How Rajshahi got their groove on
Shortly after lunch on the third day of the five-day National Cricket League (NCL) final in April this year, the Rajshahi divisional cricket team completed their fifth first-class triumph, crushing Khulna.
Four of the Khulna batsmen had more than 500 runs each in the competition, with Anamul Haque coming up to 800. Their frontline bowlers finished with about 35 wickets each, but none of these in-form batsmen, left-arm spinners or seamers held a candle to Rajshahi's self-belief. The difference between the two sides was attitude, and Rajshahi had it in spades. Khulna didn't seem to be able to get their heads around Farhad Hossain's bland offspin with the new ball, nor could they come to terms with the way Farhad and Junaid Siddique, when they batted, went after Khulna's form bowlers after Rajshahi lost both their openers by the second over of their first innings.
What made Rajshahi's win this season more worthy was that they had lost a number of players to Rangpur, which gained first-class status this year after becoming a functional division, the seventh in the country after Dhaka, Chittagong, Rajshahi, Khulna, Barisal and Sylhet. Players like Naeem Islam, Dhiman Ghosh and Sohrawardi Shuvo are from districts within Rangpur division, so their departure affected the composition of the Rajshahi side, but it was impressive how youngsters stepped up and into these players' shoes. Rajshahi dropped only three games out of 11 in the 2011-12 season, and by the time they won the final, it was just like the previous three seasons, in which they virtually strolled home.
Their self-confidence took several years of dedication to build, and came about largely thanks to one man's persistence and the willing sacrifices of several others. Their hard work not only helped build the country's most successful first-class team, it is helping hundreds of youngsters find hope in a region that has very low employment levels and a poor economic outlook overall.
In terms of cricket Rajshahi has remained backwards, but so are the other divisions and districts across the country - the two big cities, Chittagong and Dhaka, being the exceptions. There is not much by way of infrastructural development, apart from the odd stadium, in most regions. Cricket facilities are stadium-based, and net practice is only available in winter, during which most professional cricketers and coaches remain in Dhaka, where the leagues are in full swing. Which means there is no one in the players' home districts to teach youngsters, who hardly get any practice during the off season (which is mostly dedicated to football anyway). As a result, cricketers are far too dependent on the facilities on offer in the capital.
Dhaka's one-day cricket leagues - Premier Division, First, Second and Third Division - have been the main source of employment for professional cricketers in Bangladesh since the 1950s, and over the years the rise in the game's popularity has been reflected in the money and competition on offer on the Dhaka club cricket circuit.
The first significant shift in topography came about in the late 1990s, when the ICC asked Bangladesh to start a first-class competition to justify the country's appeal for Test status. So in 1999, the Bangladesh Cricket Board devised a regional competition in which the six divisions would comprise the NCL.
The first few years of the league reflected the lopsided spread of cricket in the country, which had by then become the tenth Test-playing nation. In the first six seasons of the NCL, Dhaka won the title three times, and Chittagong, Khulna and Bangladesh Biman the rest.
During this period Rajshahi were also-rans. They went winless in the first season, getting bowled out for 57 by Khulna once, and suffering two innings defeats to Chittagong and a loss to Sylhet. Their maiden first-class win came against Dhaka the following year, but they continued to be pummelled by Chittagong both home and away over the next two seasons. The only international cricketer of note in their ranks, Khaled Mashud, played only 11 games for the side in that period, but the poor results hurt him, proud as he is of his roots.
"When the NCL began, Rajshahi usually finished at the bottom," Mashud said, sitting next to a picture of him holding the side's fourth trophy. "Teams like Dhaka and Chittagong had plenty of stars and they used to steamroll us. We lost four-day games in two and a half days against teams that had [Minhazul Abedin] Nannu bhai and Akram Khan. Our manager used to book bus tickets for the third day of matches we played in Dhaka or Chittagong; it was that easy to predict that we'd lose."
Mashud knew the only way Rajshahi would grow was through comprehensive development. He was passionate about the side standing toe to toe with Dhaka and Chittagong, but knew also that it wasn't going to be easy to fight teams that had real training facilities.
After a single win in the second season, the great leap forward came in 2001-02, when Rajshahi finished second, with five wins. They still couldn't break their Chittagong hoodoo, though.
They missed Mashud, who played just three games in the next two seasons, and Rajshahi finished fourth those years. The good news for them came in the form of the emergence of youngsters like Jahurul Islam and Junaid Siddique. Grooming upcoming players was part of Mashud's plan, and he scoured Rajshahi and its outskirts for a ground suitable for practice. He found there were a large number of tournaments taking place in the districts but there weren't many opportunities for talented players to improve.
"We needed to produce players from North Bengal who could be good enough to compete," Mashud said. "So I kept playing in small tournaments, where, for example, a young bowler would keep getting hit but eventually take my wicket if he was good enough. This helped me stay in training and also inspired others into taking the next step in cricket."
Rajshahi became the only first-class team in the country that trained actively in the off season. "At the Rajshahi College ground, we used to train together months before the proper NCL camp began, and we started to become the best-prepared side," said Mashud.
"We also used to practise in grounds that had very little facilities. We had to be humble and take care of the ground, roll the pitches, and put up the nets and store them carefully at sunset," he said. "There [began to be] a lot of competition for places in the Rajshahi team, which was almost unheard of in the past, when all the training we did was 15 days before the first-class tournament started."
Among the hopefuls who looked to break into the side was Naeem Islam, who travelled a hundred miles west, from Gaibandha district, to take a shot. Having apprenticed at Bangladesh Krira Shikha Protishthan, the country's biggest sports institute, Naeem lost his way after appearing in the 2004 Under-19 World Cup - many Dhaka clubs refusing his services for a perceived attitude problem. Mashud saw in him a reticent boy who needed the right amount of prodding to be made to field in the 30-yard circle, bowl his offspin a bit more, and bat at No. 4. When Naeem got out of his shell, he was a different, more rounded cricketer.
"As soon as hungry youngsters like Naeem came through, the results became positive, from the 2004-05 season," Mashud said. "We won the one-day competition."
There was a second-place finish in the NCL that year. Farhad Reza made 769 runs in his debut season. It was also the first season for future internationals Naeem and Sohrawardi Shuvo, and a future Rajshahi mainstay, Farhad Hossain.
The following season they won the competition for the first time, with Naeem and Farhad making over 500 runs each and the veteran allrounder Mushfiqur Rahman picking up 39 wickets; they also completed the double by winning the one-day competition.
The next two seasons, they were runners-up, despite winning more games than the champions Dhaka (2006-07) and Khulna (2007-08), but some of their top performers, like Junaid, Naeem and Reza, won places in the national team.
Though their star performers could not play regularly for Rajshahi, senior players like Mashud and Anisur Rahman stayed on, chaperoning the youngsters who graduated through the age-group and Dhaka league ranks.
"Whenever we spot a young talented player doing well in the Under-17s or Under-19s or even in the Dhaka league structure, we call them up to the nets and pick one or two to travel with us," Mashud said. "It puts a strain on our budget but the divisional sports association takes care of that.
Rajshahi have now won the NCL four times in a row, starting with 2008-09, despite the BCB revamping the tournament in 2009-10, since when it has included a final at the end. The new format jeopardises the best team in the competition, invariably Rajshahi these last few years, as it means that the winner of the final, not necessarily the leader on points, becomes champion, but Rajshahi have aced the final all three years running. Players like Jahurul, Naeem, Saqlain Sajib and the two Farhads have bucketfuls of runs and wickets in these successful campaigns. Rajshahi even pinched a Twenty20 title in 2009-10.
As Rajshahi started to do well as a team, the players gained big contracts in the Dhaka leagues and salaries to match. That hasn't made them forget their roots, though. Mashud is proud of how the players helped build a cricket academy to keep their legacy going. The players gave up many end-of-season perks, and bonuses and the team management gathered all the fines from several seasons to set up a fund, headed by Mashud.
"Most of these players come from very modest backgrounds," Mashud said. "Cricket has made them who they are today, but when I asked them if they'd like to contribute to the future of cricket in Rajshahi, they readily got involved." The financial burden is now off the players, as the Akij Group of companies, convinced by Mashud, sponsors the Rajshahi academy and a few others across the country.
The story began with the development of a first-class team that wanted to win matches. When they started racking up the trophies, they set out to make a lasting impact on the region's cricketing future by setting up an academy - in contrast to the most successful club sides in the Dhaka leagues, which have been built on big money with the sole purpose of winning the season's trophy. Rajshahi may not be a New South Wales, Yorkshire or Mumbai, but they have showed how it should be done in Bangladesh, where cricket is still a winter sport for those who aspire to play at the top.
Mohammad Isam is senior sports reporter at the Daily Star in Dhaka