand or sometimes edging a ball behind the stumps like he did against Pakistan in the Asia Cup on Wednesday.
Litton arrived in Pakistan after the group stage as the replacement for the injured Najmul Hossain Shanto. Litton had earlier been removed from the Asia Cup squad due to high fever. So, there were some concerns about whether the right-hander was ready to take on perhaps the most venomous pace attack in world cricket.
All those fears disappeared quite quickly once he got out to bat. Litton opened his account with a gentle push through off-side which went past the point fielder and raced to the ropes.
Next over he took a couple of steps down the wicket against Pakistan’s main strike bowler Shaheen Shah Afridi and drove the ball past the cover point fielder for four more runs.
The following over, Litton hit Naseem Shah for two breathtaking cover drives which were bound to race to the boundary ropes as soon as the ball left his willow.
With those four fours, Litton had raced 16 in no time and was looking primed for a big innings on a batting paradise in Lahore.
But come next over, Litton was gone. Afridi abended his back and pitched the ball a bit short, extracting some extra bounce from a barren pitch. Litton poked at the ball which was wide of the stumps and edged it to give Mohammad Rizwan one of his easier catches as a wicketkeeper.
And just like that, another promising Litton innings came to an abrupt end.
If one ranks the current batters in the Bangladesh team in terms of sheer raw talent, Litton will undoubtedly top that list.
There have never been any doubts about his talent. His biggest challenge has always been consistency.
His inconsistency eight years into international cricket is frustrating, to say the least, and is now putting him in the territory of another talented right-hander from Bangladesh in the past who never realised his true potential.
The unfulfilled prophecy
At the turn of the century, when Bangladesh had just been included in the elite club of Test-playing nations on paper but were still looked at by most as ‘minnows’, the Tigers unearthed a batting talent the country had never seen the likes of before.
He was blessed by the heavens, a gifted batsman who had all the potential to become the country’s first cricketing superstar.
His name, of course, is Mohammad Ashraful.
So, Bangladesh went all in on the batter and made him an indispensable part of the national team from a very young age.
Most of his innings were utter failures. On most days, he would play one or two incredible shots and then throw away his wicket.
But once in a blue moon, the stars would align and Bangladesh would be blessed by an Ashraful special which often resulted in historic victories.
Who can forget the century against Australia in Cardiff in 2005 or the blazing half-century against South Africa in the 2007 ICC World Cup. There was also the 20-ball fifty against the West Indies’ in the T20 World Cup that same year and the 190 in the Galle Test against Sri Lanka in 2013 which helped secure Bangladesh’s first ever draw against the islanders.
But in between those innings, there were prolonged periods of mediocrity. That’s why despite of having so many incredible innings under his belt, Ashraful averaged a mere 24 in 61 Tests and 22.23 in 177 ODIs.
Such a lowly average is fitting for tail-enders, not for the star batter of a cricket team who has played international cricket for 13 years.
Litton falling behind the ‘Fab Four’
To be fair to Litton, he averages much higher than Ashraful in every format.
The 28-year-old averages 36.27 runs per innings in Tests, which is quite good considering he comes out to bat at No.6 in Tests and keeps the wickets also.
In 50-over cricket, he averages 33.77, which is also quite better than Ashraful’s.
But while comparing the two batsmen, one also has to be mindful that they are players from two different eras of Bangladesh cricket.
When Ashraful was playing, Bangladesh was the new kid on the blocks. When faced against top oppositions, the team was not gunning for a victory but hoping to avoid utter humiliation. Even batting the whole 50 overs of an ODI and scoring somewhere upwards of 200 would be seen as an accomplishment.
And much like Ashraful, the other Bangladesh batters of the mid-2000s era also averaged in the 20s with former skipper Habibul Bashar being the only batter to average a shade above 30 in Tests.
But now, the scenario has changed. The ‘Fab Four’ of Bangladesh cricket– Shakib Al Hasan, Tamim Iqbal, Mushfiqur Rahim and Mahmudullah– all average above 35 in Tests and ODIs, with the only exception being Mahmudullah, who averages 33.49 in Tests.
Litton does not belong to the ‘Fab Four’ generation. He started his career years after them and is part of the new generation of Bangladesh cricketers who will succeed the ‘Fab Four’.
The mean average of Bangladesh batters jumped from the 20s to the 30s after the ‘Fab Four’ emerged. So the expectations should be that the next generation of Bangladeshi batters, led by Litton, should take it to the 40s.
But Litton, the flag bearer of the next generation, has not taken the mantle forward so far.
To make that point even clearer, here is a look at another statistic.
Litton has batted in 73 ODIs so far and scored a 50-plus innings in roughly every five matches. In comparison, Litton’s fellow opener Tamim has a 50-plus innings in every 3.33 ODIs.
Even Shakib, who has batted in the middle-order or the late order in 189 out of his 225 innings in ODIs, has a 50-plus score in roughly every four matches.
Ashraful, on the other hand, played a 50-plus knock in ODIs in every 7.34 innings.
So, Litton finds himself in the middle of the Ashraful generation and Tamim generation in terms of average and innings per 50-plus innings in ODIs.
The worrying parallels
There is one stark difference between Ashraful and Litton’s international careers. Unlike Ashraful, it took Litton some time to establish himself as a national team cricketer.
Before 2019, he was in and out of the team. So even though his international career spans over eight years, he has technically been a regular player for the Tigers for around five years. But five years is a long enough period to find footing in international cricket.
The people in the management have put their faith in Litton’s talent and consider him as an automatic choice in every format, much like Ashraful was at one point.
So far, however, Litton has remained an inconsistent batter, who can be incredible on his day but those are few far and between, much like Ashraful.
Still, Litton is not only considered as an important batter in the team but also a future captain, again, similar to Ashraful, who went on to captain Bangladesh after Bashar was ousted from the team in 2007.
The parallels between Litton and Ashraful are more frightening than amusing. After the ‘Fab Four’ emerged, Bangladesh had batters who could score runs more consistently. That’s when Ashraful’s importance in the team diminished and eventually he became yesterday’s news in Bangladesh cricket before his part in the country’s cricket’s most shameful chapter came to the fore.
If Litton doesn’t apply his immense talent and starts scoring more consistently, he will also be left behind when more consistent batters emerge.
Now it’s up to Litton to decide if he wants to be Bangladesh’s star batter for the better part of the next decade or be remembered as his generation’s Mohammad Ashraful.