Where it all started for Bangladesh Cricket: A walk down a personal memory lane …
It all started in 1992. I was barely 8 years old but was slowly getting addicted to cricket. More precisely it was the 1992 World Cup that seriously made me fall in love with the sport. Back in those days we didn’t have any satellite or cable TV in Bangladesh.(or in our house anyways!) It was good old BTV( Bangladesh television) we had to depend on. I still remember the theme of that World Cup. Love at first sight it was. ‘Let’s see who rules the world’ was the theme if my memory serves me right. I saw Pakistan conquering the world coming from no where. Seeing my enthusiasm my mom had bought me a World Cup special edition of ‘Kriralok’(A Bangladeshi Sports Magazine) which I went through word by word, page by page. And there it was where I learned Zimbabwe had been granted Test status after their shock win over England by 9 runs.
A certain Eddo Brandes, who apparently was a fulltime chicken farmer had sent shockwaves through English batsmen who funnily enough looked like headless chicken chasing a target of 134! I read quotes from the then current Bangladeshi players saying things like: ‘Now that Zimbabwe got the test status, it would be easier for us to play the World Cup!...’ I laughed away in ignorance and even read that quote out to my mom. ‘What is this Bangladeshi player(I think it was Athar Ali Khan) saying mom? They will play the World Cup?? Have you ever heard a funnier thing?’ … She laughed too. I was yet to know the significance of Zimbabwe gaining the test status.
I started reading the sports section of the newspaper. It almost became an addiction. I remember eagerly waiting for the newspaper in the morning at the doorsteps and then pouncing onto the sports page. My father tirelessly reminding me that a newspaper is the door to enhancing your general knowledge only when you read the other pages along with the sports page but that somehow always fell to deaf ear. I started learning about our players and would get excited about the domestic players transfers. Days and months go by. By now I know all of our players name by heart and then I read a news about the forthcoming World Cup. ICC has decided that there will be 3 associate members taking part in the next World Cup! The top 3 finishers in the ICC trophy will get to play in the ’96 World Cup! Euphoria! Because by now I also know we had finished third in the last ICC Trophy losing to the eventual winners Zimbabwe in the semifinals who will not even compete in the ICC trophy! Finishing in the top 3 should be a piece of cake! I started dreaming. Everyday before going to bed I would make up virtual scenarios where we are unbelievably beating some super power. The world is praising Bangladesh and its promising cricketers. As I kept on dreaming there were hints from the ICC that if Bangladesh were to qualify, they will also get to host some ‘96 World Cup matches which were being jointly held by India , Pakistan and Sri Lanka ! I was flying on cloud nine.
We were gearing up for the ’94 ICC trophy to be held in Kenya where all we needed to do was finish third to play World Cup for the first time. The early signs were encouraging. We beat a strong Sri Lanka A team by 7 wickets bundling them out for just 85 in the 1st ever SAARC cricket tournament in Dhaka in December, 92. BTV was telecasting the tournament live! This was the first time I saw our cricketers live in action and I was ecstatic. Unfortunately the tournament eventually got abandoned due to political and religious tension at the time. After some time the then World Champions Pakistan were in Town. They came over to play 2 unofficial one day matches. Pakistan had made 272/3 in 45 overs batting first if I remember correctly and the chase began in the most emphatic manner and most certainly beyond any ordinary Bangladesh cricket fan’s wildest imaginations. If my memory doesn’t betray me then I’m right in saying that Athar Ali played the most elegant of off drives straight past Waqar Younis’s 1st ball for a boundary and that set the tone. It was a special feeling! Pakistan , the all conquering defending World Champions with the most fearsome new ball pair in the world was being taken to the cleaners by our own Athar Ali Khan. Both Wasim and Waqar went for plenty and in the blink of an eye we were 70/0 in 9 overs! The introduction of Mushtaq Ahmed changed things considerably and eventually we finished at 210/5 but there was a feeling of satisfaction. To see our players in the same field against these giants and hold their own. It was priceless! Predictably we lost the 2nd match as well. This time by 7 wickets but no one was disheartened and a young Bulbul (Aminul Islam) looked extremely good in both matches and won me over. We started believing. Suddenly my passion turned into an obsession. I started going through all the old newspapers dumped in the storeroom at my grandparent’s house in Farm gate, Dhaka . I found the match report of an Asia Cup encounter where Athar Ali scored a 78 not out in a hopelessly one sided defeat and still got the man of the match award. It made me feel so proud. I would read that match report of ‘Ittefaq’(Leading Daily newspaper) over and over again and would daydream of a day when we might actually get to play international cricket regularly and may be, just may be, run one of these teams close one of these days!
So came the’94 ICC Trophy. We went into the tournament as one of the pre tournament favorites and were highly fancied to qualify for the ’96 World Cup. We had 5 teams in our group including us and the top 2 was to go through to the second round. Us going to the second round was almost a certainty but everyone who were following Bangladesh cricket at the time was anxious about facing UAE and we had good reasons too. The UAE side was really a combined India , Pakistan & Sri Lanka expat eleven in disguise. All their players had strong first class cricket experience and quite a few of them had even represented their national squad previously. There was just a single UAE born player in their side. And we had our first hiccup! They easily beat us by 6 wickets. We finished 2nd in the group behind them and hence found ourselves in the tougher group in the second round with top favorites Netherlands and hosts Kenya . Hong Kong completed our group and they were just happy to make it to the second round. All on a sudden we started to feel the pressure. The top two from our group would make it to the semifinals which meant one of the fancied teams was going to miss out! The defeat to UAE had completely turned the competition on its head as rather than being in the other group with lowly Bermuda , Canada and Ireland we ended up with Holland and Kenya . The anticipation was building and so was the anxiousness. The lead up to the tournament didn’t help either. Our coach Mohindar Amarnath had made quite a few questionable decisions in the lead up to the tournament most noticeably the appointment of Faruk Ahmed as the skipper. The team didn’t seem to have any solid plans either! One day Athar would open the batting and the very next day it would be Faruk Ahmed opening and then the following day someone else would pair up with Jahangir Alam! The same was happening with our bowling with even Nannu (Minhazul Abedin) opening the bowling with Prince (Golam Nowsher) or Athar pairing up with Dulu (Jahangir Alam Talukdar). It all seemed very chaotic and I along with all Bangladeshi cricket followers now started to have serious doubts over the coaching skills of Mr. Amarnath. The big game came and went and we went down to Holland and were hanging on by the thread. The bowlers had done well to restrict the Dutch side to 205 in spite of another new opening bowling pair of Dulu(Jahangir Alam Talukdar) and a young 17 year old left arm spinner called Sharfuddoula Ibne Shaikat. But our batsmen failed miserably and folded for 158. I was depressed the entire day but was still secretly hoping we will beat the Kenyans. I severely started to dislike our coach. None of the players seemed to know their role let alone which position they will bat on. Of course the newspaper at home remained my only source of team gossip and there were rumors of unrest within the team. Anyways, judgment day was beckoning. Us against the Kenyans on their soil. Millions of us were to follow the match on Radio. The dream of playing the World Cup would die an untimely death if we lost to the Kenyans. I still remember every single moment of that match so well! After all these years of amazing TV coverage I feel it still cant match the intensity we had listening to the matches on the radio back in those days! Sigh! Anyways we won the toss and elected to field and things seemed to be going ok until the halfway mark of the Kenyan innings. I believe they were 74-2 after 25 overs. Our bowlers had tied them up well up to that point and then the rest of their innings was pretty forgettable. Their captain Maurice Odumbe had suddenly taken a liking to all of our slow bowlers and was tirelessly launching them out of the ground one after the other. Young Sharfuddoula Ibne Shaikat was taken to the cleaners while Moni(Enamul Haque)and Nannu(Minhazul Abedin) also had bowling figures they would not be too proud of. So from 74-2 at the halfway mark Kenya had ended up with 295-6 after 50 overs! Our commentators were probably feeling just like us. For our younger audiences to understand the graveness of the situation, back in those days a total of 280+ in a crunch match would be comparable to scoring around 350 now. Its almost like batting out the opposition. Our reply started with yet another surprise this time my favorite Bangladeshi player Bulbul(Aminul Islam) coming out to open with Jahangir Alam. They started confidently with Bulbul(Aminul Islam) being the aggressor and from a position of hopelessness we started dreaming again. The opening pair went past 50 in good time and then went on to complete the century partnership. 139 without loss in 24 overs! Bulbul(Aminul Islam) the makeshift opener was a playing a gem and scoring more than a run a ball while Jahangir Alam was giving solid support. Then tragedy struck! Jahangir got run out and then the very next ball Tom Tikolo apparently took a catch of a lifetime to dismiss Bulbul(Aminul Islam)! 139-2! Jahangir gone for 57 and Bulbul(Aminul Islam) gone for a gem of a 74. Nannu(Minhazul Abedin) and Akram Khan kept us on the hunt for a while but when they departed it slowly started to fade away. We ended at 282-8. A mere 13 runs short. It was a gallant effort. But the dream had ended. There was this strange feeling of emptiness. I was barely 10 or 11 years old and could not hold back tears like many who followed our team back then. All those endless nights of fantasies of Bangladesh competing at the world stage was going to remain a dream. It was the lowest point of our short cricket history.
The next few months were pretty forgettable but we eventually moved on. The domestic circuit was as exciting as ever. We regularly had crowds exceeding 25 to 30 thousand in the big clashes featuring Abahani and Mohammedans. Cricket was well and truly alive.
Along came the 2nd SAARC cricket tournament. India , Pakistan and Sri Lanka sent their A teams to play alongside our national side this time led by the burly Akram Khan. There was plenty of interest in the tournament as all the A teams featured household names. Pakistan was led by Ramiz Raja who by then was quite a star himself having played a significant role in their World Cup triumph. They also had the likes of Zafar Iqbal and Zahid Fazal in their ranks. Team India had multiple stars. Just to name a few: Saurav Ganguli, Rahul Dravid, Venkatesh Prasad, Pravin Amre, Rajesh Chauhan, Salil Ankola, Vikram Rathour. Most of these players had already played for the national side by then. Sri Lanka had the services of Russel Arnold and were led by Chandika Hathurusingha. I remember hogging the TV everyday! The first match was such a heartbreak! We lost to the Pakistanis by 1 wicket! Chasing 168 to win Pakistan needed 1 run of the last ball with Mohsin Kamal on strike. Anisur Rahman was bowling the last over. I remember as Anis was approaching to bowl the last ball he suddenly stopped on his run up before releasing the ball with the non-striker stranded out of his crease and he showed unbelievable sportsmanship by not running the non-striker out. Till this day I regret him not running him out as then it would have been a tie. Anyways, to add insult to injury, the last ball was a brilliant one as the batsman failed to get a bat on to it but our wicketkeeper fumbled to gather the ball! Pakistan ran a buy and went on to win by the faintest of margin. I cried again. Just kept on asking God, Why? Why is it always us? But as it turned out better things were to come. We got past the Sri Lankan side with considerable ease beating them by 5 wickets. Anis and Saiful Islam cleaning up the Sri Lankan side grabbing the last 5 wickets for the addition of 1 run! Anisur Rahman once again was the pick of the bowlers with 4 wickets. By the now the tournament was the talk of the town. Bangladesh had been extremely impressive going into the last group match against the India , who were arguably the strongest side of the tournament. And boy was it a match to cherish! Bangladesh finished with 172 with Bulbul (Aminul Islam) making a solid 64. It wasn’t a bad total on a low and slow Dhaka wicket. And it turned out to be a match winning one! We won the match by 1 run with Mohammad Rafique grabbing the final wicket of Venkatesh Prasad stumped by Jahangir Alam. The whole country went berserk. Rafique grabbed 3 wickets and Anis was turning out to be a bit of a sensation grabbing 3 wickets again. It was such an emotional moment in our short cricket history. This was an extremely strong India side with quite a few of the players with big reputation. And it meant a lot to all of us. We eventually lost to them in the final and finished runners up but that was no mean achievement. Anisur Rahman finished the tournament as the top wicket taker and Akram Khan had established himself as an inspiring leader.
We started dreaming again. Actually we had never stopped dreaming. We impressed further against England A drawing against them in a 3 day game. The highlights being, Bulbul (Aminul Islam) and Nannu (Minhazul Abedin) featuring in a partnership of 175 plus runs. Bulbul further enhanced his reputation with a magnificent 121 against an attack led by Dominick Cork. We then went on to play the 5th Asia Cup held in Sharjah. Another memorable milestone moment of me following our national side as this would be the first time I would be watching our national side play full ODIs and live on satellite channel (Star Sports) with the likes of legendary Sunil Gavaskar commentating on our match. Trust me; it was a big deal back then. Predictably we went on to lose all the matches comfortably. There were a few positives here and there. Bulbul(Aminul Islam) looked classy in his little innings of 30 against India . I still remember Sunil Gavaskar praising him when he played two magnificent square cuts against Manoj Prabhakar for four and lofted Utpol Chatterjee straight over his head for an effortless six. After that little innings Clive Lloyd had a word with Bulbul and praised him as a compact batsman. A young Shanto (Hasibul Hossain) Bowled Roshan Mahanama with an unplayable delivery on debut to leave them tottering at 8-2 and eventually bowled Sri Lanka out for 233 on a placid Sharjah pitch. Saiful Islam claming 4-36 the best bowling figures by a Bangladeshi bowler then. Cricket slowly but surely was taking over from Football as the number one sport as Kenya came for a visit for their preparations of the 96’ World Cup to be held in subcontinent and were promptly whitewashed 3-0 in an unofficial ODI series. They went on to lose every single match they played on that tour which included a defeat to our under 19 side. The ’96 World Cup which was won by a rampaging Sri Lankan side sparked further interest in cricket among us and by now cricket was our number sport. In September, 96 we participated in the ACC cup. The winner of the tournament was going to earn the right of playing the next Asia Cup along with the big three Asian sides. This tournament was of particular significance not only because we had been participating in the previous Asia Cups regularly but also due to the fact that it featured UAE, a side that had beaten us at the previous ICC trophy to deny us of a World Cup birth. The semi-final and the final were telecasted live on Star Sports and we won the tournament comfortably by beating UAE by more than a hundred runs and earned the right to play at the next Asia Cup and it was a big morale booster ahead of the next ICC Trophy.
The appointment of Gordon Greenidge was a popular one and we started preparing for the ’97 ICC Trophy, the qualifying event for the next World Cup. Once again the criteria was the same. The top 3 teams earn the right to play at the Next World Cup to be held in England in ’99. The tournament was going to be played in artificial astro-turf as opposed to the traditional pitch and would be held in Kualalampur , Malaysia . The Bangladesh Cricket Board ensured we were best prepared by laying out astro-turfs for our players to practice on ahead of the big event. Along came the month of March in the year 1997. I was a student in the 8th grade now. I knew this was big. It was now or never for the existence of our cricket. There was a lot of build up to the event and the expectant fans would be scarred like never before if we didn’t clinch birth at the next World Cup. As I am floating through the memory lane I suddenly remembered something sort of relevant. Back then we used to play cricket in the afternoon like every other kid our age. And there was this kid round about my age who used to always stand out. He used to treat bowlers twice his age with little or no respect and used to hit boundaries at will. He was left handed and our circle of friends had given him the nick ‘Suriya’ as Jayasuriya was quite big back in those days. His name was Abir, better known as Shahriar Nafees who went on to play for the national side and is still actively involved. He had a young brother who was equally impressive for his age. I wonder if he is involved in cricket as well!
Anyways, going back to the ICC Trophy ’97. I must mention that we had to rely on live radio coverage as sadly there was no TV coverage of the event in Bangladesh (We did get highlights later on after the tournament had concluded). But we were glued to the radio every single second. I remember even bunking classes and staying at home just to listen to the match coverage. We started off the campaign in confident fashion breezing past Argentina , West Africa and Denmark with fast bowler Shanto(Hasibul Hossain) in devastating form. Then came our main opposition in the form of UAE. We were quietly confident. We had beaten them by more than a hundred runs in our last meeting and as it turned out, it was the same story again. We beat them by a massive 110 runs all but ensuring our progress to the next stage as group winners. We rounded off the group stage by beating Malaysia in our last match and progressed with a 100% record. In the second round or super rights we were placed alongside Netherlands , Ireland and Hong Kong with the top two sides progressing to the semifinals with Netherlands being potentially our toughest challenge. In our first match we took care of Hong Kong by 7 wickets with Mohammad Rafique claiming 3-20 and Bulbul(Aminul Islam) guiding the team to victory with an unbeaten 53. The same day Ireland defeated favorites Netherlands by 5 runs (D/L method) to cause a massive upset. In our second match we came up against the Irish. Shanto(Hasibul Hossain) was at his brilliant best as we bowled them out for 129 with Shanto(Hasibul Hossain) claiming 3-29 and with us cruising at 24-0 on the 7th over the heavens opened up. An almost certain victory was denied. The match got abandoned and we had to share a point with Ireland , who by virtue of this 1 point were almost guaranteed to go through from this group. This put us in a very tricky situation going into the last match against favorites Netherlands . Ireland already had 1 win (against Netherlands ) and one no result and was always going to beat Hong Kong and hence would go through from the this group. With both us and Netherlands having 1 win, all on a sudden this was a must win match for both the sides. We were all so anxious heading into that match! We had been in a similar situation last time around against Kenya and we all know what happened there. We started off quite well and restricted them to 171 all out. We started our chase and in no time were looking down the barrel! 1-7, 2-7, 3-13 and 4-15. We were listening in disbelief as the Dutch seamers were ripping the heart out of our batting order. At 4-15 I think I had never ever felt worse in my life. We were still unbeaten in the tournament and were having a fairy tale run and one rained out match against the Irish had almost ruined everything. Akram Khan and Nannu(Minhazul Abedin) were batting in the middle and till this day I don’t think I have prayed and promised to the Almighty as much as I did for those next few hours. They slowly started building a partnership and then came another heart-stopping moment when it started to rain. We were way behind in the D/L method and only 2 more deliveries were required for this to be a legitimate match after which if the players went off the field the Dutch team would be declared winners by virtue of D/L method! Akram Khan showed immense maturity and started wasting time in all possible manners. He tied his shoelaces, changed his helmet and did everything possible to deny those 2 deliveries being bowled as he knew once that happens it would virtually be all over if it continues raining and the Dutch team would be reluctant to return to the field. Where as if this was an abandoned match, Bangladesh would go through. It worked! And if I remember correctly the players went off the field with 1 ball still remaining for it to be a legitimate match! Those were the longest few minutes of my life at that point. The play resumed again and Bangladesh were set a revised target of 141 in 33 overs. Nannu(Minhazul Abedin) got run out leaving us on 77-5. and when Enamul Haque went to leave us on 86-6 we were pretty much dead and out! Akram though was still fighting. He had a date with destiny. Saiful Islam came in and just gave him enough support by hanging in there while he single handedly took on all corners. Saiful departed with us 6 runs away from the target but Akram Khan was there till the end. He delivered when it mattered the most! The man single handedly took us to the semi-final of the ICC Trophy with an innings of a life time. That 68 not out is still after all these years arguably the greatest ever knock played by a Bangladeshi. The magnitude of that innings was epic and everlasting. Bangladesh cricket would not be where it is today if Akram Khan had not rescued us from that situation. The situation, the pressure, and the expectations – he took on everything on his able shoulders and took us to safety. If ever there was a captain’s knock, that was it! We never looked back from there on. In the semi-final Bangladesh easily defeated Scotland to reach the final thus creating history by claiming a birth in the World Cup proper! We celebrated in style! Celebrations that can never be matched or compared. It was the happiest day of our lives. The dream became a reality. WE WERE GOING TO PLAY THE WORLD CUP! We finished the tournament as unbeaten Champions beating Kenya in an epic final which we won by 2 wickets with Shanto(Hasibul Hossain) scampering through for a single of the last ball. It was the perfect script and the perfect revenge! We had beaten UAE, Holland And Kenya; the 3 teams that had beaten us at the previous ICC Trophy in the same order! I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the Radio Bangladesh commentators for doing a magnificent job throughout the tournament. Specially Chowdhury Zavarullah Sharafat for that last over when we needed 11 of the last over. Every single one his words are still music to my ear after all these years. I still remember that day clearly. My father had just come back from the office. We all tensely marched back and forth in our apartment listening to the commentary. My mom, who doesn’t understand cricket at all, started crying in joy as soon as we had won! We all hugged each other. It was just a joyous spontaneous moment. My father then said ‘lets have Biriyani!(Local Delicacy), we have to celebrate!’ and boy! Did we all celebrate! Everyone in our country came onto the street! People who understood cricket! People who didn’t! They all just knew Bangladesh had achieved something massive. Us lucky few realized the magnitude of this victory. The party went on for months and hopefully it will never end. The rest is history as we went on to gain ODI and Test status and now get to play regular cricket and slowly are becoming a force to be reckoned with. But I just feel so lucky to have been a part of our coming of age.
As I write this, we are getting ready to host the 2011 World Cup on our home soil and I am sure there will be so many more new and exciting chapters in our cricket but no matter what happens in the future, I can die a happy man.