To Bangladesh with love (and tight security)
For a while I didn't think I'd get to Chittagong and Dhaka for England's Test series in October. Agencies were wary of sending a photographer to a location that the Foreign Office had advised as off limits except for essential travel. Taking photographs of some of the best cricket players in England and Bangladesh could not really be considered essential, could it?
But what if a young guy (leave it) who had grown up in Canberra and had a love of sport and a love of taking photographs wanted to go? What if this chap thought it was worth making the trip just to capture some moments from this tour? It would definitely help if he was slightly crazy.
With the option of photographing England's tour of India in November and December looking fairly unlikely, I decided to apply for the journalist visa to go to Bangladesh. This was not as easy as it should have been and I spent a lot of time in central London delivering forms and photographs and attempting to fill out an online form on a computer at the High Commission that had a Bangla keyboard. You try and find the "@" symbol.
A friendly man behind the counter took my non-refundable £103 for the visa. Time was running out and I was told that it would be ready in London on October 20. Great, I thought. The Test match was starting in Chittagong on the 20th, roughly 7000 miles from that Kensington office.
On the 18th, I decided to go to London on the off chance that my passport might have acquired the appropriate visa. I visited the same visa counter and the man's face lit up as he recognised me. He said that my passport had just come back. I had my visa, but there were only 38 hours to get to Chittagong before the coin toss.
After booking my tickets and packing for the trip, I took off with about 19 hours to go, travelling via Doha. All was good with the first flight. In fact, I had four seats to myself, which, as any economy-class passenger knows, is like winning the lottery.
The Doha-Dhaka flight was three hours late taking off, so my chances of making the connecting flight to Chittagong seemed very low.
In Dhaka, I waited almost an hour for my bag to come through and knew I had certainly missed my plane. All I could do was get inside the domestic terminal and try to purchase a seat for the next available flight. At about 8.45am (just 45 minutes before the coin toss) I approached the Novoair desk to try and buy a ticket, thinking if I was lucky I might get on the ten o'clock flight. "We can get you on the nine o'clock," he announced, unbelievably. I was whisked through security, put on a bus and was sitting on an impressive-looking aeroplane in no time. On the same flight was the ECB chief executive officer, Tom Harrison, who offered to give me lift to the hotel. Next thing, we were in a fast-moving vehicle with a massive police escort rushing through the busy streets of Chittagong.
The Test had already started and the news from the ground was not good for England, who were three wickets down for not many. When we reached the team hotel, Tom said he would be travelling to the ground after a few minutes, and I was invited to join his convoy, which was brilliant. He seemed a very nice friendly man.
George Dobell, another friendly, hard-working, talented cricket journo, had said I could share his room, which was extremely generous of him. After a week of sharing, he said I was the perfect room-mate when I was awake. In other words, I may have snored a couple of times. I can't thank him enough for his fantastic gesture. The others in the media pack were soon calling us the "odd couple". (A great motion picture, if you haven't already seen it.)
I went with Tom to the ground and, as he is obviously a VIP, our vehicle drove straight through the gates. My problem was that I was at a major cricket match, which had a high-security risk, with no pass at all. Loaded with my camera gear, I marched around the outside of the stands as if I was meant to be there. Well, I was meant to be there, but with an appropriate pass hanging around my neck. I went straight past 40 or so police personnel and into the media centre. I thought I'd try to get on the actual ground without a pass and just stay there for the rest of play. The plan worked until I tried to shoot the not-out batsmen coming off at stumps, when some eagle-eyed official noticed the absence of the pass. "You can't be here," he roared. It didn't really matter as the teams had finished for the day.
The players were soon packed onto numerous vehicles and rushed through the streets of Chittagong on closed roads and back to the sanctuary of the Radisson Blu Hotel. I was happy to sleep on a sofa in the corner and let George have his king-size bed to himself.
The Test was very close and an interesting one, but I was determined to get out from the hotel/ground "jail" to get some photographs of kids playing cricket. I talked to England's security man, Reg Dickason, about my plans, and on the third day of the match, wandered off by myself to a school 200 yards from the ground. There was a security booth and as I approached it I thought I might struggle to get into the school to shoot the match that was on inside. Surprisingly, the security guard stood up and saluted as I walked past.
For my next trip out, I took a hotel car without any police and went to try to track down a lad I'd taken a photo of in 2011. I didn't find him, and though I got a few shots around town, it was a little gloomy, to be honest.
I took one more trip out one morning in Chittagong, just across the road from the hotel, with two policemen in tow. Some okay pictures but nothing brilliant. It was time to move on to Dhaka.
The second Test finished in three days, with England losing ten wickets in a disastrous last session. That meant I was free to go and take more photos on the following two days.
I explained my plan to go out and take more pictures to Dickason, and he was of the opinion I should have a policeman with me. The officer assigned to me took me in a vehicle that already had five uniformed policemen, including three with serious-looking guns. I was only popping down the road to a park to see boys playing cricket but I had the A Team guarding me.
The next day I decided to go to the same park again. This time I had no police escort. I managed to get a shot late in the day of a 16-year-old lad named Juwel Khan lashing loads of balls over midwicket. If he had mistimed one, I could well have been knocked out cold, but it was worth the risk. I didn't get hit and the light was very nice. I made sure I got his name before I left the park. Who knows, he may be playing for Bangladesh in four to five years' time.
I had a brilliant time in Bangladesh. Possibly the best tour I've ever been on, and I've been on dozens. Can't wait to get back there one day. Thanks Bangladesh. Maybe not an essential trip, but an inspiring and unforgettable one.
Nikon D4 camera Nikkor 70-200mm @140mm f4.5 1/1600th sec ISO 320
An Australian freelance cricket photographer based in England, Philip Brown has photographed over 200 Test matches around the world