It's quite a story of a boy who grew up where Dhaka dumps its garbage. Seventy five percent of the city's raw sewage seeps into the Buriganga river every day. Around October each year the water flow stops and within a month the river turns black, a toxic gutter whose stench steadily increases until the water flows through again. Shanty towns and squatter sprawls spread far and wide along the river. Boats still ply up and down, carrying human hope and ambitions for a better life.
Along this river, a little boy from a settlement called Jhinjhira passed his time playing cricket and catching fish. He could have grown into a man still trying to understand why life had been so harsh on him, but he grew up to become Mohammad Rafique, Bangladesh's most famous left-arm spinner.
This romantic rags-to-riches story would still have made some sense had the boy possessed some special gift to turn the ball like no one else in the country. Perhaps, that would have been too simple and Rafique's story is anything but simple. His father had died just after Independence when he was still very young. He was brought up by his mother and grandmother in a joint family. He reached adulthood without even a remote idea that he could turn the ball.
Rafique was playing domestic cricket as a fast bowler for Biman Airlines when Wasim Haider, an overseas player from Pakistan, became the first angel of change in his life. "He asked me to bowl spin," Rafique says. "I was puzzled, but I bowled to him in the nets. Next day, in a match, I bowled five overs of pace before I was asked to try spin. I picked up wickets and that's it from that day I never went back to bowling fast."
We are inside his new four-bedroom duplex built in the same sprawl where Rafique grew up, amidst the squalor, adjacent to the babu-bazaar bridge, and beside Buriganga where he would cross by ferry when he was young to go to town to play cricket. Rafique is planning to move into his new home in a week's time. Something seems to be bothering him, though. He wants a tin-roofed room in the terrace. It would jar as a sore thumb in the shiny new house but it's something from his past that he wants to preserve. "I will host my friends in my tin room," he says.
One would have expected Rafique to escape his past in order to secure a better life for himself and his kids, but he refuses to budge to a "better" neighbourhood. This is where his mother wants to stay and this is where Rafique wants to live. "That's the house of my cousin, this is the house of my brother, that's my uncle's house…" he points out with excitement.
The extended family has slowly taken over the neighbourhood, everyone knows everyone here, and this is where home is for Rafique, beside his Buriganga. He says that the babu-bazaar bridge across the river came up after a documentary of his life was shown post the 1997 ICC Trophy. "The minister asked me what I wanted and I said, a bridge would really help all the residents here and very soon he built one." It's his home, it's where his past was and it's where he wants his future to be. "You get down at the bridge and ask anyone where my house is; you will reach without a problem," he had said on phone. And as it happened that's exactly what occurred.
We had a chat a couple years ago about his bowling and so, now, we move forward to his life post-retirement. You can sense that Rafique is a restless man. It's the new life without cricket that is hurting him, he says. "I get very sad. I don't know what to do. Domestic cricket got over a couple of weeks back and I have been like this ever since. This house-shifting has kept me occupied but for how long. All my life I have played cricket."
This restlessness, though, is helping him firm up plans for the future linked with cricket. He has thought about becoming a curator and now coaching seems high on the agenda. Sourav Ganguly, he says, has called him to coach in the academy in Kolkata but it's in Bangladesh that his heart lies.
It wasn't the most happy retirement decision. Rafique wanted to play for two more years, but the selectors wanted to look ahead of him and he gave up. Incidentally, in his last Test, he reached the 100-wicket tally and called it a day.
You can also sense some bitterness in him when you mention Dav Whatmore. They have had a public spat once before. Clearly, the passion isn't spent still. "His problem was he wanted complete control," Rafique says. "He didn't want the senior players. He would sit in his chair, have his chai, smoke his cigarette and watch the practice. As a professional coach, you need to be hands down and sort out problems at [the] individual level."
Rafique says he also to spoke to the Indians when the talk of appointing Whatmore as an Indian coach started to float around. "I told Sachin Tendulkar, don't take Whatmore. Various groupings will form in the team; he will take the youngsters separately and spoil the team."
However, Rafique is a cheerful person and the innate joy comes forth when he talks about his relationships with Indians and Pakistanis. It's with Harbhajan Singh that he shares a special relationship. Both players went through a difficult phase with suspect actions and that had bound them together. Rafique lost three years of his career because there were some murmurs about his action which saw him dropped after his first Test. He rebounded back in style and it was around this time he bumped into Harbhajan. "We discussed our actions. I told him don't bowl the doosra with a different grip, use the same action," he says. "Over the years I have built a great relationship with him. He has helped me get sponsors and still keeps in touch."
If Harbhajan brought a warm smile, the first mention of Tendulkar in our chat brings a delightfully infectious chuckle. Rafique had just finished talking about how getting Ricky Ponting out in a Test gave him lot of satisfaction (He had hit me for 12 runs in the over and I got his wicket immediately). What about your battles with Sachin? "Sachin ko bahut liya…! (I have taken him out many times)" he says with the mischievous laughter of a school boy that fills up the barely-furnished room and spills over to the outside room where carpenters are working on furnishing the big empty living room. Rafique has got Tendulkar twice in ODIs from eight games and also clean bowled him once in the Tests. His first ODI wicket was in fact that of Tendulkar. "Sachin used to tell me, we only discuss you in our team meeting when we played Bangladesh. 'Usko seedha khel lo,' (play him straight), Tendulkar would tell the other batsmen." Rafique had a good arm-ball and was never shy of using it in his career.
You can see that Rafique is a very happy man with what he has done in cricket. Who wouldn't be? He has featured in Bangladesh's first Test, his 5 for 65 helped Bangladesh win their first Test,, hit 77 helped them clinch their first ODI win, and once, he hit an astonishing 111 from No. 9 to help secure a precious first-innings lead against West Indies. It has been a career that the young boy who used to run around Buriganga wouldn't have even dared to dream. Sometimes, reality can taste even sweeter than your dreams. Ask Rafique.