Cricket brings pride and joy to the broken streets of Bangladesh

Stephen Brenkley explores the relentless passion for the game in a country that continues to endure a troubled existence
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The Independent Online

Sometimes in the past month it has been tempting to muse on the point of this cricketing venture. On a piece of scrub, strewn with litter, dust, cracks and stones, just up the road from the unimaginable slum where he lives, Shaqil Ahmed provided an answer.

He marked out a long run up and romped smoothly in, plastic ball in hand, and delivered a more-or-less perfect left-arm inswinging yorker at pace. A chap called Chris Austin just about brought his bat down in time, the ball careered off at an angle behind and the watching audience, all of them Shaqil's fans and friends, hooted with delight.

Shaqil's face was alive in that moment on the edge of the dirt poor Chittagong community of Roufabad. Nor was he alone that day last week on a whistle-stop tour of places where daily life is marked by the struggle to exist. Poverty is the only certain constant companion, followed by its old mate killer disease, and although there is some relief on the way it is not about to disappear.

At the end of these visits it seemed utterly redundant to ask about cricket but the constant refrain had been that cricket was an obsession in this country. To hear some opinions it envelops it almost as much the floods that threaten its existence. There could not be a chance of that in these settlements where few can read, television hardly exists and radio is a relative luxury because the acquisition of running water would be higher on the list of anybody's immediate necessities. Yet every time cricket was mentioned, whether in Roufabad, a Muslim enclave, or in Andha, a community of blind people, it was as if a volt of electricity had surged through.

Eyes lit up, hand shot up. How do you watch then? Who do you know? They talked of listening to radios when and where they could, of trying to seek out televisions with 50 or 60 people crowded round the one set. They shouted out names: Mohammad Ashraful, still a hero here though dropped for the present series of matches against England, Mashrafe bin Mortaza, ditto, Habibul Bashar, an old time colossus. And they screeched the names of England – Paul Collingwood received most name checks.

The effect that this game has on these people and the pride it affords them was as clear as the appendages on a nine-towered mosque. "It is the only thing that is giving a name to this country," said Shafiq-ul-Haq. "I would say that after independence the second most important thing to have happened to Bangladesh is cricket."

Shafiq, known to all as Hira, has been around Bangladeshi cricket for as long as anybody. He played for the team when they were still Pakistan in the 1960s, he was the team's captain in the ICC Trophy competitions of 1979 and 1983 and is now the national team operations manager. If anybody knows about cricket in this country, he does.

Cricket has always been played here but it was never part of the national fabric as it has become. The World Cup stages its opening ceremony in Dhaka next year and there are eight games of the tournament to follow, including two of the quarter-finals. This, make no mistake, is this country's Olympics and in terms of the legacy and the money it could generate, perhaps more significant.

In the days when Bangladesh was still part of India there were no star players. After the partition of 1947, when India became independent of the United Kingdom this bit of it became part of Pakistan. But it was always the runt of the litter. The team played in the Pakistan first-class competition as East Pakistan but though Pakistan's first home Test match was played in Dhaka in 1955 it never provided a single home-grown Pakistan Test player. "We felt we were neglected in all areas, including cricket," said Hira.

In 1971 the Liberation War, short but bloody, left the country bereft and bedraggled. From that year zero, cricket was eventually to play a vital if initially unseen role in its evolution. The MCC's first tour at the end of 1976 is still talked about here. The draw that Bangladesh managed in the inaugural two-day match is described in the pamphlet accompanying this tour by one who played in it as "the biggest turning point of our cricket". But they know that the granting of Test status in 2000 was too much too soon. There was barely a first-class structure, there were barely any players beyond the elite few, there was nowhere for most people to play and no bats or balls for them to play it with.

The wonder remains, however, not that Bangladesh keep being beaten but that they compete as well as they do. Beyond the main grounds there are still almost no proper strips, though this does not stop people trying to play. The view from the train on the journey from Dhaka to Chittagong consists, it seems, almost entirely of paddy fields, in between which impromptu games of cricket are taking place.

There is now an age group structure in place – the Under-19s beat England away and home last year though both teams were subsequently disappointing in the Under-19 World Cup. A schools tournament, begun in the 1980s and the reason for the existence of many of today's national players, is still running. But equipment, or the lack of it, remains a constant lament.

On the eve of the Test series, Bangladesh's coach, Jamie Siddons, said that many of the players – and these were internationals he was talking about – still had to buy their own bats, especially if they wanted something worthwhile.

And Hira offered another explanation, based on the sheer suffering. "We are physically not as tough as the Indians and the Pakistanis and we did not have enough of the fast bowlers but our spinners are all right. By race we were rice oriented and don't get the full nourishment compared to other countries. In the northern districts and southern part of the countries they could not grow because they were not so well off financially, that's another factor."

There are reasons to hope – there have to be. There are new, if not sparkling stadiums, in Dhaka and Chittagong. Next to the Sher-e-Bangla in Dhaka is the new academy of excellence and though it is not yet complete it will be state-of-the-art from its computer analysis rooms to its eight outdoor nets. There are dormitories to accommodate 30 players. Immediately outside its doors, of course, is the usual noise, dirt, overcrowding and desperate poverty.

And all the time Bangladesh keep losing. In the one-day arena they occasionally register famous triumphs – Australia in 2005, India in the 2007 World Cup – but these merely serve to emphasise their more regular defeats.

Hira said: "When we won the ICC Trophy in 1997 that changed everything. But I would say it was too soon when we were given Test match status. We should have waited till our first-class grew up.

"But things are happening. Most other countries didn't know Bangladesh except in a bad way, cyclone, disaster and flood, but if one good thing came that was cricket. Ninety countries know Ashraful. They might not know who our president is but they know Ashraful, they know Siddique now after his hundred in Chittagong. This country has come into the limelight worldwide."

The players are now paid $2,000 (£1,330) a Test with bonuses of a similar amount for wins and hundreds. These are enormous sums when it is estimated that a third of the population is living below the poverty line and it only takes around £57 a month to survive in reasonable order here.

Chris Austin, head of the Department for International Development in Bangladesh (and a huge cricket fan), is helping to develop an aid programme which will see the UK spending £60m in the next five years.

The Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction Programme is not only easing the suffering but giving self-respect to people because they administer the funds.

Andha was the most poignant place because there 30 of the community is blind. There is no running water, they wash in a fetid stream behind a nearby garment factory, the visit had to be curtailed because it was eating into their begging time. But there is a school there and amid the squalor there was a sense of pride and community.

And cricket. "I have been blind since I was 10," said Jahangir Alam, 57. "I have never seen a game but I listen to it on the radio. It has made this country noticed." And so it has.