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Tour Diary

Still swelling with pride

Luckily, he hadn't changed much

Sriram Veera
ESPNcricinfo Ltd

ESPNcricinfo Ltd

It's nice when people match the image you have in mind. Former Bangladesh captain Akram Khan threw up the images of a burly person lofting the spinners down the ground. Luckily, time has a way of making you forget the less memorable facets and Akram certainly was no great batsman; he didn't have a great technique and wasn't too comfortable against pace. He had a slightly odd stance and yet his physique, coupled with his captaincy and most importantly, his involvement with some of special moments in Bangladesh cricket history, had left one looking forward to a meeting with the man.
Luckily, he hadn't changed much. He was still burly, the moustache slightly more trimmed, the mop of hair still intact, and he spoke softly with a gentle smile occasionally creasing his happy face. He is currently a national selector, but it was the past that was more interesting.
We rewound to 1997 ICC Trophy in Malaysia, which was the turning point in Bangladesh cricket. Bangladesh gained Test and ODI status after the triumphant campaign - a nation went mad, cricket toppled football as the No. 1 sport in the country, and they got an opportunity to play in the next World Cup.
Akram, who was the captain then, played a fine hand in an important game against Holland to lead Bangladesh to final; they were hopping at 15 for 4 when Akram hit a an unbeaten 68 to clinch a three-wicket win. He simply smiles when you talk about it, instead preferring to talk about the celebrations when they came back to Bangladesh.
"There were 100,000 people," Akram said before repeating, "Hundred thousand people". "We went in an open-bus parade from the airport to the parliament and there were all these people cheering for us. It's a feeling that I can't describe even now. We got money, free TVs and what not."
It was a far cry from his early days in Chittagong. Akram used to play football with his brother in the rainy season and play cricket in the winter. There used to be occasional glimpses of cricket - 15-minute packages on TV from the Sharjah games. There weren't many heroes but he found that he liked hitting the ball hard and the money, in club cricket, wasn't bad. He came to Dhaka to play the league and ended up playing for country not long after. Akram lurched from one eventful moment to another in Bangladesh cricket from then on.
Who can forget his role as a captain and top scorer in the 1999 World Cup win against Pakistan. "We just wanted to play the full 50 overs before we went out to bat," he said. Bangladesh weren't thinking about winning those days, unlike the current lot, who think about victory, he said. Akram hit 42 and Bangladesh ended up on 223 before chaos and controversy erupted when Pakistan collapsed to 43 for 5 in 12.3 overs.
Saeed Anwar's run-out was the moment that gave Bangladesh a strange belief that something special can happen that day, said Akram. Suddenly the pressure had got to Pakistan and their beleaguered captain Wasim Akram, who came out to bat.
"You could feel the tension and the pressure they were facing," Akram said. "Wasim, who is a very good friend to me, told me that, 'If we lose, everyone will say that we have taken money to lose the game."
"They were under so much pressure. I know there was a lot of talk about the match being fixed but for all I know, and my team, we played well to win. No one can take that away from us."
For a brief little moment, he transforms into a man wary of losing his dignity. As we fell silent, luckily, the grim moment passed and he quickly recovered to throw one more anecdote. "There was a bowler called Rahul [Niamur Rashid, the medium-pacer and the only Bangladeshi bowler that day to not pick up a wicket] and he was appealing for every ball. Wasim called me and said, 'Akram usko mana karo, har ball appeal kar raha hai! Out de diya to aadmi samjhega... [stop him, he is appealing every ball! If the umpire gives out then people will think...' I just laughed. I didn't say anything to Rahul."
Needless to say, though there weren't open-bus cavalcades this time around, the players were gifted loads of cash and prizes after that special victory.
Unfortunately, Akram was also there on the field on that fateful day when Raman Lamba, the Indian cricketer and his friend, died after a fatal blow to the head, while standing at short leg. "It was the last ball before drinks break and I told Raman bhai to move to short leg and asked him, 'Aren't you getting a helmet?' He said, 'I have been fielding at silly point for the last 15 years without any helmet. Forget it, just one ball, let's apply pressure on the batsman.'"
It was a gentle tossed-up delivery and Mehrab Hossain [Akram doesn't take the name, just says "batsman"] crashed one straight at the temple. Lamba went down in pain and the ball was hit so hard that it actually lobbed to keeper for a catch. Lamba got up, had drinks, and even fielded for 15 more minutes before he swayed across to his captain Akram and said, "I am not feeling well, I think I should leave."
"I told him, you go Raman bhai, I will take care here," Akram said.
Later, there was to be one more final meeting between the two friends in the hospital. "I asked him [Lamba] whether he was hungry and then we ordered a soup from a Chinese restaurant," Akram continued. "He was sipping it when he began to vomit violently and was so sad. He was a great senior figure to us, some one who taught us finer points of the game. I remember, he would say, 'don't hit a bad bowler too much at the same time as he would be taken off the attack. Make sure you milk him'. Small little things like that we weren't aware of. He helped us become more professional."
During the course of conversation, you find that Akram is never shy of speaking the truth about himself and the older generation of cricketers. "Oh, we were never mentally tough you know, like the current lot," Akram said. "We were in awe of India and Pakistan and to do well against them was something great. It's really nice to see the current players are so much so mentally stronger than us." He also mentions how some one with his physique would find it really difficult to get selected today.
These days, he isn't just a selector but he also owns a fleet of buses, called Silk Line, operating between Dhaka and Chittagong. The idea came during a chat with his friend and current partner, a former football captain of Bangladesh.
I ask him whether he has taken the bus along with his 97 ICC Trophy winning team-mates just to recap that glorious day in Bangladesh history. He simply smiles.

Sriram Veera is a former staff writer at ESPNcricinfo