Sylhet: Underachievers eye reversal of fortune
The players don't even remember when Sylhet last won a game of first-class cricket; it has been that long.
"We haven't really won anything in the last three years," said a senior player.
"We took lead against Dhaka once and got a few points more than them. That was one of the better days. But we have lost from winning positions several times. It actually has been a bad few years for us," he rued.
For the record, Sylhet have a winless streak of 25 games, spanning almost four years during which they drew eleven games. Sometimes they got close: in 2007, Alok Kapali hit 157 and strode back to the national fold but still Sylhet failed to win. They took a lead against Dhaka sometime ago, but ended up losing, as one player remembers. Worse, they lost all five matches last season.
If Sylhet were a club team, they would have been relegated to the Third Division long ago.
But they will never be relegated from the National Cricket League and in its 12th edition, they are up against defending champions Rajshahi on September 29 at the Shamsul Huda Stadium in Jessore.
So how does a team that has Alok Kapali, Rajin Saleh, Nazmul Hossain, Enamul Haque and Tapash Baisya and previously Hasibul Hossain lose so many games for so long?
Sure Kapali has been an enigma for the national team, but his class is second to none in the domestic circuit. Rajin has captained Bangladesh in one tournament while Enamul bowled the country to its first-ever Test win.
Pacemen Nazmul and Baisya have given honest performances whenever they have pulled on the Tigers jersey. Hasibul, popularly known as Shanto, was the first player from the region to play Test cricket. There have been others too; Nabil Samad and Imtiaz Hossain have played for the Academy or Bangladesh A teams in recent times.
For several years, individual talent has flown from the Sylhet pipeline but that too has dried up for some time now. Nazmul was the last player from Sylhet to debut for Bangladesh, and that was in 2004-05. No one since has broken through.
For the past two decades, a few families have actually provided a lot of players. Rajin Saleh and three of his brothers have played first-class cricket with the youngest one, Rizvi, now set to open the innings for Sylhet. Then there are the Golam and Samad brothers who have served Sylhet in the divisional side.
Having talked to several former and current players from the north-eastern division, there is no doubt that off the field issues have played a major part in Sylhet's continuous decay. Chief among them is the absence of a cricket league in Sylhet for several years. According to Kapali, it is hard to recognise talent without a proper league structure.
"I don't know most of the players from the other districts of Sylhet. We hear about them but since there is no league, we don't get to see how they play. It is important to see how a batsman does under pressure and playing small tournaments will never be enough," said Kapali, who added that the local cricketers' association organised a tournament last year but that is not as good as league cricket.
The lack of proper matches has a tremendous effect on the level of interest. According to one former player, boys in Sylhet have lost all interest in playing cricket and the casual yet popular para matches have also faded away.
"How did we start playing cricket? When we were kids, we saw matches in the Osmani Stadium and ran back home to play with our friends. This is not the case anymore. Boys are only interested in computer games and finding ways to go to London," he said.
But the blame obviously doesn't lie with the kids, but with the inactive organisers, who have remained stagnant, and the absolute non-existence of infrastructure in the city. The former player mentions how Baisya struggles to find a proper practice facility.
"Tapash is one guy who is always looking for practice in the off-season but remains frustrated. There is hardly any cricket facility for even the NCL players," said Kapali, adding that he hadn't seen any new organisers and most of them who have not moved on to other businesses, are more interested in renting shops in the stadium and idling away hours in the clubs.
"There is no atmosphere for cricket here," he said.
Senior players have also admitted a general lack of commitment in the last few years but according to Rajin, the players have practised for the last few months preparing for this season's first-class competition.
"Some can blame the organisers but the players have to show enough commitment at this level.
"But that is all in the past. We have worked hard over the last few months and we organised the sessions out of our own pocket and with help from the players' association," said Rajin, who has played 24 Tests and 43 one-dayers for the Tigers.
Kapali also said that some young players like Rajin's younger brother Rizvi and Shaker Ahmed could give them a chance to do well this season.
"Actually our bowling attack is good because we have Enam, Nabil, Nazmul and Shaker. We need to click with the bat this year," he said.
Shaker, the under-19 left-arm spinner, has progressed over the last two years and Kapali believes he is one for the future. "He has improved a lot. I wanted him to play last year but age was a factor but now he's ready," said Kapali, who himself is eyeing a lot of runs this year.
"The selectors said I have to do something extraordinary to get back into the national team so I think it's best to start with the four-day games," he said.
Last year's position: Sixth.
Strength: Motivation to win a match after four years.
Player to watch out for: Shaker Ahmed.