Both times the new ball was available during New Zealand's first innings at the Basin Reserve, the Bangladesh captain handed it to Mehedi Hasan. Apart from becoming the first spinner to open the bowling in the first innings in this country, it was a clear signal from the Bangladesh team management that they were giving a skilled spinner his favourite condition of ball to give him the best opportunity to make an impact.
Mehedi didn't take a wicket in his 37 overs, bowling steadily, but the conditions didn't allow him to get the ball to grip on the pitch, and he wasn't able to slide the quicker delivery into the left-handers' pads like he did so effectively at home against England in October. Shakib Al Hasan and Mahmudullah took two wickets each but that is not to say that Mehedi didn't bowl well. Given his lack of experience, this was his first major challenge outside home. Still, he got the best bite of the cherry.
Even though Taskin Ahmed, Kamrul Islam Rabbi and Subashis Roy bowled more overs than the combined numbers of the spinners, it is spin that is king for Bangladesh, home and away. The three rookie seamers took six wickets in 81.2 overs, giving away 317 runs at 3.90 per over and picking up a wicket roughly every 13.3 overs. The three spinners on the other hand eked out four wickets in 67 overs, but they bowled tightly, conceding 3.12 per over. Even in conditions more favoured to pace bowling, spin remains key to Bangladesh's planning, execution and performance.
The pace bowlers' failure to adapt to different situations during New Zealand's 148.2-over innings, mainly through inexperience, suggested they were as yet not equipped with the methods to either take wickets regularly or hold up one end. New Zealand scored at a run rate of 3.80 in the 77 overs they played on the third day, allowing them to get close to Bangladesh's total despite only going at 3.46 in 71.2 overs on day four. Four of their batsmen got past the 50 mark but more crucial was the fact that their innings contained four 50-plus stands.
Had Bangladesh brought a pace attack with a stronger base and with plenty of quality longer-format action behind them, New Zealand would have certainly faced more wicket-taking deliveries, which would have had a domino effect over the day and a half of their batting.
"Everyone knows Taskin as a limited-overs bowler of immense promise but he came into this tour having only played ten first-class matches, all of them before his international debut in 2014"
At a time when Bangladesh have possibly their best ever pace attack in limited-overs cricket, they are consistently fielding some of their least threatening pace attacks in Tests. It hasn't always been the case. Considering only their tours to New Zealand over their 16 years as a Test side, the current group of pacers makes up the weakest attack. Back in 2001, Bangladesh had youngsters in Mashrafe Mortaza and Mohammad Sharif, the workmanlike left-armer Manjural Islam and the experienced Khaled Mahmud and Hasibul Hossain. Mahmud was a dibbly-dobbly medium pacer while Hasibul had by then become quite erratic. Though the motley crew didn't do anything great, it was still a bowling attack that could attack.
Mashrafe was the attack leader in 2008 and bowled well in tandem with the aggressive Shahadat Hossain and the newcomer Sajedul Islam who troubled Stephen Fleming. Shahadat returned in 2010 with Rubel Hossain, who had a pronounced sling in his action back then, and the slippery Shafiul Islam.
The comparison with previous attacks is certainly unfair and not the intention here, but it is a major worry that Bangladesh continue to take rookie fast bowlers on overseas tours. Rubel, carrying the drinks in the first Test, should have been developed into the attack leader by now. Instead, it is the debutant Taskin who has to take on that role given his ODI experience.
Among these bowlers, Manjural and Hasibul have retired long ago while Mashrafe hasn't played a Test since 2009. Sharif couldn't make it big in his 7-year international career while Shahadat's career has been derailed over the last few years. Among those who came here last time, Sajedul is no longer considered by the selectors while Shafiul is recovering from an injury. None of these bowlers apart from Shahadat, Mashrafe and Shafiul were given a longer rope, and even when picked never get to bowl enough overs at home, even at the domestic level.
It is also unfair to point fingers at the current attack, which has been able to ensure New Zealand were bowled out, albeit only for the third time at home against Bangladesh. Rabbi, who was chastised for being picked against England in October as if he had forced himself into the team, took three wickets including the first-ball dismissal of Jeet Raval with a delivery that held its line with extra bounce. He bowled well in patches, and looked more comfortable as the ball got older.
Taskin' first Test wicket was of Kane Williamson, someone he has troubled throughout the tour. He was quick in spells on the fourth day, getting deliveries to rise to the batsmen's ribcage. But he has to figure out a way to build himself into a wicket-taking bowler in the longer format.
Subashis, who like Rabbi has plenty of first-class experience but has never really been used in long spells that much, was steady at best and ineffective at worst. Among the three, he was given the first use of the new ball. He was picked on the back of a good performance in the domestic one-day tournament with his last good showing in first-class cricket coming in 2015. He has taken only two five-wicket hauls in 51 games. He had only played one first-class game abroad before this Test, but during his Under-19 days toured Malaysia, Pakistan, South Africa and Sri Lanka.
Those who saw him make his mark in the Dhaka league system back in 2006-07 say he had a problem finishing his run-up, often going into the danger zone and bowling with a stuttering follow-through. Neither problem looks to have gone away.
Rabbi, playing in his 50th first-class game, also impressed the decision-makers in Bangladesh cricket on the basis of domestic one-day and T20 matches, but has a high economy rate (3.52), strike-rate (70.3) and bowling average (41.27) in first-class cricket. He has only twice taken more than 20 wickets in a year in the last decade.
Everyone knows Taskin as a limited-overs bowler of immense promise but he came into this tour having only played ten first-class matches, all of them before his international debut in 2014. When he turned up for the press conference on day four, he was visibly sore having bowled 29 overs over two days. It is not his fault that it has almost been four years since he last bowled so many overs in an innings. Of course the system of handling pace bowlers in Bangladesh is held accountable, but such a question becomes irrelevant during a Test match that is slipping out of hand.
Taskin, Rabbi and Subashis do not have too much time to rest now that they have a challenging fifth day ahead. They will also need to turn around quickly ahead of the second Test; Rubel isn't highly rated as a long-format bowler and, given his record, not a lot should be expected of him either.
A bowling attack that can take 20 wickets can win Bangladesh a Test match, but that is possible only at home with skilled spinners in helpful conditions. There is little long-term planning towards developing a pace attack that can do the same in helpful conditions away from home.