Cally Barlow looks on at the first Test
© Mir Farid|
Midway through the first day of the Chittagong Test, a commotion broke out in the press box as an elegant, well-dressed English lady breezed into the room and set about chatting to the local journalists, with a TV camera tracking her every move, and dictaphones at the ready to jot down her utterances. The lady in question was Cally Barlow, the widow of the late, great Eddie, and her return to Bangladesh was the hot news of the day.
Eddie Barlow’s brief spell as the coach of Bangladesh seems almost incidental in the grand scheme of his life story – a tale which included 30 Tests at the height of South Africa’s pre-isolation powers in the 1960s, and a significant role in the liberalising of the board thereafter. He came to Bangladesh in 1999 with a remit to guide them through the turbulent early years of their full Test status, but his tenure came to a sad end one year later, after he suffered the first of a series of strokes that would lead ultimately to his death in 2005, at the age of 65.
And yet, as Cally’s return to Bangladesh shows only too well, there was something about the Barlow era that made a lasting and devoted impression on the country. “He was more than a coach, he was a father to our team,” said Aminul Islam, Barlow’s first captain, and the man who, in November 2000, marked his country’s inaugural Test with a life-changing 145. “To lose him when we did was the biggest setback in the history of Bangladesh cricket.”
Without wishing to draw unwarranted parallels, Bangladesh has a tendency to revere its fallen leaders – men who promised much but were cut off in their prime. But in the case of Barlow, the affection is infectious. On the eve of the first Test, a party was held at the prestigious Chittagong Club, the tranquil retreat for the city’s movers and shakers, with its verandahs, bow-tied waiters, and air of colonial splendour. But Cally’s arrival was the defining moment of the evening, as the great and the good queued up to pay homage.
The class of 2000 were all out in force – Akram Khan, Habibul Bashar, and a certain former player whom she greeted, with mock admonishment, as “a very naughty boy”, before expressing incredulity that he’d actually settled down and married. For a variety of reasons, this was the very first time that Cally had been back in nearly ten years, although as her business card pointed out: “I speak to male and female groups and societies on Eddie Barlow, South Africa and Bangladesh”, to be gone and to be forgotten are two very different things.
“The Barlows treated the team like family,” explained one former journalist who remembered the warmth of the relationships in those early days, from shared meals (eaten with the hands, of course) at their training camps at Savar, to a good-humoured approach to such thorny issues as time-keeping. It was a bond which actually became closer after Eddie’s stroke in May 2000, a full six months before their inaugural Test against India at Dhaka, as Cally became a permanent fixture within the dressing-room, helping her husband with his mobility, as well as putting his plans and schemes for development down on paper.
Those plans, in fact, are Barlow’s greatest legacy, for his actual job description was that of director of development – a subtle distinction from the head coach roles of the BCB’s subsequent imports, Dav Whatmore and Jamie Siddons. His was a bottom-up appointment designed to kickstart the infrastructure of a country that, at the time it acquired Test status, had no first-class competition and just a single indoor nets facility. Barlow’s boundless enthusiasm (his defining characteristic throughout his playing career), allied to his previous experience of South African grassroots cricket, made him a natural at tackling such a daunting task.
“The first thing Eddie said to the board was, you don’t actually want me here, I’m just a caretaker,” Cally recalled. “His grand plan was to train up 500 Bangladeshi coaches, and eventually give them the means to look after the game themselves." That number has now reached 350, but not all of Barlow's schemes were as successful as the rest. An attempt to set up an umpiring seminar, with Steve Bucknor flown in as the principal speaker, fell flat on its face when it became apparent that not one of the 40 men present in the room could understand his soft Jamaican lilt.
And meanwhile, sitting in mothballs in some forgotten corner of the BCB’s boardroom, is a proposal to bring Bangladesh’s six-team Divisional first-class tournament under the auspices of the various international banks that operate in the country. Standard Chartered Dhaka Division, or HSBC Rajshahi Division, would have provided jobs and education for the players, opportunities after retirement, and an increased profile for the competition. But alas it was not to be.
Could Barlow really have made a difference, had fate not intervened so cruelly? Bangladesh’s myriad social and political problems would surely have beaten him in the end (and Cally’s return happens to coincide with the return to power of the government who hired her husband), but those who saw him in action have no doubt about what he contributed.
“He was a class apart,” said Aminul. “He understood our culture and never got frustrated, and he was so relaxed on the day of our first Test that we just went out and performed.” Bangladesh won the toss and batted first on that day in November 2000, and with Aminul leading the charge, they stunned the world by posting 400 at their first attempt.
“I do think he could have changed things,” Aminul added. “He started writing coaching books, and he was always coming up with theories, which he made sure were translated into Bangla. And though his job was to develop the next generation, he also believed in his senior players, and always said that any cricket team needed 55% experience.”
A lesson, perhaps, for the class of 2010, for Barlow's premature departure changed the priorities of the board. In his absence, Bangladesh’s homegrown coaches lacked the experience to cope, and following the debacle of the 2003 World Cup (when Canada’s victory provided the ultimate humiliation) Whatmore and then Siddons were set the task of concentrating on the elite, with intermittent success, but without ever setting out a clear plan for the millions who seek a chance.
“Our group has progressed, but I’m not sure about our infrastructure,” said Siddons, who has been in his job for almost a quarter of Bangladesh’s Test history. “There are only three or four bowling machines in the country for 150 million people, which means there’s privilege for about 120 cricketers and the rest have to fight their way through. The only way to get better is to stay in the group, travel the world, train in good conditions, and learn the hard way at international level. There’s no alternative.”
It’s little wonder that Bangladesh cricket laments the path from which it deviated, almost before it had started out its journey.
Andrew Miller is the former UK editor of ESPNcricinfo and now editor of The Cricketer magazine