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From labour camps to left-arm fast

Salauddin Sakil during his Central Zone debut Milton Ahmed

Salauddin Sakil's life as a migrant labourer on the outskirts of Dubai was tough and painful.

"We used to head out to work at 4am every day," Sakil told ESPNcricinfo. "We had to put our cooked rice in a polythene bag. We couldn't eat from a plate because of the desert storms. The rice would fly away in the wind. Sometimes, as the temperature reached 50 degrees, our curry also became rotten. It was tough out there."

That was less than a decade ago. His life has undergone a remarkable transition since, culminating in a first-class debut in Bangladesh last week.

Now a left-arm pace bowler, Sakil recalled those years after a training session at the Kamruzzaman Stadium in Rajshahi with his Central Zone team-mates, ahead of their season's last Bangladesh Cricket League (BCL) game against East Zone. In the previous game, he picked up two wickets against South Zone, one of which was Imrul Kayes. This was a dream, never more so than when his Central Zone captain Mahmudullah asked him to share the new ball with Abu Hider.

"This is some life for me," said Sakil. "I had only seen Mahmudullah Riyad bhai on TV. Now he was talking nicely with me, he was my captain. For me, this is just incredible."

Sakil, now 28, has already impressed some important eyes in Bangladesh cricket. Earlier this year, as a net bowler at Fatullah Cricket Stadium, he was spotted by coach Mizanur Rahman. Sakil went on to play five List-A matches for Mizanur's Prime Doleshwar side, before he recommended Sakil to the Central Zone team. He has played in the lower leagues for a few years but the first-class debut is his biggest break.

While life as a professional cricketer can have its share of ups and downs, it pales in comparison to the hardships of a migrant labourer in the Middle East. Those who arrive with a valid work permit consider themselves lucky as many others are deceived by unscrupulous agents or bogus company owners.

Sakil was fortunate in that sense, as the supply company he was employed with was real and in operation. But the work was tough. Every day for nearly four years he would travel to his workplace - it was often in the middle of the desert outside Dubai.

"I knew how to do welding but I was assigned to work in the desert where we built steel structures. I used to pray to Allah to get me out of here. It was so tough. It was really bad.

"When all my friends were about to sit for the SSC (Matriculation) exams in 2006, I had to leave for work abroad. I didn't feel right but I had to go because we are from a not very well to do family."

As a kid in rural Munshiganj, located roughly 40km to the south of Dhaka, Sakil used to loiter around the village, mostly playing taped-tennis-ball cricket. When he left for the UAE, he forgot about his dreams of becoming a cricketer.

But after four years there, when his visa expired, the company decided to send him home to Bangladesh for a vacation. Sakil, who hadn't touched a bat or ball for those four years in Dubai, now says that the vacation was actually an escape - many migrant labourers struggle to get away from company owners' grasps.

Returning to Munshiganj, Sakil was once again consumed by taped-tennis-ball cricket. In early 2012, a friend took him to coach Golam Rasul who ran practice sessions in Narayanganj. Within a few months, he was playing Third Division in the Dhaka league and moving up to the Second and First division in the following seasons.

"I remember everyone laughing at me when I went to a club trial in 2014," he said. "I didn't have anything. My friend Mehrab Hossain Johsy, who had provided me with a pair of bowling boots and bat, convinced them to give me one net session after which they could judge me. They did, and luckily I performed well for that club."

When Mizanur spotted him in the Doleshwar nets earlier this year, Sakil's life was about to get a lot better. Mizanur, Bangladesh Under-19s head coach during their 2016 World Cup campaign, said that Sakil's build and pace impressed him.

"He came as a net bowler to the Prime Doleshwar nets in Fatullah," Mizanur said. I liked his body structure and pace. He is still not an accurate bowler but, in my mind, he is the future of Bangladesh cricket.

"I know of his background, and I feel that he has the potential to work really hard. When he started for Prime Doleshwar this season, he was very nervous. I mean, I can understand why he felt that way. He is new to this world. But this is what we, as coaches, are supposed to do. We have to find talent and I am sure if we nurse him properly, he can make it."

Central Zone manager Milton Ahmed said that Mizanur urged them to have a look at Sakil when the BCL resumed after the Dhaka Premier League.

"We brought him to Rajshahi as a net bowler, thinking we could use his pace since pitches here have been quite grassy," Milton said. "He was quite impressive with his pace and inswing to the right-handers, so we felt that we could give him a go."

And last week, after seeing Sakil on a grassy Rajshahi pitch, even national selector Habibul Bashar was excited. That would be something, as far a cry as is possible from his life as a labourer, working 14-16 hours, every day, in the desert heat.

According to a 2015 study by the International Labour Organisation, Bangladesh has sent an estimated 8.8 million labourers worldwide between 1976 and April 2014. A "substantial" number of them, according to the report, return every year, most of them physically and mentally debilitated.

Sakil is lucky, having made the transition from a migrant labourer into the life of a professional cricketer in Bangladesh - which, even without the riches right now, represents a considerable leap. He is also an exception, the first professional cricketer in the country with such a backstory. It is a story to inspire many more to take up the sport, not just as an escape from hardship but as a viable option for a fulfilling life.