Under-19 World Cup 2004 February 25, 2004

Going through the motions

Bangladesh's failure to qualify for the Super League has dampened spirits in Dhaka, but elsewhere the Under-19 World Cup goes from strength to strength

They are going through the motions these days at the Bangabandhu National Stadium. The atmosphere has transformed since Bangladesh were bumped out of the race for the Super League, and dispatched to the backwaters of the Plate Championship.

For the do-or-die group match against India, gallery tickets were sold on the black market for nearly a dollar each, four times the face value. On Tuesday, those same ticket touts were wishing there could be a Bangladesh game every day. Barely 500 made it to the 35,000-capacity stadium, and even that was in the later part of the afternoon for India's match against West Indies.

The biggest giveaway was the emptiness of the two-tier press enclosure. Usually abuzz with local sports writers having the most animated of discussions, it was weirdly barren. The ten or so pressmen who did turn up met with pleas from the attendants serving snack-boxes and soda to take their share ... and preferably someone else's too. The organisers had arranged food for over 100 accredited journalists.

As India edged towards a sparkless 250-plus score, a few spectators decided to get rid of the boredom by indulging in a fist fight. No-one was badly hurt, but at least the monotony had been broken.

Under lights the Bangabandhu is a mystical entity. Its misty chestnut glow creates a stimulating reflection on the thousands of heads when the venue is full. When it's not, the whiteness of the vacant stands give a ghost-like impression. Teams don't enjoy chasing in day-night games at Dhaka, as dewdrops tend to moisten the wicket even though it could have been absolutely perfect for batting just hours earlier.

For the teenagers of all the participating nations, playing under lights is a novelty, and some of them are finding batting second quite an education. In the first three day-night games India, New Zealand and, on Tuesday, West Indies chased and lost.

But the Windies initially made all the right moves though, thanks to some calypso hitting by their Trinidadian No. 3 Lendl Simmons. Does the surname ring a bell? Simmons Junior was born in 1985 when his uncle Phil was being considered one of the brightest batting talents around the Caribbean. While Simmons senior never quite managed to pull off the transition from useful player to star, Junior for the time being at least looks a genuine prospect.

He already has a hundred under his belt in this competition, and went about thrashing the Indian bowling to all parts of the ground. Although he's about one-third of his uncle's imposing frame, Lendl does pack a punch. He effortlessly flicked off his legs, danced down the wicket to hit the bowlers over their heads and flashed outside the off stump with the electricity of Phil in his heyday. He had reached 27 off 22 balls, but then came a moment's indiscretion and it was all over. After his departure, West Indies were soon at sixes and sevens and eventually ended up 96 runs short. But there will be times soon when Lendl will bat longer and, rest assured, people will happily pay to watch.

Uncle Phil, who incidentally is also in Bangladesh as the technical advisor of the Zimbabwe team, popped in to the Bangabandhu, and must be fancying the possibility of Zimbabwe coming across the West Indians somewhere in this competition. However, as and when that happens, it will also put his family loyalties to the test, as the whole of the Zimbabwe team looks to him for guidance.

As the match headed for an early finish, the media liaison officer at the Bangabandhu sheepishly sought consent to postpone the post-match briefing, as the team members might have outnumbered the journalists.

While the Bangabandhu has seen an unusual lull in excitement since the local lads were shipped out to Chittagong, the Fatullah Cricket Stadium has earned the reputation of being the "super-hit" venue of this World Cup - so much so that England's Super League match against Pakistan on February 27 has been shifted there from the Bangladesh Institute of Sports (BKSP).

Fatullah has proved that it can ensure a packed house for any cricket match. Remember, this was the venue where tickets had to be introduced even for practice games. The high-school ambience of the BKSP couldn't possibly have matched the outpouring of passion guaranteed at Fatullah.

Spare a thought too for some of the other new venues, in parts of the country where the Under-19 World Cup has been the finest cause for celebration in many years. For the people of Rajshahi, Bogra and Khulna, who hosted the teams in Groups A and D, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Perhaps a volunteer at the Shaheed Chandu Stadium in Bogra best sums up the emotion. "I miss the PA system at the stadium and the life surrounding the ground. For a week we had been partying. Now it's more like a haunted structure. It may hold ODIs and Tests even in the coming days, but those will never be the same as this World Cup."

Rabeed Imam is senior sub-editor at the Daily Star in Dhaka.