Where poverty turns defeat into a priceless gift

Athar Ali Khan, the former Bangladesh cricketer, remembers the reception they received after winning the ICC Trophy in 1997: the red carpet that greeted them at the airport’ the thousands who lined the streets to the hotel, the breakfast reception at the prime minister’s residence, and the half-million people who turned up later to pay their respects along Manik Mia Avenue. It made the celebrations at Trafalgar Square in 2005 look like a demure garden party.

Athar says that they were treated like kings. Each of them received 500,000 taka (now about £4,800) from the prime minister, garlands and flowers from other ministers of state, plus televisions and fridges and sundry other gifts were showered upon them by local businessmen. He says it was manic, unbelievable, way beyond anything that any of them had experienced, even though the celebrations in Dhaka whenever the team won a match were legendary.

Mohammad Rafique, one of the best players that Bangladesh has produced, recalls the journey to practice that he had to take each day across the Buriganga River to get from his home in Jhinjhira. Most of Dhaka’s waste flows into the Buriganga, which, accordingly, turns black in the dry months and emits an overpowering stench to the inhabitants of the slums that rise up along its riverbanks.

Rafique still lives there, albeit in a four-storey concrete building rather than a tin hut. If he was still playing cricket, he wouldn’t have to suffer the stench on a boat now, because his gift after the ICC tournament success 13 years ago was the construction of the Babu Bazaar bridge across the river. Cricket, he says, has given him everything, so when he was asked what he would like after winning that tournament, he said he wanted to give something back to the only community he knows.

These are small things, perhaps, although not in Bangladesh, where cricketers are revered and where the game’s importance is measured not in results, but in a broader, more meaningful context. As we occasional visitors come and pronounce on the standard of cricket here, with the kind of arrogance and certainty that is typical of our trade, we need to remember that our judgements should be made with C.L.R.James’s famous aphorism in mind: ‘What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?’

Sport is meaningful on many levels. Those who have played, and those who watch for a living, focus on the search for excellence and the intensity of competition that can produce such gratifying, soul-enriching results. In a celebrity-obsessed world dominated by the fake and the absurd, a certain truth, unadorned and undeniable, always emerges from the field of play – proper reality television, if you like.

But, and let’s be honest here, we’ve seen precious little excellence or intensity on this tour of Bangladesh. Pockets of it, perhaps, in the swashbuckling start to the second Test by Tamim Iqbal and in the stout-hearted resistance of Mushfiqur Rahim and Junaid Siddique on the final day in Chittagong. Graeme Swann’s send-off, born out of frustration, when he dismissed Siddique at least suggested things had not been straightforward for England, and in that outburst there was an acknowledgement of some kind of struggle.

Otherwise it has been thin gruel. The pitches have not helped, of course: two strips of rolled snot from which not even Sir David Attenborough could find any life, and cricket more than any other game is dictated to by conditions. Even so, the standard of play at times has been sub-first class, never mind international cricket. Bangladesh’s fielding has occasionally been from the village green.

Some of the dissatisfaction is based on the statistical effects of these mismatches. As Ian Bell sent his average against the hosts north of 200 (no blame attached here, because what else he is supposed to do – get out?) and performances against Bangladesh distort otherwise average careers (check out the effect of Jacques Rudolph’s double hundred on his career overall), former players feel cheated. Statistics are the only way of comparing today’s players with those of the past and when averages become distorted because of substandard cricket, so these comparisons are rendered useless.

But, really, these things are irrelevant when measured against more important considerations. C.L.R. knew a bit about the deeper meaning of sport, writing at a time when the West Indies were moving from colonialism to independence. Cricket played an important role in uniting the islands, fostering a sense of identity and inflating self-esteem. The appointment of Frank Worrell, the first black West Indies captain on a permanent basis, played a vital part in the process of self-determination.

Something similar, if less explicit, is happening here in Bangladesh. Less than 40 years old, it is still a fledgling state and one that has experienced more than its share of disaster and hardship. The only time you hear of the country on the news is when disaster has struck: the monsoons that don’t come or come with too much intensity, leading to death and famine; other natural disasters; and, before the restoration of democracy, military coups and political upheaval. All on the back of a long and bloody struggle for independence.

It is a country with little other than enormous manpower. The only positive stories to emerge recently out of Bangladesh are the Nobel prize given to Mohammad Yunus for his revolution in microcredit, and the Bangladesh cricket team. People recall the celebrations after Bangladesh’s unexpected victories over Pakistan in the 1999 World Cup and India in 2007, and the outpouring of national pride that followed. Suddenly, people were seen wearing Bangladesh cricket shirts and Bangladesh flags were paraded proudly in the street.

Now Shakib Al Hasan, the captain, is one of the world’s leading all-rounders – a great source of shared pride – and his contract with Worcestershire is seen as evidence of Bangladesh’s growing influence on the cricket world. Each landmark – Siddique’s maiden hundred and Bangladesh’s highest Test score against England, for example – is cherished as a step in the right direction. Cricket provides rich nourishment in a diet that is low on self-esteem.

So, certainly the results are terrible and certainly the players are fortunate to be playing Tests. There are legitimate arguments as to whether Bangladesh should have been promoted so quickly without the infrastructure to support them, and there are question marks against India, who pushed for Bangladesh’s Test status but have yet to host them. They need more help.

But these are minor quibbles and they miss the point entirely. Set against Bell’s average, a nation of 150 million people that loves cricket is too important a resource for the game to lose. As well as the search for excellence and the purity of competition, sport is about more fundamental things: the great triviality can occasionally truly matter.

Here in Bangladesh, cricket transforms, it inspires and it is absolutely central to the very notion of national identity and shared experience. And what can be more important than that? The Times, 25 March 2010