March 13, 2011

The day Bangladesh made Greenidge cry for joy

Bangladesh and Netherlands may have played each other only once in an international match, but they were involved in two World Cup qualification games that defined the future of Bangladesh cricket

"Gordon Greenidge cried the most. Everybody was crying, he couldn't hold himself back."

Bangladesh and Netherlands might have played each other only once in international cricket - in Glasgow at that - but they share a bittersweet history; a history of tears of anguish and tears of joy for Bangladesh. Back in 1994, and then in 1997, the two countries were involved in two matches, which though not recognised as internationals, were key to the future of cricket in Bangladesh. Those were in the days of the ICC Trophy, where the Associates take part in tense contests - a tension followers of Test-playing nations can never truly appreciate, and that includes me - just to make it to the World Cup. Just to let the world know they exist.

Akram Khan, arguably the greatest entertainer to play for Bangladesh, was involved in both those seminal matches against Netherlands. He is a national selector now, and often comes to watch the Bangladesh nets. On his way to the ground on Sunday, on the eve of a crucial match against Netherlands, all he could think of was those two emotion-filled games - emotion that perhaps surpasses what we have seen in Bangladesh this World Cup.

In Nairobi in 1994, Bangladesh had restricted Netherlands to 205. Understandably, the coach, Mohinder Amarnath, then told them not to take any risks while chasing and just to knock the runs down. Bangladesh took the advice too seriously, as Akram remembers, and it turned out to be "choddo over, baro run [fourteen overs, 12 runs]." It sounds funny now, but it was a huge setback. Bangladesh ended up losing by 47 runs.

Zimbabwe had been granted Test status, thus opening up another slot among the Associates for the first large World Cup, to be played in 1996. Three teams were to qualify from the ICC Trophy, and Bangladesh were the favourites. Thanks to that defeat, though, Netherlands usurped Bangladesh.

Akram and Bangladesh were inconsolable then. "Bahut takleef hua tha [It hurt us a lot]," he says, "that we didn't qualify for the 1996 World Cup. We had got all sorts of help from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. They all helped us with the infrastructure and facilities. They used to send A teams. We thought we had let them down, our country down, everybody down."

Three years later Bangladesh went into another ICC Trophy, this time in Kuala Lumpur, as the favourites. They had a strong side, so strong they played the same XI throughout the tournament. The matches were covered live on radio, and the whole nation was hooked. They went unbeaten through the tournament, but rain was cruel to them. When they had bowled Ireland out for 129 in a league game, they had to settle for shared points because of rain. That left them in a must-win situation in their last league game against Netherlands at the Rubber Research Institute in Kuala Lumpur.

Bangladesh bowled Netherlands out for 171, and they were just one solid chase short of going through to the semi-finals. However, after having gone unbeaten for seven games, they found themselves at 15 for 4. The dream was crashing. This would be too big a heartbreak. The rain arrived again, this time as the saviour. Or so it seemed at that point.

Akram and Minhajul Abedin then put together a partnership. Abedin, a wristy batsman, also came from Chittagong, like Akram. The two street-smart cricketers not only got runs, they indulged in some time wasting too: asking for a helmet during an over, fiddling with other equipment, doing whatever they could to delay things. Arguments ensued. Akram now smiles and says, "I did some bad things. Not good."

"We thought if we got away with one point from that game, we would qualify for the semi-final," Akram says. "But when we came back, the match referee told us we had to win the game. We were stunned."

This is where emotion makes the story hazy. All the journalists, the team themselves, and the fans present there, agree with this version: that when Bangladesh came off they thought a draw would be enough, but learned to their horror that nothing less than a win would do.

That does not sound entirely accurate because Bangladesh went into that game with three points and Netherlands with one. Ireland had already qualified with five points. So a no-result would have taken Bangladesh to four and Netherlands would have been stuck at two. A defeat for Bangladesh, though, would have tied Netherlands at three points, in which case Netherlands would have advanced based on the head-to-head.

There are two plausible explanations for the delaying tactics Bangladesh employed and the celebrations that greeted the rain. Bangladesh may have realised that with the partnership between Akram and Abedin, they were ahead of the Duckworth-Lewis par score, and by slowing the game down they were just ensuring that lead. However, just before they came off, Abedin was run out, which could have pushed them just behind on the reckoning, which would have meant they would lose if no further play was possible.

Also D/L was a new beast back then, and perhaps Bangladesh didn't realise they had already played the minimum number of overs required to constitute a game and were now going to lose.

Then again, perhaps the version accepted in Bangladesh is correct, and this conjecture is merely conjecture. It's all trivial, though. What is important is that the whole of Bangladesh, glued to the radio, was praying for rain, and once it stopped play, they celebrated.

Then came the news that this wasn't good enough for them to qualify. The news was relayed on radio. Everybody who prayed for rain was now praying for the resumption of the game. "We worried about our futures," Akram says. "All negative thoughts came to our mind. The failure in 1994. And now we thought we might never be able to play international cricket.

"Woh jumme ka din tha [It was a Friday]. A lot of Bengalis come to work in Malaysia. They all turned up at the ground. Everybody started praying. Luckily the rain stopped and the play resumed and we had a revised target."

Akram then produced an innings on which Bangladesh cricket stands today, as anybody in the country will tell you. Those who were present there say it was a chanceless innings, with no sense of panic or hurry. "I believed if I stayed there till the end, we would win this," Akram says. "Nannu [Abedin] was a vital player. He had performed well in domestic cricket, and I got a partnership with him and then one with Saiful Islam. In the end I stayed not out."

That kicked off wild celebrations. Athar Ali Khan, who opened the batting in that game, says it was the same as what we have seen on the streets of Dhaka and Chittagong this year after the national team's wins over England and Ireland. "My body was draped in the Bangladesh national flag, and we didn't leave the ground for a long, long time."

Akram says everybody cried that day. The journalists, and their friends, say they cried too. "Gordon [Greenidge, their coach] cried the most. Everybody was crying, he couldn't hold himself back."

Gordon Greenidge crying. Just imagine a win that makes Greenidge cry; a man who had come from a different country, a different culture. The owner of one of the fiercest square-cuts ever seen, the man with the double-century on one leg, the man whose image first comes to mind when the words "beware the wounded batsman" are said; Greenidge cried after that win. That's how much it meant to the team.

I ask Akram if he agrees with what everyone tells me. Was this the single most important innings in the history of Bangladesh cricket? He pauses. Says yes. Then laughs. Says yes again. It cannot be denied. For because of that innings, Bangladesh played the semi-final, then the final, then the World Cup, where they beat Pakistan and got Test status. If they had lost on that jumme ka din, there would have been no World Cup, and who knows how long they would have had to wait to qualify for a World Cup.

We all talk about the pressure of expectation on the current team, but at least they know they will be playing international cricket even if they lose. They knew they would be playing international cricket even when they went 47 games without a win. The class of 1997, though, even after having gone unbeaten in that tournament until then, didn't know if they would ever get to play if they lost that day. It wasn't quite a Messerschmitt up the arse, but surely Keith Miller wouldn't have scoffed if Akram told him he was under pressure that day.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo