Rebuilding broken dreams
There could hardly be a more appropriate stage for an Under-19 World Cup than Bangladesh. It is a venue that lacks glamour, but is brimful with passion, and for 16 teams of prospective sports stars, that is the sort of combination that no amount of "life skills" coaching could possibly replicate. Already the players will have received mass adulation and unprecedented media attention, but in an environment where the trappings of fame cannot possibly go to their heads.
But it is not just the cricketers who are embarking on what they hope to be long and fruitful careers. Barely three years ago, Bangladesh itself took those first tentative steps as a Test nation, and less than three decades have elapsed it was able to cobble together a representative XI of any calibre. The coming weeks represent a learning curve for Bangladesh, as well as its guests, and for the tournament director, Raquibul Hassan, the month holds an even greater significance.
Raquibul tends to keep a low profile, and appears only fleetingly on television when presenting match awards at the Bangabandhu Stadium. But he bears a unique distinction. As an 18-year-old in February 1971, he became the first - and the only - Bengali to play for a full-strength Pakistan team. But how good he might have been, or how many records he might have broken, will forever remain a matter for conjecture. Within a month of his debut, events in his homeland of East Pakistan took a shocking and seismic turn, and Raquibul was forced to flee for his life - his career, his dreams and his homeland lying in tatters behind him.
Raquibul's career began with the sort of optimism and expectation that most of the participants at this month's tournament will currently be feeling. He made his first-class debut in 1968-69 at the age of 16, and was soon selected to represent Pakistan's U19 team against the English Schoolboys. The following year, he was named as 12th man for the third Test against New Zealand at Dacca [sic], and higher honours seemed only a matter of time.
But unfortunately for Raquibul, politics intervened before he got his chance. In the national elections of December 1970, the independence-minded Awami League swept to victory in all but two of the 153 available seats in East Pakistan. It was a situation that made the existence of a united Pakistan virtually untenable, and a nervous Islamabad stalled on their acceptance of the result. Against this backdrop of political manoeuvring and civil unrest, Raquibul the Bengali was finally asked to play - in Dacca - for Pakistan against a touring Commonwealth XI.
Given the events that followed, his specific memories of the match are understandably sketchy. "I struggled," he concedes, scoring 1 and 1 on a spicy pitch. Of the opposition he can remember but one name - Bob Cottam, the man who dismissed him for the final time in Pakistan colours. Wisden's account adds little but a scorecard, although it does state enigmatically - on page 976 of its 1972 edition - that the match was abandoned on the fourth and final day, when "the crowd invaded the field".
It was a little more dramatic than that. On that final afternoon of March 1, President Yahya Khan made his long-awaited announcement: the national assembly was to be postponed indefinitely, and martial law would be imposed. The effect was dynamite. All across Dacca, hundreds of Bengalis swarmed onto the streets in a spontaneous display of outrage, and the National Stadium became a focal point for the fury. "The student politicians were livid," recalls Raquibul. "They set fire to the stands, and burned down the marquees as we fled back to our hotel. Right then, we knew ... that was the end of it."
Raquibul was under no illusions that his Test dream was over before it had begun. "It is the only regret I have with cricket," he admits. "I remember saying to Zaheer [Abbas], `Zaheer, the next time I come to Pakistan, I might have to come with a new passport ...'" But, he adds, it is a very small regret. "I sacrificed my career, but instead I won my freedom and a country to call my own, and there cannot be a sweeter achievement than that. A lot of lives were lost in the struggle for independence. To lose a Test career? That is nothing."
Within the month, East Pakistan was in flames. On March 25, the Pakistani army moved in to quell the mounting rebellion, and thousands of Bengalis were killed in a single night. Raquibul instantly knew where his duty lay. "I became a freedom fighter," he says with a conviction that still burns to this day. "I threw away my cricket bat, and I picked up a gun."
It would be nine long months before Bangladesh won its independence, at the cost of millions of lives. Raquibul suffered no more, and no less, than any of his countrymen. In his family alone there were six casualties. On top of that, he lost his best friend, Jewel, who was his opening partner for East Pakistan and his room-mate on tour. And he lost his cricketing godfather, Mushtaq, the man who spotted him as a boy and gave him his first chance at club level. "Mushtaq was an elderly man, he couldn't read or write, but he was quite simply in love with the game of cricket. He was killed on that first night, while sleeping in the club tent."
As sympathy and support flooded in for East Pakistan, Raquibul was approached by the Bangladesh government-in-exile to form a national cricket team. "It was a way of creating awareness of the liberation struggle," he explains. Many people were already contributing in their own different ways. There were radio stations talking of victory and lifting morale, there were singers and performers touring India to tell of what was happening. And, perhaps most visibly of all, there was a Bangladesh football team playing exhibition matches in India, and parading the flag at every game.
So Raquibul moved to Calcutta to set up cricket's equivalent, and quickly discovered he was a sought-after man. Many clubs asked him to join, including the one belonging to Sourav Ganguly's father. In the end, though, his celebrity status - and cricket's popularity in the subcontinent - proved his undoing. "I applied to the Indian cricket board to raise a team, but I was refused permission, because it was feared that it might cause a international embarrassment." After all, Bangladesh was still a part of Pakistan, and might have remained so for many more years. They did not know then that independence would arrive in a matter of months.
It was an important lesson in how sport could be used to help rebuild a country. But on December 16, 1971, the day Bangladesh was finally delivered to the world in a bloodied heap, success on the playing fields could not have been further down the list of priorities. The entire nation was in trauma - for Raquibul the flashbacks only started when the shooting had stopped - and the infrastructure was a shambles. Even so, normal life had to resume quickly, or else it might never resume at all.
Sure enough, football soon took hold once again, but three years went by, and still no cricket association had been formed. "The mentality had been lost," Raquibul admits. "For quite some time cricket was seen as an irrelevance. It was too time-consuming, and it was a far more expensive game than soccer." But, eventually, he and a few colleagues took it upon themselves to get the game going again, and made a deputation to the government.
Slowly but surely the clubs creaked back into life, and a championship followed. A national association was established with some help from the Indian government, and by 1976 Bangladesh felt ready to apply for associate membership of the ICC. An MCC fact-finding team was duly sent to play a two-day match at Rajshahi, in the north-western corner of the country. Naturally, Raquibul was named as captain for Bangladesh's inaugural fixture, and even faced the first ball.
Raquibul's profile and perseverance had helped to secure Bangladesh a small slot in the corner of the international cricket world, and gradually that profile developed and grew. By the time he retired in 1986, Bangladesh had competed in three ICC Trophy tournaments (after being granted associate membership in 1979) and Raquibul himself had even played in two full one-day internationals, against Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the Asia Cup of 1985-86.
The big breakthrough for Bangladeshi cricket, however, came in 1997, when they won the ICC Trophy tournament in Malaysia, beating Kenya by two wickets in a gripping final. "Seeing is believing," says Raquibul, "and the outpouring of joy when that victory was achieved was something I had never before witnessed in my country." It was a result that united Bangladesh, irrespective of culture, creed, or political allegiance, and cricket would never look back.
History has now come full circle for Raquibul, and the current tournament represents the culmination of a 30-year mission. By the time the final has taken place at Dhaka on March 5, five new venues will have been inaugurated all across the country, and Bangladesh will finally have the infrastructure to support its lofty ambitions.
If, in the course of their three-week stay, the next generation of international cricketers can take on board just a few of the lessons that Bangladesh is still in the process of learning, the class of 2004 promises to be extremely prolific indeed.
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo in London.