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Tour Diary

Chittagong's grassless grass-roots


Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller

The floodlit pitch of the Baniatila Premier League © Andrew Miller
There’s a lot of time for looking out of the window while waiting for the lift at the Asian SR Hotel in Chittagong, but on Sunday night the standard view of random headlights, flickering tea-lights and silhouetted passers-by had been transformed beyond recognition. Across the road, in a field that had previously been occupied by a herd of non-descript sheep, was a sight that England’s Johnny Cash-obsessed cricketers might well have described as “a burning ring of fire”.
What it actually turned out to be was the opening round of the Baniatila Premier League, a brand-new floodlit tournament that was the very definition of grass-roots cricket, even down to the surface on which it was being played – a patch of arid, dusty soil in desperate need of watering to enable anything substantial to grow. And yet, the bare facts of the event were nonetheless astonishing – not least the size of the crowd, which had to number at least 200 people, set three bodies deep all around the boundary’s edge.
That boundary itself was marked out by a series of bamboo poles – each topped with a home-security-style floodlight and strung together with a single white flex of electrical cabling that was being fed from the mains of a nearby house – but the playing area it encircled was tiny. A regulation 22-yard strip had been rolled as flat and hard as possible along the middle, with proper stumps and bails at either end, but the distance to the boundary could not have been more than five metres in some places.
None of this impacted on the competitiveness of the cricket, the enthusiasm of the support, or indeed the administration of the event. On a whitewashed wall that backs onto the Chittagong-Dhaka railway line, a rudimentary scoreboard had been sketched out in black paint, and beneath it a rickety table had been pulled up for the statisticians – a whole army of them it seemed, to cope with the facts and figures of up to 22 different teams.
The matches themselves were eight-over-a-side contests, with one or two quirky features to adapt to the constricted circumstances of the venue. All of the bowlers on display were unrepentant chuckers, imparting massive spin and brisk velocity on the tape-balls used for each game, but the batsmen responded with elegant and inventive strokes, their footwork light and adaptable on the less-than-even surface.
Perhaps most significantly of all, the tournament had a six-is-out rule, which meant that the players had to learn to keep the ball down at all times. So much for the IPL taking the art out of batsmanship. With the busy Station Road at one end of the ground and the railway tracks at the other, not to mention a deep and niffy buffalo wallow at midwicket, all it takes is the introduction of a few natural hazards, and the game’s traditional skills will be passed on from generation to generation.
As it turned out, that very rule played a huge part in the most thrilling match of the evening, the final game between the Blues and the Whites. The Blues were up against it, needing 39 off the last two overs, but six consecutive fours brought the requirement down to 15 from six. The Blues captain then holed out to extra cover (15 off five) before three more fours took the game down to the last ball. But then, pumped with adrenalin and emboldened by the crowd, the Blues matchwinner-in-waiting launched a massive six clean over long-off, leaving his opponents victorious by two.
Aside from the clear interest that the tournament was generating down on Station Road, however, it was hard to tell quite how relevant this sort of event was in terms of the wider growth and development of Bangladesh cricket. All over the country, there is more and more evidence of the sport taking hold at grass-roots level – and this year, I was told, was the first time an event such as the BPL had taken place in Chittagong – but it’s debatable quite how much penetration, if any, there is to higher levels of the game.
One of the players I met at the event was named Pavel, a young allrounder who claimed to be on the books of Chittagong Division – and seeing as his name was one of two (along with “Sohel”) to be etched on the honours-board section of the wall, it was clear that he really was a player of some promise. But he told me his dream of playing cricket for a living was already withering away. With a father in retirement and a family to support, his main priority was to keep studying while moving up the ladder in his job at the bank, Citilink.
At Chittagong Stadium, the elite cricketers of Bangladesh made great strides in the first Test, and gave England a fright that few had imagined they could muster. But for all the enthusiasm for cricket in the country, the speed and the gradient of the descent to grass-roots is alarming. A means to harness the energy on the street, and send it catapulting to the uppermost tiers of the game, is essential if the sport is to embed itself in the society as securely as it ought.

Andrew Miller is the former UK editor of ESPNcricinfo and now editor of The Cricketer magazine