Project Tiger

Mashrafe Mortaza's eyes come alive at the mention of Bombay. He was dazzled the first time he visited and decided it was the place he'd most like to live after home. This was on a Bangladesh A tour in 2001 - he'd just turned 18 - and the team stayed at Cricket Club of India by the sea. There the president of CCI, that most tragic of cricket tragics Raj Singh Dungarpur, had a little talk with the players: 'Lose, no problem,' he said generously, 'but play well and lose well.'

"Next day," Mashrafe says in coarse Hindi (though on record players are instructed to use either Bangla or English), "CCI 120 all out. Next match - CCI 160 all out." Two victories, and then at the Wankhede they defeated Mumbai Cricket Association XI, then in Pune in a first-class game they overtook Maharashtra Cricket Association XI's first innings total of 452.

Things haven't changed all that much in six years. Last month Anil Kumble told him that the Indians were worried about the window between the World Cup and the tour to Bangladesh in May being too small, the subtext being, you know, that they would be around till the end of the competition. A few days later the two sides met at the Queen's Park Oval...

Mortaza tells the stories not with hostility but animated laughter. He is a delightful young chap, though, even at 23 a very old hand in this Bangladesh team. The real juniors - teenagers - pass by in the lobby every now and then. So fresh-faced, so incredibly tiny are these boys television cannot do justice to their youngness, their littleness. Someone seriously asks me if one is the son of a cricketer, accompanying him on tour. It is not so implausible too. The accomplished and tireless spinner Mohammad Rafique, is closing in on his thirty-seventh birthday. You can almost imagine him taking one by the ear if he bowled a no-ball.

Javed Omar Belim, at 30 the only mid-ranger in the squad, stops by to ask a few questions. He wants to know what's been happening in India. He is told of the intrigue, the mess. He listens with interest, sometimes with alarm. It is a cautionary tale.

India's loss to Bangladesh might be seen by some as one bad day. But it happened, and it is going to happen a little more often in the years to come, because Bangladesh have been working a few things out.

Rabeed Imam, the fine cricket writer turned media manager, remembers that even till the mid-nineties, that football was undisputedly the leading sport in Bangladesh. Within a few years of being accorded one-day, then, contentiously, Test status, cricket had left it far behind. The Bangladesh football team was in a slump, where the cricketers were playing in the World Cup.

"For me and the country, the 1999 World Cup was the biggest moment," remembers Rafique. "Bigger than reaching the second round here. There was no obstacle for us after that. The barrier had been broken."

Then came five years of almost continuously depressing losses, but it could not wither Rafique's spirit. "How much can you expect? In another 10-15 years, Bangladesh will be playing at the level of the other international teams. The main thing is we have to keep believing in ourselves"
In the last decade cricket's profile in the country has become almost unrecognisable from what it was, Imam says. Everywhere you look is a game of cricket, you now find cricketers on hoardings, on television commercials. Just before coming out to the World Cup, Mortaza, Syed Rasel and Shahadat Hossain promoted a speed-hunt television programme. Hossain, better known as Rajib, is as well-built as Mortaza and quicker. I'm assured there a few more tall ones waiting in the wings.

Crucially, there has been significant work on the backend. Imitation being the sincerest form, the Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) approached Cricket Australia for assistance; the bodies now share an excellent understanding.

As far as possible the BCB modelled their structures on the Australian system. The National Academy, soon to be relocated to the same premises as the new international stadium at Mirpur, is run by Allister de Winter, whose profile in Bangladesh is almost identical to what it had been at Western Australia: to oversee, apart from the academy, the Under 13s, Under 17s and Under 19s programmes. Thousands of matches are scanned to select a batch of 25 boys for the Academy. Of the current squad Tamim Iqbal, Saqibul Hasan, Aftab Ahmed, Mohammad Ashraful, Mushfiqur Rahim, Shahadat Hossain and, to a lesser extent, Mortaza, have all been products of the age-group and academy system.

Cricket is the main sport now at schools, and their competitions involve teams from 64 districts. Club cricket is thriving, and has grown to a degree that five or six teams are now in serious contention for the premier-league prize, rather than just the big two, Abahani and Mohammaden. For a first-division final in a big stadium, you might have a crowd of up to 20,000, reckons Imam. Let alone club, ever been to a Ranji final in India?

The system is generating sufficient money to fund these ambitious activities. Television rights have brought in $56 million for six years. Private sponsors are stepping up. GrameenPhone bankrolls both the Academy and the national team. Because the ICC World Cup 2007, let us be official here, precludes teams from endorsing cellular operators, the Bangladesh team currently wear the badge of a tea company. From membership fees and through sponsors arranged by the BCB, clubs are able to give out seasonal contracts to cricketers.

From these feeder systems is emerging a future worth the name. The under-19 team, Imam believes, one of the top two teams in the world. At the last under-19 World Cup they swept the warm-up and league matches but were knocked out in the quarter-finals. Their opponents were England: a few months ago Bangladesh had beaten them 11 times on the trot.

So this team of kids at the World Cup is not a desperate call to youth. The kids are the finest cricketers in the country, cricketers who know what it is to win. "The mentality of 'lose but lose with pride' has gone," says Mortaza. "No matter which team we play."

Mortaza's own story has been remarkable. Let alone leading the attack with such distinction, it is a minor medical miracle that he is even standing on his feet. Without drama he lists his injuries over the past six years: "Left knee, three operations; right knee, one operation; back, stress fracture - it's better now but still gives some trouble - some shoulder problems; ankles, damaged ligaments twice." He doesn't ever hold himself back on the field; he cannot get himself to.

"In Bangladesh the young generation have a lot of belief in themselves," says Rafique. "In Dhaka, before we left we said, god willing, we will play the second round of the tournament."

Did it mean anything that among of their first-round opponents would be some of the biggest icons of the game from across the border? "No, nowadays cricket is not about reputations. Cricket is about who plays well in the middle. That is cricket."

Many of the players speak of the family atmosphere in the team. They enjoy being with one another, enjoy going out to dinner together, enjoy singing songs together - Aftab and Rajib are the nightingales. Rafique is the big brother. How does he mentor them?

"I tell them that the harder you work the more relaxed you will be on the field. If you work hard, you will not feel pressure in the match. But I let them experience things for themselves. Playing at this level you automatically start absorbing a lot of knowledge."

"But as they learn from me, I learn from them. You can learn even from a child. Remember there is no end to learning. We have improved day by day, and today, by God's grace, we're in the second round of the World Cup. No one is more foolish than the man who thinks his learning is over."