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From Bagh Mama to Mushfiqur's mastery

On the final day in Wellington, New Zealand's quicks targeted Mushfiqur Rahim with the short ball in the knowledge that he had picked up a couple of finger injuries during the first innings Getty Images

Ahead of the first Test in Wellington, Mushfiqur Rahim had talked about how doing well in New Zealand could enhance a batsman's profile. He certainly went to a different strata after battling tooth-and-nail through a bouncer barrage on the final day in Wellington. It ended with a blow to his neck when he ducked into a bouncer from Tim Southee that kept slightly low.

But his head wasn't the initial target; New Zealand's pace attack was constantly bowling short to him to remind him of the finger injuries he had picked up in the first innings. Any smart bowling attack would have done the same.

From the first ball he faced that day - which hit his bat handle and went for a boundary - he had to be mindful of protecting his fingers. He faced at least two short balls every over in which he was on strike. But Mushfiqur handled most of it with control, hardly looking surprised by the salvo.

He employed all the common methods of playing the bouncer defensively. He ducked under the high ones while swaying out of the way of those aimed at his throat. The ones that didn't bounce high enough, he dealt with by getting right behind the ball. Not once did he flinch.

The lengths may have been a bit of a surprise, given New Zealand's modus operandi at home has generally been to draw the batsmen forward rather than aim for his throat. But the emergence of Neil Wagner has given them this new angle, excellent as he is at constantly bowling balls that hit the fingers or armpits.

For a while during the first session on the fifth day, Mushfiqur's handling of the home bowlers gave the impression that Bangladesh were slowly wresting back control from New Zealand. Sometimes batsmen get into a groove playing this type of innings, and for 52 deliveries, Mushfiqur looked at home.

Perhaps this is why Mushfiqur actually wanted to continue batting even as the ambulance entered the ground, or when he was taken to Wellington Hospital. If he had had his way, he would have taken an Uber to the Basin Reserve, which was just a kilometer south of the hospital, and continued his innings from 13 not out.

Mushfiqur's addiction for batting is well known, and isn't limited to looking good while playing shots. He is technically proficient to the point where his sole focus is scoring runs. His approach is a long way from how Bangladeshi batsmen, for the better part of the last three decades, have looked at short-pitched bowling.

Stories from the mid-1980s abound of batsmen having very little idea of how to handle bouncers. One of them goes that the former Bangladesh batsman Rafiqul Alam earned his nickname Bagh Mama after he was battered by several bouncers during the 1986 Asia Cup. Bagh Mama literally means "Tiger Uncle": when he took off his shirt after one particular game during the tournament, a team-mate said the bruises made his upper body resemble that of a tiger. The epithet was a mark of respect.

As pitches remained slow and low in Bangladesh, it became harder for batsmen to handle fast, short-pitched bowling as they played more and more fast bowlers in the 1990s. Test status in 2000 meant tours to countries with bouncier surfaces. Most of their struggle was linked to short-pitched bowling and even at home, experienced batsmen were often battered, as Akram Khan was by South Africa's pace attack in 2003.

When the generation of Mushfiqur, Shakib Al Hasan and Tamim Iqbal were coming through a system that had better coaching and training facilities, playing the short ball properly became a national obsession. Whenever a new batsman has arrived on the scene post-2010, the first question asked in cricketing circles has been about his ability to tackle the short ball.

The shift in ability to play it occurred around the time these cricketers were inducted into the High Performance Programme under Richard McInnes. The simple use of the bowling machine has helped many deal with high pace and shorter lengths. The centre used to be the BKSP, Bangladesh's national sports institute, but over the last 6-7 years Mirpur's multiple facilities - the academy and the indoor and outdoor nets - have provided ample room and time for batsmen to improve their techniques.

The introduction of a granite slab at the nets ahead of the 2015 World Cup certainly helped batsmen like Mahmudullah play on the up through the off side, and fed his need to train to play short balls with more power. It's interesting that Bangladesh's batsmen have developed playing that length mostly at home. Their tours have dried up in the last three years, with their last away bilateral series before this one coming on the tour of West Indies in August-September 2014.

Though many Bangladesh batsmen over the last decade have succumbed to the hook and pull, tackling the short ball hasn't been a major issue. Playing well off the back-foot is now a pre-requisite, and the overall technique of the batsmen has developed to the point where they now routinely play the pull off the front foot.

The development of the technique within the collective has at times been slow, but encounters such as those faced by Mushfiqur in Wellington will help hasten it.

After injuring his hamstring and missing much of the limited overs leg of this tour, Mushfiqur said he almost cried in the dressing room for having missed opportunities to bat on flat pitches in New Zealand. The 159 in the first innings must have satiated much of his craving for quality time in the middle, even before the short-ball barrage in the second.

But after that second in innings he will also have the knowledge that he is equipped to handle a similar test anywhere in the world. Bangladesh tour India, Sri Lanka and South Africa and then host Pakistan and Australia this year, so their batsmen will face plenty of short balls. As he did in Wellington, Mushfiqur will lead the way, ducking and swaying but never shirking the challenge.