In February and March next year, Bangladesh plays host to the ICC Under-19 World Cup. In any ordinary circumstances, such an undertaking would be routine, maybe even a nuisance. But for Bangladesh it is the latest, and to date the greatest, step in their accelerated development towards becoming a fully fledged Test nation. Last night, as yet another dispiriting home series prepared to dribble to a conclusion, it was time to look to the future, as the tournament was officially launched at Dhaka's Sheraton Hotel.
The 2004 Under-19 World Cup will feature 16 teams (two more than appeared in last year's senior event) and 54 matches, all crammed into a schedule of three weeks. By the time the competition reaches its conclusion on March 5, four new venues will have been inaugurated all across the country, with a new headquarters in Dhaka to follow. With any luck, Bangladesh will have demonstrated to the world (but, more importantly, to their long-suffering supporters) that their cricket has a future worthy of their status.
By a strangely coincidental quirk of fate, last night's launch took place exactly three years to the day since Bangladesh's most uplifting moment in their short Test history. On November 11, 2000, and in front of an exultant crowd of 40,000, Aminul Islam scored a century on his Test debut as Bangladesh posted a total of exactly 400 in the first innings of their inaugural Test match, against India. Two days later, however, they had crumbled to 91 in their second innings, and defeat. It hardly needs pointing out that things have never been quite so rosy since.
Many lessons have been learned in the intervening years, most of them painful, and not all of them limited to the Bangladeshis. Even the ICC themselves are a chastened band of men. Yesterday their chief executive Malcolm Speed came as close as any official to admitting they had jumped the gun with Bangladesh's Test status. "If they win a Test or a one-day series over the next two years," he said, "we'll be fairly satisfied."
By the same token, however, all present were eager to emphasise Bangladesh's massive potential, and it was not just empty rhetoric. The fans may have been subdued during the Test series against England, but their goodwill towards the game is far from exhausted - as demonstrated by some wildly enthusiastic support during Monday's hammering at Dhaka. On occasions the scenes threatened to get a little out of hand, but Michael Vaughan was right to laugh off any dangers to England's players. A few good-natured food-fights and the odd bonfire on a concrete terrace are hardly the stuff of international censure.
On the flip side, however, the fans' intense dissatisfaction with their captain, Khaled Mahmud, is a clear warning that mediocrity will not be tolerated forever. The BCB should take heed. It would be a tragedy if Bangladesh's own opinion of their game was allowed to plumb the same depths that it has occasionally reached abroad.
After today's match, Bangladesh take a three-month break from international commitments, and the emphasis will shift squarely onto the final preparations for next year's tournament. At last night's launch, an attractive sterling-silver trophy was unveiled, along with a swooshing World Cup logo that apparently denoted "youth and movement" and "pace and energy". But every bit as intriguing as the unveilings themselves were the veiled threats that accompanied them.
"This is a tremendous opportunity for Bangladesh," said the ICC's president, Ehsan Mani - a statement which might have been loosely translated as "Don't screw it up." There is no direct financial reward for hosting the event, but in terms of infrastructure and global exposure, Bangladesh can expect to reap what it sows. For such a young country, it is not far removed from being awarded the Olympics.
But, much as Athens is dawdling ahead of next year's games, so Bangladesh is also cutting its preparations somewhat fine. The Divisional Stadium in Chittagong is a case in point. Situated about half-an-hour outside the city centre, it is one of the five purpose-built cricket grounds currently under development. It hosts its first match on February 16, and expects to be fully up and running for India's Test tour in April.
The stadium itself is an unremarkable concrete bowl, whose stands are currently used by the local farmers to thresh grain, and whose perimeter is patrolled by a large herd of cows. The pavilion is the only built-up section of the ground, but at present it is a fog of construction work, with the top three floors remaining at their most skeletal stage, without even the merest hint of plumbing, plastering, or electricity.
The constraints of Ramadan are hardly conducive to intensive construction work, but the tournament organisers are optimistic that everything will fall into place at the last minute, especially with so much cheap labour that can be called upon in a crisis. Of greater concern is the state of the new pitches. The ICC's second threat was a reduction in Bangladesh's overseas tours - an understandable move, but one that runs counter to the development requirements of the team. The onus may soon fall on Bangladesh to equip themselves with the type of pitch that will accelerate their progress - even if it dents their short-term prospects of that long-awaited victory.
To that end, Andy Atkinson, the former head groundsman at Edgbaston and Newlands, has been drafted in to oversee the pitch preparations. With luck he will be able to coax more life out of the new pitches than was displayed during England's tour (with the notable exception of the Chittagong Test strip). This will, in turn, oblige the Bangladeshis to develop their techniques against the short ball. There is no point, as Dav Whatmore put it, of being "tigers at home, and pussycats abroad".
Last, but by no means least, the team themselves have a duty to perform - they have played in every tournament since it became a biennial event in 1998, and as England discovered in their two first-class warm-up matches, there is no shortage of young talent in Bangladesh. In both games, England faced eight of the current U19 squad, and on both occasions they were held to draws, albeit rain-affected ones. In the second match, the current U19 captain, Nafis Iqbal, scored a fine century, after which he had the temerity to denounce England's spinners as "ordinary".
That is a charge that has rarely been levelled at Bangladeshi cricket, because their performances have rarely been anything but substandard. Three years ago this week, they tried to run before they were ready. But in the next few months, they must walk, and walk tall.