Monday, June 24, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Bangladesh then and now

Experiencing regeneration through cricket

Update : 18 Jun 2023, 02:08 AM

Seen through the eyes of my seven-year-old self, familiar with the relative comforts of a North London existence, Bangladesh in the 1980s was bewildering. I was a smidge younger than the country itself, when I experienced a rite of passage for many second-generation immigrants, the family holiday “back home.” In this case, home was where both my parents were born and raised, Sylhet in northern Bangladesh. 

The differences between London and Sylhet were stark. The coarse scent of paraffin lamps combined with warm tobacco, prepared every evening for my grandfather's hookah smoking session, was pungent and arresting. The ticking sound made by geckos scuttling across walls and the texture of mosquito nets were wonderfully weird. It was the food that I struggled with most; the dal was watered down rather than resembling the creamy thickness that I was so used to. The meat on chicken legs was stringy and insubstantial. The iron flavoured water meant that a daily bucket of “normal” tasting water had to be fetched from a neighbour's house. And I was far too immature to appreciate the freshness of the fruit and vegetables, purchased every morning on the doorstep from a man with a pushcart brimming with produce. 

My tribulations were more than offset by a notion of extended family and unconditional love that I hadn't encountered before. I had little inkling about what a family tree looked like, but gradually by a process of osmosis, I absorbed basic family connections. The two wings of the family were distinct, which made things easier; my father's side were blunt and boisterous while my mother's side were altogether more sensitive and guarded. The common denominator was that everyone treated me like a long-lost son or brother. Being back home also had a vivid effect on my parents. In London, they lived in a monochrome world, undervalued and working long hours in menial jobs. Bangladesh regenerated them. I looked wide-eyed at my father while he displayed hitherto unseen tenderness. The uncontrollable sobbing of my mother when it was time to say goodbye, her emotions no doubt triggered by memories of leaving home for the first time, was equally affecting. 

My cousin, Bhachu bhai, was at that awkward age where he was too old for school but too young for a proper job. Like scores of other boys from the neighbourhood his days were mostly spent hanging out with mates, in a haze of surreptitious cigarette smoke. There's a concept in Bangladesh culture known as adda. There's no single English word equivalent but loosely translated it means to chat with friends, share a few jokes, and idle away an hour or two. Bachu bhai was an expert at adda. It was quite fitting that Bhachu bhai lived in a room known as “the portico,” situated at the very front of the sprawling family homestead -- the site itself is named rather grandly as Sheikh Para, literally meaning “home of the Sheikhs.” Bhachu bhai radiated a dangerous glamour, his leather jacket and smart jeans wouldn't have looked out of place at an upmarket West End nightclub. I was never sure if he actually owned any of his possessions; his hi-fi, motorbike, even his aftershave, all seemed to be on rotation between friends. 

Bhachu bhai was a keen cricketer and had represented the Sylhet region in various leagues and tournaments. His short, stocky frame lent itself to the role of wicket-keeper and he would talk animatedly with friends about the adventure of his most recent away match; the camaraderie from slow overnight train journeys always featured prominently. I barely understood the cricket jargon being used but it was obvious from the passionate debates punctuating the still evening air that there was something about the lexicon worth exploring. My earliest memory of watching in-the-flesh cricket is intertwined with Bhachu bhai. It was less an expression of free will and more of an instruction when I found myself being taken by him to nearby Sylhet stadium. In Bangladesh, my parents would cast aside the usual anxieties associated with placing a child under the guardianship of someone who was barely an adult, so much so that being plonked on the back of a relative's motorbike and disappearing for hours on end was quite normal. 

For my part, the novelty and newness of tearing up and down the lush hilly tea estates of greater Sylhet was totally mesmerizing. Bhachu bhai must have enjoyed a sense of kudos derived from being associated with a relative from abroad. I was an emblem of the perceived wealth and success synonymous with the developed world. It was years later when Bhachu bhai emigrated to the USA that he would confront first-hand the sobering reality of immigrant life. Sylhet stadium -- the old stadium rather than the newer incarnation situated near the airport road, slated to host next year's Women's T20 World Cup final -- is a stone's throw from the bustle of Lamabazaar “point” junction. The nearby food market, selling everything from freshly netted fish to whole spices, is the kind of functional place that's seldom featured on an Instagram story. 

On my first visit, I recall being huddled in a corner of the stadium which afforded a rare spot of shade. Concrete steps formed the bulk of the seating, not unlike the old Vauxhall End at The Oval before bulldozers paved the way to a brave new world. I didn't really have a clue what was going on in the middle but there was a pleasing, leisurely pace to proceedings. Departing batters held conversations with incoming teammates and only after an equally thorough debrief with the umpires would the new batter take guard. Bhachu bhai would intermittently yell out to the outfielders that he knew, whereas my attention was grabbed by the distinct sight of a peanut seller who had a makeshift counter-cum-storage box strapped around his neck like an accordion. We only had to exchange the briefest of glances before the man sat in front me and got to work. He decanted various containers and finely chopped onion and coriander. They were combined with nuts and other mystery ingredients into a separate vessel. The climax to this carefully orchestrated process was mixing everything together in the manner of a bartender creating a cocktail. The resulting concoction, served in a hand-sized newspaper cone, was simultaneously moreish and prohibitively spicy. 

On subsequent visits to Sylhet, when I was a few years older and braver, I played “tennis-ball cricket” on land adjacent to where my father and his siblings grew up. The boundary was loosely defined by a pond on one side and a gated mound on the other, which was the final resting place for previous generations of family. Local rules applied and anyone who hit the ball into the mound was instantly out, and they then had to retrieve the ball with the suitable deference that the sacred space demanded. A dedicated umpire was always present, usually a boy with a neat side parting, demonstrating the seriousness with which games were contested. Playing with children whose hands were faster than mine and back-lifts appropriately smaller, was fruitless. But it did give me an insight into a world where kids would impersonate cricketers of whom I only had a vague knowledge; the likes of Dilip Vengsarkar. It would still be some years before Bangladesh would produce its home-grown heroes, so nailing colours to the India or Pakistan mast was the order of the day. 

At an uncle's house in Dhaka, at some point in the mid 1990s, the realization that Bangladesh had a cricket team that could hold its own first drifted into my consciousness. A grainy black and-white TV showed live footage of Bangladesh competing in a tournament against A teams from India and Pakistan. A surprise Bangladesh win against one of their neighbours meant the spectacle of firecrackers being set off, a hint of the extreme cricket fandom to come in the ensuing decades. Throughout my twenties, apart from the odd wedding, there were fewer compelling reasons to return to Bangladesh. A number of similar aged cousins whose company I sought most had left the country and, besides, there were so many other corners of the globe to explore. But the inexplicable urge to watch unadulterated live cricket in foreign climes drew me in, as it has done for countless others. Eventually cricket became the primary reason to return. England's 2003 tour was the natural starting point for a compulsion to watch cricket in Dhaka, Chittagong, and Sylhet. 

England's most recent tour to Bangladesh coincided with my first experience of being a bona fide member of the travelling press pack. My accreditation lanyard, resting uneasily against my chest, granted me entry to an unaccustomed world of plush five-star hotel lobbies and armed convoys. There was a sense of incongruity when England players returned to the team hotel from a golf day, resplendent in designer golf gear. Only minutes earlier, my tuk-tuk driver had shown inordinate gratitude for receiving a tip worth a few pence. I managed to squeeze in a fleeting visit to Sylhet, courtesy of the dozens of flights available daily from the capital. The increase in domestic air travel, with the associated trappings of executive business lounges, is just one sign of progress in Bangladesh. The country is officially a middle income economy now and signs of development are everywhere; from the construction sites that pockmark the wealthy Dhaka suburbs to the unveiling of the nation's first metro line earlier this year. But it's the superficial signs of progress that leave a lasting impression, such as the wide availability of Coca Cola in plastic bottles. As a child it could only be bought in tall thin glass bottles, with a deposit paid to ensure the bottle was returned.

As if to create a good first impression, the few miles of road immediately after leaving Sylhet airport are the smoothest. I ticked off landmarks as we approached the city centre; the ten-storey Biman Bangladesh Airlines office block and my maternal grandfather's house. Sheikh Para and the rectangular piece of land where I'd failed to get bat on ball all those years ago was much more hemmed in by buildings than I remembered, and the pond had long since been filled in. The family house itself was eerily quiet. It had once teemed with a full cast of aunts, uncles and cousins but now the sole occupants were my cousin Forhad, his wife and his mother. Forhad has continued the family trait of being involved in cricket. His once promising cricket career was curtailed by injury and so he settled into a role as manager of the Sylhet regional cricket team, doubling up as the media manager of the new Sylhet stadium. Our conversation took on a wistful tone as Forhad divulged details of my aunt's terminal illness and his own plans to up sticks. The uncertainty over the fate of Sheikh Para and the umpteen cricket matches still to be played on the adjacent land, jolted my mind. Rather like the existential debate about cricket itself, my rose-tinted vision of the past had for a long time made me believe the future could not be bleak. 

Back in Dhaka and another hotel lobby, I snacked on truffle fries while waiting for a broadcaster friend. I had a few minutes to reflect on everything that had changed in Bangladesh, in parallel with my own life. Momentarily I yearned to be sitting on the giant concrete steps of the old Sylhet stadium, eating peanuts from a newspaper cone. My mind was brought back to the present by a waiter, who asked in a confected American accent if there was anything else I wanted. “I'll have a chai latte, please.”

Tawhid Qureshi is a cricket writer and journalist based in the UK, he has contributed pieces to BBC online, Wisden, and The Cricketer Magazine. He also runs the Sight Screen Cricket Journal, his twitter handle is @SightScreenCJ. This article previously appeared in Wisden and has been reprinted under special arrangement.

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