Bangladesh have turned the corner in one-day cricket by reaching the QFs of the World Cup, blanking Pakistan and rounding it off with a maiden series win against India. Bangladesh had won the collective hearts of a nation long before their recent spate of success. Daksh Panwar traces the mania back to a time when the world didn’t notice the stumbling steps of a cricket-tragic country
Look, there aren’t too many things that you can be happy about in this country. It’s only cricket that makes it…”
Mohammad Isam stops here and gropes for the right word. First as a fan, then as an aspiring cricketer and later as a sports journalist with The Daily Star and ESPNCricinfo, he has observed the rise of Bangladesh cricket from very close. Like many from his generation, children of the 80s, he has practically grown up with it.
“…Easy,” Isam resumes, “Cricket makes it easy on people. If their team wins a match, everything is good.”
Cricket means so much to this country, is a common refrain you will hear in Bangladesh. It’s not as if Bangladesh’s economy is floundering. It’s doing rather impressively actually, and is expected to maintain a 6 percent growth rate over the next few years. There is an ever expanding middle class. But, as in India, there are also three Ps — poverty, (over) population and pollution. Cricket is where the rich and the poor come together and enjoy themselves. In Bangladesh, it’s the opium of the masses. Unlike India which also has Bollywood and Kollywood and What-Not-ollywood to escape everyday reality.
It was evident on Wednesday when Bangladesh looked poised to Banglawash MS Dhoni’s team. The spectators began to assemble at the Sher-e-Bangla Stadium as early as 10:30 am for a 3pm start. This is the month of Ramadan, and many stay awake through the night to take their ‘Sehri’ before dawn. Then they sleep the morning away. Not that day, though. The atmosphere was so festive you could have mistaken it for Eid. Women and men, old and young and disabled and not disabled, they turned up in their best dresses and transformed Sher-e-Bangla into a sea of green-and-red.
You didn’t need to look further to conclude that this young country best expresses itself through cricket. The Tigers are superstars here, and since 1997, when they won the ICC Trophy and made their first World Cup in 1999, they have been the only stars with enduring appeal.
Which is not to say that before 1997 cricket wasn’t popular here. To understand Bangladesh cricket and its super-passionate fans, we need to know the country’s cricketing history.
Cricket was always the number two sport after football. With the Bangladesh cricket team not really in the global picture early on, fans made amends with their adopted teams — as they do in football to this day, Brazil or Argentina. Surprisingly, Pakistan, despite their history of oppression of East Pakistan, were the most popular team. India and West Indies, too, had a good number of fans.
“It was either Imran Khan or Kapil Dev,” Isam says. “It was more personality centric. It was never like India helped us in the war, so we must support India. Or, Pakistan oppressed us, so we mustn’t support them. No.”
Other commentators, such as Utpal Shuvro of the Prothom Aalo newspaper, do concede that religion did play a role in many Bangladeshis preferring the Pakistani team over India at that time. It could also be that the Sharjah days — when the India-Pakistan rivalry was at its peak and was very keenly followed here — coincided with the rise of religious fundamentalism in the sub-continent. The demolition of Babri Masjid also, possibly, nurtured an anti-India sentiment.
In 1996, however, a young bespectacled and mustachioed left-hander conquered Lord’s and Team India was again popular in Bangladesh. “Sourav Ganguly was huge. The fact that a Bengali was playing for India boosted Bangladeshis’ self-esteem, too,” Shuvro said. In one stroke through the off-side, language again overcame religion in this part of the world, 25 years after 1971.
While Bangladeshis were keenly following the India-Pakistan rivalry on TV, they were also tuned in to an equally intense competition being played out in their own backyard. During the late 80s and 90s, there was a thriving club cricket scene in Dhaka. Old timers regale you with the stories of Abahani and Mohammedan’s rivalry, and there are claims that 30,000 people would turn up at the Bangabandhu National Stadium in the heart of Dhaka whenever these two teams played each other.
“That was thing, if you were from Motijheel, you would support Mohammedan, and if you were from Dhanmondi, you would support Abahani. The rivalry was so intense. As a kid I never wanted to play for Bangladesh. I always wanted to play for Abahani,” Isam says.
Which was understandable, because the national team wasn’t doing well during this period. In 1994 in Nairobi, there were hopes that the team would make the 1996 World Cup, which was being co-hosted in the sub-continent. The interest was high, but Bangladesh lost to each of the three teams that eventually qualified — Kenya, UAE and the Netherlands.
In Kuala Lumpur three years later, though, Bangladesh cricket finally took its chance. Things would change irrevocably. A Bangladeshi wouldn’t need to support any other team after that.
It was a crucial group stage match against the Netherlands. Bangladesh needed a win to enter the semifinals, from which three teams would make the ’99 World Cup in England. Chasing 141, they were 15-4, but Akram Khan played the knock of his life to see them through.
What made the win stunning wasn’t just the match situation, but also everything else about it. It had rained so much that the synthetic field wasn’t fit to play cricket. But the players, the journalists and the fans — and there were a lot of expat Bangladeshis who had turned up — all rolled up their sleeves and came to help the groundstaff dry the field. “Years later, I did an interview with the Dutch player Bas Zuiderent and he corroborated the whole story. He said that both teams wanted to play the match badly,” Isam says.
Back home, a nation had its collective ears glued to the radio — for there was no telecast of the ICC Trophy, probably an insignificant tournament in the larger scheme of things.
And when Akram Khan hit the winning run with three wickets and eight balls to spare, a nation combusted, simultaneously. It was a Friday, surely Bangladesh couldn’t have lost.
For Bangladesh cricket, that win was perhaps like the battle of Badr for Islam. While it reinforced the faith of those few that had supported the team through the rough, that one victory also converted all other non-believers in the country.
“That was it. That moment caught on with everyone,” Isam says. Mind you, they hadn’t qualified yet. But after the Netherlands, they believed they were going to qualify and win the ICC Trophy.
Looking back, that event now seems as crucial as India’s win over Zimbabwe in the 1983 World Cup when Kapil Dev revived the side from 17 for 5.
Days later, when Bangladesh defeated Kenya in the final, the whole country celebrated like it hadn’t since Liberation. People threw colours at each other. It was Holi in this predominantly Islamic country.
Unlike Liberation, however, the celebration wasn’t tinged with grief. It was an expression of unmitigated joy. Those who are cynical about sport’s powers to uplift, and those who think it’s a meaningless pursuit, they probably needed to be in Bangladesh on April 13 in 1997.
“People’s thinking changed completely — about themselves and about the country — on that day,” Isam says.
Hindsight also proves that the ICC Trophy of ‘97 was a watershed moment for Bangladesh cricket. For, not only would the Tigers go on to play their maiden World Cup and beat Pakistan, they would also get Test status in 2000. A decision that non-Bangladeshis question to this day. Bangladesh went winless for nearly five years, including 47 ODIs on the trot, a dubious world record.
“Perhaps, Test status was questionable at that time. But who would you rather give it to: Bangladesh or Kenya. Look where Kenya are now. At that time it looked hasty, and I am sure it was, but look where things are now. Sometime first class matches get sold-out here,” Isam says.
With the Tigers routinely getting whipped home and away, there was a threat that people could slip back to the pre-1997 days when they supported other teams. But surprisingly, it didn’t happen. They stuck with their boys. And took solace in smaller milestones — lasting four days in a Test — or personal achievements — like a fifty or a three-wicket haul.
Says Utpal Shuvro: “It’s the only sport we are competent at. So people took pride in it. The support never really wavered.” And where would they turn to? Their best success outside cricket in that period was Asif Hossain Khan’s gold at the Manchester Commonwealth Games in 2002. (Though, it appears a huge deal now, for Khan pipped the future Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra on the last shot).
“Cricket was the only sport that we were competing at at the world level, playing at the World Cups,” adds Shuvro.
“So the support remained.”
Still, that was a tough time to be a Bangladeshi cricket fan. Athar Ali Khan, former cricketer and now commentator, says his fellow experts in the commentary box would often roll their eyes and pass a cheeky remark about Bangladesh.
“It’s not been an easy ride. It’s not been an easy sailing,” Khan says. He narrates an incident from Multan in 2003, when Bangladesh came closest to ending the streak, before going down by one wicket in a Test now best remembered for Inzamam-ul -Haq’s heroics.
“(In that match, Pakistan’s wicket-keeper) Rashid Latif took a catch of Alok Kapali. ‘Terrific catch,’ Rameez (Raja) screamed and went on and on. I said, ‘I want to see that one more time. I don’t think it’s clean.’ Rameez teased and said, ‘Are you accusing them of cheating?’ I said, ‘No, I am just trying to see if he has been given out correctly.’ He said, ‘It’s a typical Bangladeshi comment’. And I retorted, ‘It’s a typically dismissive Pakistani comment.’”
Latif later admitted he had claimed a dropped catch.
“It has been a tough one for me. I have seen more lows than highs. And I have been part of a culture in the comm box where I have often been asked, ‘What’s going on with Bangladesh? Where you are heading? How long will you take before you start winning matches?’ So, I have taken a lot of bullets. I feel rewarded now,” Khan says.
When Bangladesh actually ended the winless streak in ODIs, with a win over Zimbabwe in Harare, a wave of emotion swept through the nation. It proved defeats didn’t numb them. “I am not the emotional types, but I broke down in the press box,” Shuvro recollects.
The corner was turned under Dav Whatmore’s stewardship. Bangladesh began winning frequently. By default or design, Whatmore led the side through a lot of matches against a weakened Zimbabwe and Kenya. It sanitised the last vestiges of the early 2000s and helped forge a winning mentality ahead of the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies.
And ten years after they won the ICC Trophy, Bangladesh knocked out India and beat South Africa in the quadrennial to make the Super Eights. That batch of the Tigers, truly, became icons after that. Popular Bangladeshi writer Zafar Iqbal, who is not related to Tamim Iqbal, wrote an article in a newspaper: “People ask me if Tamim Iqbal is your son. Yes, he is. He is every Bangladeshi’s son.”
Even in a hero-worshipping Bangladesh, no one has reached the status that Shakib Al Hasan has. Shakib is perhaps the most popular Bangladeshi since Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Why? Because he has been for long the world’s top-ranked all-rounder. While the ICC rankings matter as little to Bangladesh as they do to India or any other country, the all-rounder rankings seem to be an exception here.
“Shakib has made a huge difference to Bangladesh’s consciousness,” says Shuvro. “No one bothers much about rankings, honestly. I can’t tell you who is the number one batsman or bowler right now. But Shakib being the world number 1 all-rounder made a huge difference. Probably, it was the first time that a Bangladeshi was No.1 in the world at anything!”
It’s not that Shakib became a better all-rounder by virtue of his ranking. And people in Bangladesh already knew how good he was. But they were not satisfied with this knowledge. They wanted the world to know it, too, and acknowledge it.
“If you are the first person to do something (on a global scale), you become an icon here. Everyone knew what Muhammad Yunus was doing in Bangladesh since the 1980s, but people celebrated him even more after he won the Nobel Peace Prize,” Isam says.
The thing is, at 43, Bangladesh is a very young country by global standards. Post Partition, its identity was suppressed by West Pakistan. Post Liberation, it has lived under the shadow of India, tucked in the big brother’s armpit. Now, it wants to break free and establish its own identity. Cricket, Shakib and the Tigers have helped them do just that.
A fortnight ago, when I arrived in this country to cover the series, a rendition of CLR James’s immortal question kept cropping up in my head. “What do they know of cricket who mostly cricket know?”
Both Team India and I have returned wiser.
The Tiger on trail
April 4, 1997
Amidst rain and tears—with everyone including journalists chipping in to clear the ground—Akram Khan leads Bangladesh to a dramatic win over The Netherlands in the ICC Trophy to take them into World Cup contention for the first-time ever.
April 13, 1997
Nine days later, Bangladesh chase down 166 in 25 overs in a rain-truncated match to beat Kenya in the final, and join Maurice Odumbe & Co for a spot in the 1999 World Cup in England.
May 31, 1999
In years to come, the little Bangladeshis would turn into giant-killers often on the World Cup stage. But it was the diminutive Khaled Mahmud bowling military medium who started it off by downing big-brothers Pakistan in a historic encounter at Northampton.
Months after having been granted Test status, Bangladesh faced off against India in their inaugural game in the big league, and despite Aminul Islam’s ton, they suffered a comprehensive loss.
February 11, 2003
Following their dramatic upset over Pakistan, Bangladesh go nearly five years without an ODI win, clocking up 47 defeats in the interim, including a humbling loss by 60 runs to unheralded Canada, playing their first World Cup encounter since 1979.
January 10, 2005
Bangladesh’s watershed moment in Test cricket, as they beat arch-rivals Zimbabwe by a massive margin of 226 runs in Chittagong. They were denied off it by Inzamam-ul-Haq at Multan two years earlier.
June 18, 2005
The day Bangladesh caused what the Almanack called the ‘greatest upset in 2250 ODIs’ by downing mighty Australia thanks to a Mohammad Ashraful century at Cardiff.
2007 World Cup
Bangladesh cause a major shock in the opening week with Tamim Iqbal and Mushfiqur Rahim taking out India in the opening round. The Bangla Tigers would then play David to another Goliath by beating South Africa in the Super 8s.
With West Indian cricket in disarray following a mass exodus, Bangladesh post their first-ever overseas Test series win, clean-sweeping the home team 2-0 in the Tests before thrashing them
3-0 in the ODIs.
November 5, 2009
Shakib Al Hasan climbed to the summit of the ODI all-rounders’ rankings within three years of making his debut.
Bangladesh send a hapless Kiwi outfit packing by beating them 4-0, their first series win over a top-tier team not in the middle of a player revolt.
2015 World Cup
Bangladesh chase down 322 against Scotland with consummate ease before knocking out a listless England outfit in what is considered the biggest day in their cricket history, with Rubel Hossain bowling his heart out, to make the quarterfinals.