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England's visit much more than just another series

On Friday, there will be a collective sigh of relief in Bangladesh. Their cricket team will take on England in the first ODI with talk surrounding on the importance of starting well in a three-match series, and how the home side are slight favourites.

Mashrafe Mortaza has downplayed that tag, and said that England's middle to lower-order poses a major challenge to his bowling attack who return to one-day cricket after a gap of ten months against Afghanistan last week. Tickets for the game have been sold quickly and while there will be unprecedented security in the Mirpur area, which means that every ticket-holder would have to walk at least half a kilometre, and much of what they carry won't be allowed inside, a sell-out crowd is a given.

But the very thought of seeing England in Bangladesh in 2016 seemed improbable just three months ago. Outrage and numbness took over the country for weeks after the July 1 Holey Artisan attack that left 22 hostages and two policemen dead. Going to restaurants (those not as high-end as Holey Artisan) had developed as one of the rare past-times for those living in Dhaka but after the attack, people felt the unease of a terrifying ordeal waiting to happen.

Thankfully, the situation slowly calmed down as the security agencies cracked open one terrorists' den after another across the country. The unease will probably take a lot longer to go away - if it ever does entirely - but there would have been a huge hole in Bangladesh life had England not agreed to continue with their tour. Cricket means everything in Bangladesh - and sometimes more than that.

When the Reg Dickason-led inspection team arrived in mid-August, everyone became nervous. The BCB arranged their discussions with the government agencies and the home ministry, but there was a sense of déjà vu. Only weeks before their October 2015 tour of Bangladesh, Australia had asked for a security visit in which the BCB also arranged these meetings in a very short space of time. Ultimately, they postponed the two Tests due to specific security threats.

That bitter experience played a big part in how the BCB meticulously changed the security operations in their properties, particularly the Shere Bangla National Stadium in Mirpur. Once those were put in place, and the government gave their detailed security blueprint to the England delegates, the nation waited with bated breath.

Their prayers were answered on August 25 when Andrew Strauss generously put a lot of faith in Bangladesh. There was muted celebration because it was still more than a month out from the actual arrival date. Even the day before the first ODI, there are few who are still in disbelief.

The level of security on offer, which has been highlighted by the cordon around the England team from the moment they landed, was on full show during Thursday when the security forces had a trial run with commandos and special forces sweeping the stadium, practising a drill to evacuate players. It was a reminder of how much is at stake. No stone has been left unturned.

In July and August, everyone in Bangladesh understood that if England didn't think it was safe for them to play cricket in Dhaka and Chittagong, they had their reasons. But when they decided to tour, it felt that they were helping another nation out by offering competition.

Sports-lovers would know best the magnitude of such a gesture.

Historically, too, England have always been a friend to Bangladesh cricket. It was the English journalist Robin Marlar whose article "Whither Bangladesh?" gave international attention to the newly independent nation. Ten months later, the MCC became the first international team to tour Bangladesh, which set the wheel in motion for them to take part in the 1979 ICC Trophy. The MCC toured several times afterwards, and each time they were received with much warmth.

Bangladesh also doesn't forget quickly that they have been accorded two tours to England, in 2005 and 2010. Australia have hosted Bangladesh just the once while India will finally host their first Bangladesh Test next year.

Now that England are touring when Bangladesh were in the brink of turning into a pariah cricket nation, there is much significance to this series. In the choppy waters of cricket's politics, such a gesture is a welcome change.