History, climate, and the Bengali way of doing things conspire against a Bangladeshi presence in World Cup cricket.
More than a billion eyes are now glued on the Subcontinent, with the World Cup well underway. And with India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka jointly hosting the event, the quadrennial extravaganza has a truly South Asian feel to it. But, amid all the regional camaraderie on the playing field, what of Bangladesh?
It is a matter of chagrin for the millions of cricket-lovers of Bangladesh that for the sheer volume of their interest, their country is still not up to world class cricket. World Cup ´96 is nothing but a reminder of this harsh reality.
It has not helped that for many years Bangladesh has been dubbed the most promising young nation in the international arena of cricket. Their performance against fellow associate members of the International Cricket Council (ICC) over the years has been impressive, to say the least. In 1981, when Sri Lanka got their “Test-playing nation” status, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe (in that order) were singled out by the ICC as the next two probables for the elite group.
Fifteen years on, Zimbabwe now brush their shoulders with the best in the sport, having gained Test status two years ago and with a victory against world champions Pakistan behind them. Bangladesh still hovers in the periphery, faced with the unthinkable prospect of being overtaken by former non-entities like Kenya, Holland and the UAE.
Being an associate (read, lesser) member of the ICC, Bangladesh does not automatically qualify for the World Cup, as do the nine Test-playing nations. Rather, they have to go through the ICC Trophy, the official qualifying tourney for the elite event, which makes the Trophy as important for Bangladeshis as the World Cup is for Indians or Pakistanis.
Bangladesh´s finishing among the top four in the ICC Trophy ever since their first participation in 1979 can be called impressive. But they have never managed to win the championship in order to qualify for the World Cup, having always been beaten to it by Zimbabwe. However, the 1994 edition of the once-in-four years competition presented them with a golden opportunity to transform this dream into reality. For the first time in the history of the tournament, not one but three top finishers would make their way to World Cup ´96. And with Zimbabwe not playing (being a Test nation by then), the top-favourites were the upcoming Holland team and obviously, Bangladesh.
The Bangladeshis saw their chance and prepared for it as never before. Mohinder Amamath, former Indian test star and hero of the 1983 World Cup final, was roped in to coach the promising outfit. Months of training followed, as did numerous foreign tours, and practice games were played by the dozen. Bangladesh was ready for the challenge, and could already hear the roaring stands at World Cup ´96.
Well, they came close. All of 13 runs separated Bangladesh from a maiden World Cup berth. In what turned out to be the decider for the last qualifier, host Kenya overcame a valiant Bangladeshi fightback and pipped the top-favourites at the post in a high-scoring affair. Bangladesh was out of contention and a nation´s dream was shattered.
But it was not Kenya or joint-favourites Holland who snatched away the coveted goal. Both were expected to make it to the finish along with the Bengalis, anyway. Rather, their ´rightful´ place, as all Bangladeshis like to think, was taken by an unfairly compiled UAE outfit. Bringing in first class cricketers from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and handing out citizenships overnight, the Arab side was “the best of the Indo-Pak-Lanka second elevens,” as an angry Dhaka enthusiast dubbed it. And so it was. The UAE, or “United Arab Expatriates”, ran away with the Trophy.
Controversies apart, the Bangladeshi team returned to Dhaka a crestfallen outfit. With no one ready to shoulder the blame, accusations started flying. The skipper pointed at the selectors, the selectors the skipper; the team management blamed the players, and the players one another. The press, characteristically, blamed everyone. As for coach Amarnath, he did not even bother to return to Dhaka.
The bottom line was that Bangladesh had fallen behind even its earlier unenviable ranking. This was how World Cup ´96 arrived with no home team for the Bengalis to root for.
As one of the more enduring legacies of British rule, cricket was taken up by countries in the Subcontinent with gusto. But, among the former colonies (or parts thereof), Bangladesh was never up to the mark. Many reasons have been proffered for this backwardness, some stretching back into history.
And so the story goes that the proud people of Bengal, never willing to submit to the Englishman, purposely refused to learn his game. The fact that Bangladesh never had public schools is also thought to have a role in ensuring that the country remained a cricketing backwater.
Only a week into his brief stint as the national coach, Amarnath had complained of the limited facilities available for training. Although competitive cricket is played in as many (or, as little) as ten grounds throughout the capital, only two are fit to host topflight domestic cricket which is hardly enough to develop a world-class team. At a ground in Mirpur, where first division matches are played, cows come in to graze during intermission. These grounds also double as venues for weddings and fairs, which leads to a bumpy outfield and almost unplayable wickets.
Dhaka Stadium, the only ground properly equipped to hold international matches, hosts both the Premier Division cricket as well as the football leagues. Football, being the main spectator sport in the country, always gets preference. The result: the cricket authorities have the field at their disposal for no more than five months a year. Golam Faruk, a member of the Bangladesh Cricket Control Board (BCCB), says, “It takes at least a month to prepare a top-class pitch. We get only ten days to do so. How can you expect any better?”
If there were not already enough hurdles to world class cricket, there is also the weather to blame. With the monsoons and humid summer prevailing for almost half the year, the game can only be played during winter and in early spring. Says Faruk, “Holland and the UAE tram throughout the year in their indoor facilities, while our players can go out only for a few months each year.”
Facilities apart, the structure within which the game is played in Bangladesh is also in question. The only form of cricket played at competitive level is the one-day game. Critics believe that has to change. Len Chambers, manager of the West Indies Youth team that came to Dhaka a couple of months ago, says, “To win matches at the highest level, you need to have the right temperament and one-day matches get you nowhere where temperament is concerned. You´ve got to play three or four-day games to be top both mentally and technically.”
Things are changing, however. With the satellite television-induced rise in popularity of cricket in Bangladesh, the standard of the game is also said to be rising. And the ICC Trophy debacle seemed to have acted like a tonic to an ailing sport.
Preparations are already on for the next ICC Trophy to be played in 1998. Artificial turfs for the ´98 tournament have been laid at two different grounds in the capital. Other grounds have been given a facelift and wickets relaid, complying to international standards. A new, only-for-cricket international stadium is being planned.
But the main improvement has come in the quality of play. With a new generation of cricketers coming up, common complaints about poor fitness, sloppy fielding, and notenough handwork are heard less often. The game is also being de-centralised with leagues and competitions being held throughout the country. The lack of fast bowlers, for years the shame of Bengali fans, is no more to be felt thanks to those who have come out of different “pace foundations”.
The BCCB is also active in promoting school cricket. A few years back Nirman Ltd, a local construction company, came forward to sponsor-a nation-wide school cricket competition.
The result of these developments can already be felt. The under-19 team won a tournament in Malaysia last year, defeating Sri Lanka. The national side have recorded victories against both India “A” and Sri Lanka “A” teams. Bangladesh also came out on top when the Kenyan team came on tour in late 1995, and the youth team, playing to a home crowd, pulled off a historic 3-0 series win over the West Indies. That was impressive enough for Gus Logie, former West Indian test player, to comment, “The way I see things, your cricket can go only one way—ahead.”