The rise and rise of Bangladesh cricket – what took them so long?
With 160 million people, an insatiable zest for the game and improving infrastructure, Bangladesh loom as world cricket’s next major force
It was at the Adelaide Oval in 2015 that Bangladesh cricket’s rise became undeniable. With two full, straight and swinging deliveries, Rubel Hossain knocked England out of the World Cup, ensuring Bangladesh’s quarter-final berth.
Ahmed Sajjadul Alam Bobby was there, just as he has been throughout Bangladesh’s journey, working in everything from logistics, tournament organising and marketing for the board since 1978. “Watching that game was a privilege,” he says. “Beating England in an away venue meant a lot.”
Bobby, who is now a board director, was born in the nation’s capital, Dhaka, in 1959, when it was still part of East Pakistan. Aged two he attended his first Test, between England and Pakistan in the city. Yet hosting Tests could not conceal East Pakistan’s injurious treatment by West Pakistan; East Pakistan had half Pakistan’s population yet received one-third of government spending. “Two hundred years of colonisation by the British were followed by 25 years of brutal and repressive rule by the Pakistanis,” Bobby says.
Such inequities manifested themselves in cricket. All Pakistan’s selectors were from the west. East Pakistan teams played only spasmodically in Pakistani first-class cricket because of a lack of funds. Only one East Pakistan player was ever selected for Pakistan.
On 1 March 1971, Dhaka hosted a match with a Commonwealth XI, against a fraught backdrop of a nation about to split. Following urges by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, later Bangladesh’s first president, to protest, students set fire to the stadium. The game was abandoned. Within weeks, war broke out.
The new independent nation was decimated by the legacy of a brutal war and humanitarian crisis. Cricket was affected too. “Being an expensive sport in a war-ravaged economy, it was impossible to get it going straight away,” Bobby recalls. The Dhaka Premier League was suspended in 1972, and only revived after the British High Commission donated kit. A new bat cost about as much as the average salary for a government official. When the national team practised, the board couldn’t afford to supply water.
After independence, Abdul Kardar, Pakistan’s former captain, advocated Bangladesh’s elevation to Test cricket. His suggestion was ignored. Bangladesh were not invited to the inaugural World Cup in 1975.
Robin Marlar, a Sussex player turned journalist, highlighted Bangladesh cricket’s plight. His articles helped lead to the MCC’s first tour to independent Bangladesh in 1976-77. “It was the first window into Bangladesh cricket for the rest of the world,” Bobby says, believing it helped cricket usurp football as the country’s leading sport.
Bangladesh failed to qualify for the 1979 World Cup, the first of five unsuccessful attempts. As Bangladesh lost to teams such as Denmark and Malaysia in the qualifiers, every disappointment “meant another four years going to waste”.
Yet Bangladesh’s infatuation with cricket remained undimmed. From 1986, the side played in the Asia Cup; cricketers including Wasim Akram graced domestic matches. Belatedly, the ICC paid heed. The Champions Trophy was created in 1998 to fund expansionism. Bangladesh hosted the first tournament, just after horrendous floods. “The challenge seemed insurmountable,” Bobby recalls. “But the resilience of the Bengalis showed.”
A year later, Bangladesh featured in their first World Cup. They defeated Scotland and then, remarkably, Pakistan: the victory that sparked a push for Test status. Bobby took an ICC inspection team around Bangladesh, and helped with the board’s presentation. “We said that the first stop for globalisation has to be Bangladesh because we have support from the general population, government, media and sponsors.”
The bid was successful, owing more to potential and politics than performance; fellow associate nation Kenya had a superior team.
If expectations were low, Bangladesh failed even to meet those. From 1999 to 2004 the side lost 71 of 72 completed matches. “Lack of exposure, and as a consequence inexperience, held Bangladesh back. We had to take enough time to strengthen our domestic game,” Bobby reflects. Though Bangladesh only launched their multi-day competition in 1999, a year before their first Test, he maintains that Test elevation “wasn’t premature”. “The only way for Bangladesh to improve was to play against tougher opposition.”
From the mid-2000s, Bangladesh occasionally hinted at their worth – beating Australia at Cardiff in 2005, toppling India and South Africa in the 2007 World Cup, and thrashing New Zealand 4-0 in an ODI series in 2010. Yet their penchant for self-destruction remained: 14 players defected to the rebel Indian Cricket League in 2007; Mohammad Ashraful, author of a beguiling century in that Cardiff heist, was banned for corruption.
Adelaide heralded the birth of a new team. Patronised no more, Bangladesh promptly won six straight ODI series at home to reach the Champions Trophy, ahead of the West Indies; now they are ranked sixth. Last October Bangladesh beat England: their first victory against a full-strength Test nation other than Zimbabwe, and then drew 1-1 in Sri Lanka in March.
It should just be the start. With 160 million people – fewer only than India and Pakistan among Test nations – an insatiable zest for cricket and improving infrastructure, in sport and beyond, Bangladesh loom as world cricket’s next major force.
“Cricket is and has been much bigger than winning mere matches – it has given Bangladesh a positive identity and unites the whole country. Cricket has given an entire generation the courage to dream,” Bobby says. He predicts that Bangladesh will be ranked in the top five ODI nations by 2020, then quickly corrects himself. “No. Top three.”
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