Under-19 World Cup final, Dhaka March 6, 2004

Pure heart and soul food

Rabeed Imam on the final of the Under-19 World Cup



Bangladesh's fans - an enthusiastic bunch © Getty Images

The Bangladeshi spectators are a fascinating lot. They can make even the most insignificant cricket match look like a World Cup final, and are happy to pay the extra Taka to the opportunist ticket tout while bargaining to the limit in every other monetary transaction in life. Cricket is also one area where fans don't engage themselves with selfish thoughts, or think about possible benefits. It's pure heart and soul food, and bliss is the only reward.

So they came in numbers for Friday's Under-19 final. Grandpas and dads, mothers and sisters, teenagers, kids and even babies to support, er, Pakistan! Now that's something very odd, isn't it? Imagine a 35,000-capacity stadium fully loaded for a day-night game that doesn't involve the host nation, and still one side gets close to 100% backing from the stands. The only time the scenario changes is when Bangladesh play Pakistan - then someone has to be outrageously brave to sit in the gallery and cheer them. Pakistan's famous fan, the globe-trotting bearded uncle, once almost had his limbs rearranged when he tried to lead an animated parade in support of his team when they were up against the Tigers in a Test at the Bangabandhu National Stadium.

There was no prospect of that happening on Friday, which was also the weekend holiday. Some fans had brought in a giant green-and-white Pakistan flag that needed at least 20 people to wave, and it slithered like an anaconda. Children painted their cheeks in Pakistan colours, and everywhere you looked there was that sameness of allegiance. There's an explanation for Pakistan's cricketers being so popular here. The crowds love their innate unpredictable nature and attacking style. Add subcontinental bias, religious sentiments and good looks, and you get the perfect alibi for the unconditional following of all gender and age. The poor young West Indians must have felt as if they were being thrown down the gladiators' ring with the audience baying for their blood.

But for the better part of the match, they showed no signs of pressure getting to them. They also didn't look intimidated. There was actually applause when Tishan Maraj and Xavier Marshall started flaying the Pakistani pacemen all over the ground, although admittedly that sounded like a murmur compared to the roar that accompanied every Pakistan boundary or wicket. It was only in the final six overs that the new Calypso generation lost the match, as four wickets went down for eight runs when they needed just 34 to win.

Up in the press box, the impending result wasn't the big talking-point. It was the last day of a thoroughly enjoyable event, and almost every accredited journalist paid a farewell visit at some point in the game. This was a groundbreaking youth World Cup, unmatched for its media coverage, spectators' turnout, ticket sales, and sheer magnitude.

The same can't quite be said about the quality of cricket, though, which was as capricious as a teenager's mind. Australia out of the Super League, Nepal upstaging South Africa but then getting beaten by Scotland, who themselves were shot out for 22 by the Aussies ... it all makes a verdict on the overall calibre a big puzzle.

But the end tone was very pronounced. The ICC president Ehsan Mani and the Bangladesh Cricket Board chief Ali Asghar dropped in to thank the press. Some of the ICC event officials, who had made Bangladesh their home for the last few months, were spotted having a final casual lap around the boundary line while the match was still in progress. Even the usually uptight over-zealous security personnel were letting their guard down just that wee bit. But they were up on their toes again when a section of the crowd attempted to light torches with papers, placards and anything flammable. The public-address system was immediately in action, and gently cautioned against anything silly at this final stage. That was enough: No policemen needed, and no high-handedness either.

There were handshakes all round as the staff of the many committees with which the media had interacted for a month bade their farewells. The World Cup personnel who had arrived from other countries, and who became closer friends then we might ever have deemed possible ... it was time to say farewell to them too. The last hours of a tour or a competition in Dhaka is the period when stacks of visiting cards change hands, and this was no exception.

With all the usual celebrations going on - photo-shoots and laps of honour - the post-match media conference was a little late, but there was still time for Aqib Javed, Pakistan's coach, to praise the fans. "Can't imagine this anywhere else in the world. Can't believe a full house for a Under-19 match ... this is amazing."

Meeting the deadline was a challenge for most journos, and we all scurried for a computer at the media centre. It was well past 1630 GMT when the last reporter leftt - the match had finished an hour and a half earlier. Outside, there was no reflection of the event that had just finished. A few rickshaws moved lazily around the largely empty main streets. A last look back at the Bangabandhu ... it resembled a local community centre after a wedding ceremony; in darkness, waiting for the next big occasion.

Rabeed Imam is senior sub-editor of the Daily Star in Dhaka.

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