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Beauty, brutality and brotherhood in New Zealand

It was to be a routine Test tour for Bangladesh. Then terror and tragedy struck

Mohammad Isam
Mohammad Isam
A view of Wellington from the Botanic Garden

A view of Wellington from the Botanic Garden  •  Mohammad Isam/ESPNcricinfo Ltd

February 25
One of the first people I meet in Auckland is my colleague Andrew Fidel Fernando's child, who is a little irritated to see me. The introduction is brief as I have to catch a bus to Hamilton, which I end up missing.
I arrive in windy Hamilton and walk to my hotel. After a brief dinner, I unpack all the things I'm carrying for Soumya Sarkar. Since he was a mid-tour inclusion in the Test side, the Bangladesh board requested me to carry his match shirts, trousers and sweaters with me. On my last tour, I carried Taskin Ahmed's whites and Shakib Al Hasan's Test cap. This time I also have a couple of things for Mahmudullah and Tamim Iqbal. Soumya thanks me and offers to return the favour. I stop myself from telling him half-jokingly that he can return the favour by scoring some runs.
February 26
It takes me ten minutes to walk to Seddon Park. My commute from home to the Shere Bangla National Stadium in Dhaka now takes up to an hour.
I hand Ross Taylor his ESPNcricinfo trophy for the best ODI innings in 2018. With the New Zealand team about to start training, it's a quick affair although a few TV cameras standing around meant that Taylor gave his reaction. He was pleased but in a quiet, New Zealand kind of way.
Veteran Bangladesh journalist Utpal Shuvro and I are about to head off for lunch when someone tries to get his attention from a car. It's an old friend, Ramesh Chand, whose restaurant we end up going to. We meet Ramesh's wife, and they show us photos of Bangladesh players who have visited their restaurant, which used to be situated closer to the team hotel. Now that they have moved, Ramesh wants to inform the players that their restaurant is just a block away.
Some of the Bangladesh players watch Gully Boy, a new Bollywood movie, and then we catch up with some Dhaka stories at the hotel after dinner.
February 27
I meet NZC media executive James Bennett, a force of nature who has already made himself familiar with many Bengali words. He is friendly and helpful and hands me my second accreditation card in the space of an hour.
I sit down for an interview with Matt Henry, who won't be playing the Hamilton Test and will be released for the Plunket Shield. He loves to get nicks off the batsman's outside edge, although he doesn't think he is quick enough to be called a fast bowler.
The travelling media are given a pitch inspection by the Seddon Park curator, Karl Johnson, who says that despite its greenish look, a batsman can get runs here.
I venture off to more greenery at the Hamilton Gardens, where I walk through their Indian, Italian and Japanese sections. The well-manicured park is a delight and a nice little break between work.
February 28
Tamim Iqbal gets on top of New Zealand's fast bowlers before Neil Wagner unleashes his bouncers. Bangladesh were prepared for this short-pitched assault, as is evident from how they attacked it, but many of them ended up top-edging their hooks and pulls. Wagner wishes Tamim on his century when they cross each other in the press conference.
The NZC media team hosts the travelling media for a small party in a pub by the Waikato River. There's a lot of stories being exchanged; Willy Nicholls and Bennett are excellent company.
March 1
While walking around the ground, I hear a Bangladeshi fan tell Tamim to tell Mahmudullah to bowl some overs to break the Jeet Raval-Tom Latham opening stand. Within the next half hour, Mahmudullah bowls an over and gets Raval caught at mid-on.
"I told you," says the fan. Tamim turns back and nods.
Against an in-form batting line-up, Abu Jayed, Ebadot Hossain and Khaled Ahmed look like they are out of ideas. They try everything but their lack of experience exposes them brutally.
March 2
Wagner and Colin de Grandhomme scores quick runs while Kane Williamson accumulates a double-hundred. New Zealand's 715 is their highest total and is far too much for Bangladesh.
They start well. The Tamim-Wagner battle is warming up. Tamim stands far outside leg stump when Wagner comes around the wicket to him, forcing him to bowl a little wide. Tamim ducks so many times that he tells conditioning coach Mario Villavarayan that he has done enough squatting for the next month.
I meet a Bangladeshi group who have driven here from Auckland, and my friend Shamim Ahmed is among them. He comes with his wife and daughter.
While returning from dinner, I am chased by young Bangladesh cricketer Nayeem Hasan, who happened to be in the same restaurant and found my accreditation card. Thanks Nayeem, but I have an extra one. Nayeem wants to have some chips, so we go to a convenience store where we meet Bangladesh's sports minister, Zahid Ahsan Russell.
March 3
I hurry to Seddon Park because I have an interview with former New Zealand captain Ken Rutherford, who was doing commentary for the Test.
The Test ends at 4:20pm, much later than anyone thought it would. I walk back to the hotel with the bubbly Khaled Mashud, Bangladesh's team manager on this tour and a former captain. He wants to take some grass seeds home after being impressed by the Seddon Park outfield. Curator Johnson gifts him a free kilo.
We are late for dinner and find that most restaurants have closed. We try Ramesh's place and while most of the lights are off, his wife welcomes us and says they can cook something for us. It was the simplest of dinners but quite possibly our best meal in Hamilton.
March 4
Since the Test finishes a day early, I spend the whole day roaming around Hamilton with my friend Ishtiaq Anik, who came down from Auckland. We visit the Waikato museum, two bridges and the Hamilton Lake, which overlooks a beautiful neighbourhood.
March 5
"Where are you headed with that large bag? To Wellington, on a bus?"
My Uber driver is concerned I am going to waste a lot of time by travelling to Wellington by bus, but it's the only way I'll get to see the rest of the North Island. Lake Taupo and the small towns are pretty.
March 6
At a Bangladesh fielding session two days before the Wellington Test, a couple of the new fast bowlers seem to be learning how to slide sideways. They fall, twisting their knees on several occasions, which looks dangerous.
The sheer green pitch in Wellington is being marked out for the Test.
March 7
I nearly get hit by a high ball, which is mishit by Bangladesh coach Steve Rhodes. The Wellington breeze deceives me and I just have to take my eye off the ball. A little while later in a totally different conversation, I remind Mahmudullah I have played against him about 15 years ago. He doesn't recall, so I keep giving him clues.
March 8
There's rain in Wellington and play is called off at 3pm. Around late afternoon, something brutal takes place on the outfield. A seagull kills a pigeon. A security personnel recovers what remains of the pigeon and shoos away the seagull, who still returns for a last look at his work.
I take a walk around Wellington Harbor after meeting Courtney Walsh for coffee. It is always fascinating to talk about West Indies of the 1980s, and Walsh likes to talk about fast bowling in all eras.
March 9
Two fans, Jeremy and his son Monty, have come to Wellington from Karikari peninsula on the northern tip of New Zealand. Monty likes the New Zealand players but he is also a fan of Mushfiqur Rahim. They have a flight in the evening but Monty manages to get some autographs of the Bangladesh and New Zealand players who turn up after there was a slim chance of play around 2.30pm.
March 10
Tamim and Shadman Islam again give Bangladesh a good start, but the rest collapse against Wagner's bouncers. Same old story.
I have dinner with my colleague Andrew McGlashan and Mark Geenty and Andrew Alderson, two of New Zealand's foremost cricket writers. We have met before too but this tour is different as we are spending more time with each other.
March 11
Mahmudullah and Shadman drop Taylor, but Jayed, the unfortunate bowler, looks unflustered. It is hard to react when your captain drops a catch off your bowling. Jayed still bowls a good spell but Taylor takes off. New Zealand score at more than five an over and set up a tough last day for Bangladesh, who lose Tamim late on the fourth evening.
Taylor gives thanks to his mentor, the late Martin Crowe, after reaching his hundred, which took him past the New Zealand legend. He also hugs his mother, who's wearing one of his whites, on his way to the dressing room.
March 12
After Bangladesh fold in the first session of day five, I get on the Wellington cable car to go up to the botanical garden. My walk around the garden is interrupted by Mashud, who wants my help in weighing how much excess luggage the Bangladesh team will be carrying on their flight back.
I enter the team room, which is now choked with suitcases and bags of every size. There are about 65 pieces, and the liaison officer, Tim, is pulling up each with a weighing device. I log the weights. After about 58 pieces are weighed, the device breaks down. We estimate the rest and it is about 512kg extra that Mashud has to worry about.
Afterwards, I walk around a deserted Wellington CBD, looking for my bus stop. It has never unnerved me to walk around in New Zealand, even in the middle of the night, but that is all about to change in three days' time.
March 13
I try to avoid Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Williamson at the airport while I sit near their boarding gate wearing an old Black Caps hoodie. I don't want to look like a reporter who wears cricket jerseys, but it is of great quality. They don't notice, but I notice something: Williamson has no airs about himself. He is almost too humble. He is one of the leading cricketers in the world and described as a modern-day great, yet, here he is, sitting and drinking his coffee in an unassuming manner. I am sure it is a cliché but you have to see it to appreciate the true beauty of this cricketer's simplicity.
Mahfuzur Rahman Tonmoy, a Bangladeshi migrant who teaches accounting and someone I know from my last tour here two years ago, takes me, Mohammad Mithun, Mashud and Shuvro to New Brighton Pier, which is on the southeastern end of Christchurch. We are stunned by the evening sky and the unending ocean in front of us. Tonmoy says it's Australia at the other end, but I correct him. It's South America.
Tonmoy is a force of nature who never takes a backward step when it comes to helping people. He is known to have provided for many new Bangladeshi arrivals in Christchurch, and has been planning for my visit for months.
March 14
I interview Wagner, who tells me the story of his early days in Dunedin, where he took a chance in life to play for New Zealand. It worked out quite well as he is now the fifth-best bowler in the world.
Tonmoy takes us home, where we enjoy a great evening. We return a few days later in totally different circumstances.
March 15
It is the beginning of the St Patrick's Day weekend in Christchurch as we head to the ground around mid-day. Southee and Will Young, who is to make his debut in the Christchurch Test, are at the New Zealand press conference at 12.30pm. Young is excited and slightly nervous since he has waited for a long time for this opportunity.
Mahmudullah comes slightly later than scheduled and tells us that he needs to rush for Friday prayers. I am split between waiting to see some of Bangladesh's training and having lunch at a proper time. I decide the latter and walk towards the bus stand.
Tamim calls twice. The next 30 minutes are dreadful, but after we all manage to return to the Hagley Oval, we wait for four hours under lockdown in the Hadlee pavilion.
When NZC announces the tour is called off, the next challenge is to see the Bangladesh team in their team hotel. When the lockdown ends at 6.30pm, a couple of NZC employees arrange our transport. Katelyn, who works for the company that manages the Hagley Oval, offers us a lift. Halfway through our ride, she breaks down about the terrorist attack in Christchurch. We try to calm her down and, when she drops us off, we take a selfie. She has a smile on her face but tears are still running down her eyes.
After Mashud's press conference, he invites us to dinner. It is a simple meal - rice, dal and chicken - but all seven of us are hungry. We talk to some of the players. Everyone is in shock.
Tonmoy arranges a taxi for us to come to his house at 8pm. It's still risky to venture out, but we manage to reach his house, where within the hour, he finds out the extent of damage to the small Bangladeshi community in the city. Tonmoy himself prays at the Al Noor mosque, but had work that Friday. Some of his friends aren't as lucky.
Teary-eyed, he drops me and Shuvro at our hotel and then spends another hour with me, calling more people to find out whether there are more casualties. He will go to the hospital to check on Rubel, one of his friends who got shot twice.
Shuvro, who is in a room above mine, calls and checks if I am okay. I ask him to come write his piece in my room. He finishes around 4am, which leaves me about four hours to sleep before going to the airport. It is an uneasy four hours where every tiny noise bothers me. All the sharing of the shooter's video on social media certainly doesn't help.
March 16
Tonmoy picks me up at 8.30am. While checking us out, the middle-aged lady at my motel's reception is lost for words. We drive off to the airport, where Tonmoy and I have breakfast and see another address to the media by the prime minister. Her compassion touches everyone.
The Bangladesh players are also on the same flight, and we spend the next 18 hours talking, helping each other get over this horror. We talk about the innocence of those who were killed, about what they must have had planned for the rest of that fateful day. It's all wishful thinking, but then again, Tamim reminds me that they could have been there too.
I meet a relative at Singapore airport who sits with me, trying to calm me down. I try to smile a lot to make sure he doesn't think I'm too sad. I give him a ticket stub for the Christchurch Test.
Tamim gives me an interview while walking to the boarding gate. When he mentions calling me, my heart sinks. When he says that he felt relief at seeing me and two other journalists that day, I try to hold back tears.
Soon after take-off, I transcribe the interview. As I listen to his account over and over again, I think that as human beings, it is certainly our instinct to protect ourselves first, but what these 17 brave men did was remarkable. They cared for each other in the worst possible time and pulled themselves out of a horrible situation. They looked after the young. They held each other without even looking at each other.

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84