Bangladesh fans cheer for the team
© Associated Press


Bangla love

Cricket was adored in Bangladesh long before it became a country. The rest of the world is only catching up to that fact now

Osman Samiuddin  |  

Moin Akhtar was not purely a comedian and neither was he purely an actor. He was, let's just say, a man with an extraordinary range of gifts suited perfectly to the broadcast medium. He could anchor a show and steal it in a guest cameo; he could lead, he could support; he could make you laugh, cry, or think, and sometimes he made you do all three at once.

One of his trademarks in the 1980s was a routine about a Bangladeshi who goes to watch a Test. The humour is spun from the central premise that cricket as sport and spectating experience is entirely alien to him.

After the third day, exasperated, the man explains to his friend what he watched. First, he says, two paadris, or priests (the whites, geddit?), came out onto the ground and flipped a coin. "They must be about to gamble," he reasoned. Then, one of them goes into a building and walks out with 11 ghoondas, or thugs. In defiance, the other paadri calls out two of his own ghoondas and they are wielding sticks. One of the ghoondas is given a bright, shiny red stone. He spits on it, but then, realising the entire stadium is watching, quickly starts rubbing it clean against his trousers.

He then runs in and throws it at one of the men with sticks, who hits it away. These paagal ka bachas, or loons, the watcher says incredulously, run after the stone except the two with the sticks, who run past each other and back.

Trust me, it's funnier hearing Akhtar tell it, and in the way it plays upon the physical act of cricket as one of rioting or political demonstration, it makes an anthropological observation. Cricket can be visually unfathomable to many not familiar with it, but it is telling that he used a Bangladeshi as the central protagonist - it revealed a widespread assumption in Pakistan that cricket was alien to Bangladesh.

There has never been any doubt that cricket is a better place with Bangladesh in it; instead there has only been doubt about international cricket's commitment to helping Bangladesh develop

That should come as no surprise for it was the residue of an attitude that coursed through the western half of the country when Pakistan and Bangladesh were one. Not a single player born in what was then East Pakistan ever represented Pakistan in Test cricket. The usual excuses were that there was no talent pool and that the region had no real association with the game: an outright falsehood in both cases.

The truth is there was plenty bubbling along in the region until 1971, just that nobody in West Pakistan cared to know, or do much, about it. That was standard operating procedure in all spheres of life, economic, cultural or political. There was certainly plenty of fervour for the game, proof of which lies in the heaving stadiums for Pakistan's earliest Tests in Dhaka, for side games in Chittagong and in smaller but well-established leagues.

A softer manifestation of that attitude - the patronising, the dismissiveness - transmitted itself to the rest of the world and has lingered since Bangladesh became a Test-playing nation. For too long, after every loss (and there were many), Bangladesh have been derided and mocked for not being good enough, for only being there because they were a useful vote at the ICC. Teams have avoided going there and have been equally reluctant to invite them.

These are the churlish reactions of a small-minded sport too full of itself and not concerned enough about its growth. There has never been any doubt that cricket is a better place with Bangladesh in it; instead there has only been doubt about international cricket's commitment to helping Bangladesh develop.

Despite the prevailing apathy, Bangladesh have created moments of magic, and most recently they lit up 2015 when it looked, finally, as if they had arrived. They got to the quarter-finals of the World Cup and then beat Pakistan, India and South Africa in ODI series at home as if they had been doing it all along. They found fast-fast bowlers and a genius slower-fast bowler; their batsmen began to play smart and prospered; crucially, two planks aligned in the shape of a world-class allrounder and a charismatic captain.

For this month's cover story, Sidharth Monga travelled to Bangladesh and together with Mohammad Isam not only traces this rise but sketches a rare and vital history of Bangladesh as a cricket-playing country. They are cognisant of challenges - of continuing apathy, for instance, as Bangladesh have not played a Test since July 2015, or an ODI since November last. Militant violence threatens to reshape future opportunities too. Nevertheless it is a stirring tale, to be read by anyone who has ever doubted that nation's love for the sport or its aptitude for it.

There is a lot else to sink your teeth into. Gideon Haigh weighs in with a masterful essay on Victor Trumper and that photograph; Tim Wigmore catches up with Marcus Trescothick, a decade on from the last international he played for England; there is an encounter with one of the oldest grounds in the subcontinent, and a compelling study on whether batsmen are batting the wrong way round. Intrigued? Read on.

Osman Samiuddin is a sportswriter at the National and the author of The Unquiet Ones: A History of Pakistan Cricket