The history of cricket in India usually emphasises Bombay, but Bengal can also make claim to a rich heritage, with a match played at Dhaka, now the capital of Bangladesh, between the Europeans and the Natives as early as 1876.
The inaccessibility of the region meant a sluggish colonisation. However, a number of cricket teams were founded first by settlers and then an indigenous middle class who considered mastery in manly sports the best antidote to the colonial charge of racial inferiority and effeminacy.
British colonists, though, stood in the way of cricket’s expansion in the region. Not only did Europeans dominate both the region’s cricket board and team, but the military authorities refused to sanction the building of a major stadium claiming it was detrimental to security.
Football became at first a rival and then surpassed cricket as Bengal’s leading sport.
Cricket continued to struggle throughout the first period of the twentieth century due mainly to the region’s remoteness. With much of the population living in scattered villages, it failed to become a venue for Ranji Trophy matches and was ignored by touring sides.
Sport took on a more overtly nationalistic form following independence in 1947, offering a means of cohesion and identity to a country that was divided in two and separated by over 1,000 miles. A domestic tournament was formed and East Pakistan, as Bangladesh was then known, took its place in the Quaid-i-Azam Trophy.
Pakistan’s victory over England at the Oval in 1954 inspired many to take up the sport and in 1955 Test cricket was played for the first time in East Pakistan when the hosts met India at the Dhaka Stadium.
Despite nationalist incentive, cricket remained confined to the wealthy and educated minority and was viewed as a symbol of a by-gone age.
By 1960 more people were playing the sport, but the standard remained low and no player born in this half of Pakistan represented the national side.
Many facilities were damaged in the war of independence in 1971, and the national stadium fell into a state of disrepair.
Following the murder of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the so-called father of Bangladesh, in 1975, a military regime took control and prioritised a restoration programme.
This initiative was supported by an MCC tour in 1976-77 in which the tourists won one of the four matches to be played on matting, with the other three drawn.
The use of cricket as a channel for optimism was rewarded with 40,000 watching the three day contest in Dacca. When Bangladesh beat Kenya in the 1997 ICC Trophy it was the delirium that greeted the result rather than the manner of the victory that alerted the ICC to the nation’s potential.
Standards, though, were cruelly exposed by Sri Lanka in 1978 who won all three representative matches on a tour of Bangladesh. However, large crowds came to watch the matches as they did in the following year when the MCC visited.
This support inspired the Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) to launch a development programme in schools, which eventually attracted 500 teams from areas of the country not traditionally associated with the sport.
Standards gradually improved and by 1994, the ICC estimated that nearly 100,000 people were playing the game.
At the 1999 World Cup Bangladesh beat Scotland by 22 runs to confirm themselves as the leading associate (non Test-playing) country, and then Pakistan by 62 runs.
A national league followed the success in the World Cup and on the basis of results, the popularity of the sport and an organised domestic structure, Bangladesh became the tenth country to be awarded Test-status.
The President of the BCB described this as the third most historic event in the country’s national life.
Sport provides a means of diverting disaffection in a country in which poverty will ultimately affect any attempt to develop a cricketing structure that we might recognise in the west. Jamie Siddons, Bangladesh’s Australian-born coach bemoans that “talent identification is not easy because infrastructure is an issue in terms of facilities and organised competition.”
Funding through television rights has proved vital in the hope of raising standards. This is an important point for those who berate Bangladesh for being relatively weak. Funding is imperative if countries are to stand a chance of cutting through into the top echelons of the sport.
It may have taken Bangladesh 35 attempts before they won their first Test match, but it also took India 20 years to win a Test and New Zealand 26 years and 44 matches. However, they weren’t playing in the shadow of the Indian Premier League and the increasing lure of one-day cricket.
Such forces could easily prey on cricketers who receive only £30 per domestic first-class match.
It’s passion that drives the game in Bangladesh, and whilst most players will struggle to make a living from playing cricket they may see in the sport something that those who have become obsessed with the mighty dollar have sadly by-passed.
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