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Our correspondent catches a sliver of Dhaka and lots of Chittagong on the first leg of the World T20
March 26, 2014
Land in Dhaka early morning after flying from London via Dubai. The fellow sitting next to me, an elderly Bangladeshi whose company I have only shared for a few hours of mainly fitful sleep, asks if I would like to come to his home for tea, but I have to politely decline. My transfer to Chittagong is already arranged, which includes stopping at the apartment of my colleague Mohammad Isam, where I am supplied with some excellent vittles and a bed to lie down on for a short while.
Dhaka traffic is all it is made out to be - slower than Inzamam-ul-Haq between the wickets - but I'm not delayed in catching my train. Another languid journey unfolds, for the most part in comfort despite a slightly hard seat, which is increasingly noticeable seven and a half hours later. The landscape passing by outside before the sun sets is a patchwork of rivers and paddy fields, the odd brick kiln sending puffs of smoke into the air. Rahman, another friendly soul, is a water expert by trade and explains some of the issues confronting the delta, particularly upstream damming that can change the course of rivers or even dry them up entirely.
Eventually we arrive in Chittagong. Walking along the platform, I realise the train is at least a couple of hundred yards long. Wonder if Paul Theroux made it along this route?
Take my first ride in a CNG, as the auto-rickshaws here are known, due to running on compressed natural gas. On arrival at the MA Aziz Stadium, looking to pick up my accreditation, I wind up at the players' and officials' entrance. The media entrance in this old ground, which shelters a number of little shops around its perimeter, is a nondescript gate beside which sits a man at a table. No need for armed guards here.
There are two practice matches going on, featuring three of the Associate nations and Zimbabwe. I end up asking almost every single question at four post-match pressers, as the local media don't seem to know too much about cricket's other guys.
On the way back to my hotel, which is near the Agrabad - the rather grand establishment used by players and ICC officials - but not the Agrabad, it quickly becomes apparent my CNG driver doesn't know where to take me any more than I do. Various people at the side of the street are consulted, seemingly with different opinions on where to go, but eventually I spot a sign that had lodged in my head the previous evening: Landmark. With a point of familiarity established, I'm able to navigate us back. Nominative determinism to the rescue.
Back to the MA Aziz - although this is not where I want to be today. For driving me to the wrong stadium, which is being used for World T20 training and warm-up fixtures but generally plays host to football now, and then on to the Zahur Ahmed Chowdhury, Chittagong's main cricket venue, the driver wants paying double. In some ways it's comforting to know that taxi drivers are the same the world over.
Media previews for the opening of the tournament mean a first audience with Paras Khadka, whose impressive demeanour is to become a feature of the first round, then myself and Arya Yuyutsu, our video guy, wind up sitting on the outfield shooting the early evening breeze. Afterwards, I eat out for the first time, in a stiffly formal place that seems to have more waiters than customers. The food is good, though I'm not too keen on the complimentary betel-nut palate cleanser.
Begin exploring the locality and discover that ATMs are air-conditioned. Several refuse my bank cards but each provides a welcome cool refuge.
Arriving at ZACS early, I stroll around the stadium looking to pick up my match-day pass. No one seems too concerned by my presence, even when I climb up towards the player dressing rooms; one of the soldiers even shakes my hand. Not sure that's quite what ICC security protocol dictates.
The tournament kicks off in Chittagong with Nepal versus Hong Kong. Nepal and their fans immediately set about making a good impression.
At the ground for more press conferences and this time the armed police are even happy to pose for pictures. The friendliness and goodwill surrounding the World T20 has been obvious to see. The Bangladesh team, whose images are splashed on billboards around the city, have arrived ahead of their second game - beside the pitch, the diminutive Mushifiqur Rahim is smashing net bowlers for imaginary boundaries. He talks to a large assembly of local journalists later in the day, mostly in Bengali. Although I'm pretty sure I heard him say "well-balanced team".
My first real experience of a match in the subcontinent. A packed stadium welcomes the home team. I also discover the superb view from the roof of the media building; though you don't want to be standing there when the fireworks go off. Waves of noise roll across the ground for each wicket, catch and run in a comfortable win over Nepal. Bangladesh look fired up and ready to prove their critics wrong.
First sight of rain since arrival, as a storm whips across ZACS, threatening to dislodge awnings and sponsor paraphernalia. With the clouds darkening above, I'm introduced to Akram Khan, hero of one of Bangladesh cricket's most important games, when he made 68 not out on a sticky dog in Kuala Lumpur to help overcome Netherlands in the 1997 ICC Trophy. The rain won't bother him. Akram is still quite imposing, with a sizeable frame and bristly moustache, but the twinkle in his eye puts you at ease. I also make the acquaintance of another local favourite: kala bhuna, a rich and tasty beef dish.
Bangladesh's critics are given a new clip full of ammo when the team loses to Hong Kong, a huge upset, and the biggest win in the Associate's history. Another avuncular figure, 40-year-old Munir Dar, takes Hong Kong most of the way to a victory that is met with a wall of silence from the stands. "We're not angry, we're just disappointed."
With the arrival of England, New Zealand, South Africa and Sri Lanka in Chittagong, some of the charm disappears. These teams don't need exposure in the way Associate nations do, but the press contingent swells. The arrangements inevitably become much more controlled, almost mechanical. There are more gadgets too, with zing bails set to make their major tournament bow. I have seen them in the Big Bash, on television, but their effect in the ground is enhanced, another flashing neon sign on cricket's commercial highway.
After Sri Lanka close out South Africa in a tense finish, midway through England v New Zealand another burst of rain sweeps across Chittagong. The seasons are changing a little earlier than is usually expected and it seems stormy weather may affect the tournament.
There is a storm in an English breakfast tea cup when Stuart Broad criticises the umpires for allowing play to continue after lightning had flashed outside the ground. The officials will need to be replaced with meteorologists and robots soon.
If you time your trip to ZACS poorly, you'll end up stuck at several roadblocks established to guide the team buses through traffic. My driver seems to have a secret route through the back streets, however, and we wend our way past a decrepit rail yard, as well as houses and shops that are little more than shacks. Kids are playing cricket on an open square; one bowls, the other leaves outside off. Netherlands could have learned from that episode as they crash to the lowest T20 international score ever. Shortly after, an almighty tropical storm lashes Chittagong, causing repeated power cuts and knocking out the hotel wifi. What would we do without the internet? Nothing, it seems.
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Alan Gardner
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