Cricket: A whole country to play for

Stephen Fay finds Bangladesh have a supporting cast of millions

BANGLADESH'S cricketers were given a 45-minute pep talk by their prime minister, Sheikh Husina, before they left Dhaka to make their first appearance with the grown-ups in the World Cup. "She told us to put up a brave show. 'Fight it out to the last ball,' she said, 'and anything can happen,'" said the team manager, Tanveer Muzhar Islam.

The prime ministerial send-off was a mark of how much the country cares about cricket. When they won the ICC Trophy in 1997 - which guaranteed a place as one of the minnows in this summer's tournament - 250,000 people met them on their return. Gordon Green-idge, the team's West Indian coach, was rewarded with Bangladeshi citizenship.

Tanveer says that $1.5m will have been spent in the past two years to prepare the team, some of it on hotel rooms outside Watford, where they were staying last week. Bangladesh were the first team to arrive, so that the players would have longer to acclimatise. The manager reports that he watches players with cold hands flinch during fielding practices. When I told him that some English county players use golfer's hand warmers this early in the season, Tanveer turned to his captain, Aminul Islam, and said they had better try them out.

Bangladesh badly want full Test status: "We want to show that we're improving. That's the major thing. We're targeting Test status in the next three to five years," says Tanveer. There is no doubt about the appetite for first-class international cricket in Bangladesh. The National Stadium holds 55,000 (Sheikh Husina's government paid for the floodlights and the electronic scoreboard), and two-day National League games attract audiences of 25,000. Television coverage of the World Cup will be live and the commentators are home-grown.

"Everyone in Bangladesh is more or less involved in cricket," Tanveer says. (The population is 120 million.) Aminul Islam is instantly recognised in the streets of Dhaka. But why cricket? "It's because we're not good enough at football. We are good at hockey, but it's not a big international sport," says Tanveer, a round, good-natured figure who played for Bangladesh as a leg-spinner and fondly recalls a couple of summers in north London club cricket in the mid-Seventies.

Cricket is already sufficiently entrenched to have its own internal politics. Greenidge, whose average in 108 Tests was 44.72, has learned enough about them to say nothing. Last year a member of the Control Board called Greenidge a "rookie" as a coach and he was not sent with the team to the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, where Bangladesh were beaten by Northern Ireland, never mind South Africa. Players like Aminul Islam spring to Greenidge's defence, saying that he took Bangladesh's Under-19 team to the Youth World Cup in South Africa instead, where they beat England and the West Indies. Unfortunately, that was in January 1998 and the Games in September, but this stout defence suggests that the players like the coach. Greenidge himself, who was reappointed for the World Cup, has fallen silent, and politely refers all questions to the manager, who dismisses this particular matter with a wave of the arm.

Bangladesh's tournament starts on 17 May against New Zealand. Although first- generation of Bangladeshi immigrant families to this country tend to be more interested in Michael Owen and David Beckham, the team are expecting to get vocal support for that game in Chelmsford. Subsequently, they play the West Indies in Dublin, Australia (Chester-le-Street), and Pakistan (Northampton), which will provide the young players - the average age of the squad is 24 - with a steep learning curve. Their best chance of a win is against Scotland in Edinburgh on 24 May.

Bangladesh's basic problem is undeniably serious: Tanveer's analysis is that the cold weather will adversely affect the team's fielding and bowling. The bowling attack rests heavily on the seamers - Hasibal Hussain (at 21, the fastest), Manjural Islam (a good tournament in South Africa), Khaled Mahmud (the vice-captain), and Shafiuddin Ahmed (10 wickets at 30.30 gives him the best one- day international bowling average).

But Tanveer speaks warmly of a number of batsmen. The best is Akram Khan, 32, and a former captain. He led the team to their ICC Trophy win, and is the top scorer in Bangladesh's 26 one-day internationals. But the manager's hottest tips are the openers, 20-year-old Mehrab Hossain and 22-year-old Shariar Hossain. Mehrab has averaged 41.40 in five games, and was the first Bangladeshi to hit a century in a one-day international - against Zimbabwe in March.

"People have to give us the chance to improve," says Tanveer. The World Cup gives it to them. How nice it will be if Bangladesh can take it.

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