Was it 1984 or 1986? Mohammedan Sporting Club, up against archrivals Abahani, at the packed Dhaka Stadium, later renamed as Bangabandhu National Stadium.
© Mohammad Lutfar Rahman Binu
On April 13, 1997, the ICC Trophy final was a match of riveting theatre in dreadful weather. Kenya’s Martin Suji was about to bowl the last ball at Malaysia’s Kilat Kelab ground. Hasibul Hossain was batting against the final ball in a frantic chase. Thousands of miles away in Bangladesh, millions waited anxiously around radios as the commentator screamed – “one run needed from one ball!” Time stood still.
Hasibul failed to connect that last ball but he got a leg bye and ran on towards the dressing room to scenes of wild celebrations. It was victory time. There were millions in the streets, colours and tears on every face, voices hoarse from screaming in joy. History had been made and a new line for sports had been drawn.
For the first time, cricket qualified for the World Cup by winning the ICC Trophy, but it also began the deathwatch for football’s popularity.
The bells had tolled long ago and the chimes were already fading away when cricket cast its long shadow. Not many could explain the reasons.
Bangladesh went to the World Cup 1999, where it won a much-celebrated match against Pakistan and gained Test status the following year. Football couldn’t compete against this score-card.
Football’s fortunes changed in the 90s. Bangladesh’s most popular sport had brought in no major international silverware and the future looked dim with no plans in sight. Cricket, in contrast, had not just ushered in success but promised more in the future. The cricket pond was smaller compared to the football sea. Bangladesh could swim and be noticed. And many plans were afoot to fatten the fish.
Football did not deliver any dreams. People loved it but were bruised by its non-stop defeats. One had to be masochist to remain a fan.
Cricket, with all its possibilities, was the antidote. As the popularity of cricket rose, that of football declined. How had it been before?
Journalist Arifur Rahman Babu was a die-hard football fan since boyhood in the 1970s. He watched his first club football match in Dhaka.
“I was around 13 to 14. I had gone with three friends to see Mohammedan and Wari play at the stadium. The ticket cost Tk 2. Mohammedan lost 2-0. A huge fight erupted when the match ended. The next day, the newspapers said team supporters had set fire to the Mohammedan club offices.”
Back then, Mohammedan was one of the two biggest clubs in Bangladesh. Its supporters loathed a defeat to Wari — a much lower ranked team. A lot of trophies won by Mohammedan in the 60s and 70s were forever gone in the fire.
This incident sums up how football once lived in Bangladesh — wild extremes of emotion, bordering on fan insanity.
After independence in 1971, the national team fought for a place in the South Asian football scene. Dhaka First Division Football League – later Premier Division – sat at the top echelon.
Club football was what powered the “beautiful” game’s popularity in Bangladesh. Abahani Krira Chakra and Mohammedan Sporting Club were the behemoths with millions of fans.
Now, football fans in Bangladesh care more about Barcelona taking on Real Madrid or Arsenal playing Manchester United. During soccer World Cup, flags of Brazil or Argentina are everywhere. Few can believe the kind of madness that once went around an Abahani-Mohammedan derby.
Dhaka would shut down and the stands would be packed. The concrete galleries of Dhaka Stadium could seat around 50,000, but another 10,000 would occupy every possible inch. Millions more would watch live on television or listen to radio commentary.
The clubs’ flags would be flying everywhere, from rooftops to alleys. Results would mean victory marches and street parties. Fights with rival supporters were also common. One ‘Faruk’ died in such a fight in 1982. Death by football made headlines the next day!
People would even come to Dhaka from nearby towns to watch the match. Match timings would be posted on neighborhood notice boards. Galleries would fill up even when big clubs took on smaller ones. Abahani and Mohammedan were also the biggest names in cricket at that time, but cricket would draw just 5,000 to 7,000 spectators. Footballers were stars to regular people as well as to cricketers.
Fast forward to now and the scenario has completely changed.
“Nothing succeeds like success,” says Ahmed Sajjadul Alam Bobby. A cricket organiser for the last 40 years, he began with Abahani Club in 1976. He has seen cricket grow from a sapling to a massive tree and believes cricket’s popularity is due to its successes on the field. “But reaching here was not easy at all. All we had for sports was football,” says Bobby.
“Everything else was second or third grade, be it cricket or hockey. Cricket had no popularity or sponsorship.”
But a significant section of the elite in this part of the world has valued cricket for long. Cricket has been there since undivided India and later Pakistan. After getting Test status, Pakistan played their first match in Dhaka, capital of the then East Pakistan. Seven Test matches were played in Dhaka stadium before 1971. Some of the top cricketing superstars in history have played here — Sir Garry Sobers, Richie Benaud, Rohan Kanhai, Colin Cowdrey, Alan Davidson and John Edrich to name but a few.
The British High Commission donated cricket gear to a newly liberated Bangladesh and the national team used them for practice. Ahmed Sajjadul Alam, the BCB director, recalls the early days of Bangladesh cricket: “I remember getting biscuits as relief from the Red Cross. Cricketers in our national team used to have them at snack time. Chickpeas were later added to the menu. Later I would bring meat, veggies and bread the night before a match. My mother would wake up at dawn and make burgers and soup for our cricketers’ lunch. We couldn’t afford to buy fancy stuff.”
Things gradually picked up. In the mid-1970s Bangladesh had its first foreign player. Australian club cricketer Alan Villa played for National Sporting club while he was visiting Bangladesh.
By the mid-1980s foreign professionals began to fill the ranks. They were mostly from West Bengal at first. Arup Bhattacharya, Abhijit Majumder, Abhik Mitra, Pranab Roy, Sagarmay Sen Sharma and Arun Lal began playing for Dhaka teams. This increased the crowd. Some new talents were also spotted in the local scene. Rakibul Hasan was already a big name. Yusuf Rahman Babu, Jahangir Shah Badsha, Rafiqul Islam were becoming stars. Then, people started talking about a new generation of cricket heroes – Minhajul Abedin, Faruk Ahmed, Golam Nowsher Prince, Nehal Hasnain, Enamul Haque, Nurul Abedin, Akram Khan, Aminul Islam and others.
People would crowd the galleries to see international players like Arjuna Ranatunga, Graeme Labrooy and Shaul Karnain. English cricketers Neil Fairbrother and Richard Illingworth came to play in the Dhaka League.
Both cricket and football were being played at the same Dhaka stadium — football in summer, cricket in winter. Cricket was often played in daytime and football in the evening. Cricketers had to play without moving the goalposts!
“A team of ICC inspectors headed by Dr. Ali Bacher came to see our ground,” recalls Sajjadul Alam, “Football had been played there the previous night. We worked the entire night to remove the marks left after the game. But we still couldn’t make it look like a cricket ground. The football post was still there somewhere on the field. On that day, a huge audience gathered to see the match between Abahani and Kalabagan. The ICC inspectors were so very impressed by the crowd that they ignored the football post at one end of the field.”
The 1999 World Cup was the turning point in the history of cricket in Bangladesh.
“The World Cup is a magic word. Cricket gave the people of Bangladesh the chance to feel proud about something.”
Aminul Islam scored a century in Bangladesh’s maiden Test match. He was captain when Bangladesh went to play their first World Cup. A witness to Bangladesh’s rise in cricket, Islam, at the start of his career, was as good in football as he was in cricket. He witnessed football’s golden days at close quarters. Islam played as a striker. He plied his trade in Dhaka’s top league playing for the mid-level East End Club for two years and a year for Victoria Sporting. Now he is one of the most respected names in Bangladesh cricket and has carved a career as a coach for the ICC.
Islam says of his early career in sport: “Football was at the top of everything. Salahuddin Bhai (Bangladesh Football Federation president) was a hero to thousands of people like me. We all wanted to be like Salahuddin Bhai. But an injury prematurely ended my football career. I turned to cricket.”
Fortune gave him a hand and he ended up leading the team in their first World Cup. He believes the ICC Trophy victory in 1997 was a milestone for the country’s cricket.
“A special plane came to take us home from Malaysia after we won the ICC Champions Trophy. When we returned home, thousands gave us a massive reception at Sher-e-Bangla Nagar … I could sense cricket taking a lead. Winning the ICC Trophy accounted for 70 percent of cricket’s triumph over football. It climbed to 90 percent after we beat Pakistan in 1999 (World Cup in England). And football was nowhere after we got Test status in 2000.”
Sajjadul Alam spoke of the emotions that swept across the country after the Pakistan match.
“Our people were so proud … all over the world. In England, people were not aware of our identity. My friends’ children were called Indian or Pakistani in school. The same kids then went to school wearing the Bangladesh team’s jersey after we beat Pakistan. Cricket helped them strengthen their identity.”
The media put cricket on a pedestal. Sponsors also became interested. Sajjadul Alam used to sit for hours at mobile-phone companies, asking for sponsorship but after the victory the companies made attractive offers on their own.
The players, too, were getting a piece of the bigger cake. Aminul Islam tells his story: “Before the win, the highest contract we had was worth Tk 30,000 to Tk 40,000. But after the win, a soft drink company struck a three-year deal with us for a million taka … a huge figure to us then.”
For the sponsors, cricket meant plenty of advertisement time. No other sport in the world goes on for so long with so many breaks. Money started flowing in.
While cricket lived the dream in Bangladesh, football was starved of any success. Its popularity dropped drastically after the failure at the 1993 SAF Games played on home turf. Mohammedans had destroyed a Maldivian club 8-0, with 10 “borrowed” national players just a few days before but, at SAF, the national team managed only a draw against the same Maldivians. The hosts later crashed out in the group stage.
They never won the South Asian championship even during football’s best days in the 70s, 80s and mid-90s.
Aminul Islam sees several reasons behind football’s decline.
“The Football Federation was never professional. It was centered entirely on Dhaka, with no coaching in the rest of the country. There was no real effort to develop the infrastructure. You can’t possibly survive without planning.”
Match-fixing was another factor. Rumours had it that many of the Premier League matches had been fixed. Such perceptions caused huge damage. People started turning away.
By the end of the 1990s, cricket had Bangabandhu National Stadium all to itself. Football was sent packing to the other end of the city — Mirpur’s Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium. The stadium was made exclusively for football, but many say supporters deserted after the change in venue.
The BFF then suddenly came up with a new rule ‘One Football, One League’. It meant top footballers in Dhaka could not play outside. So the game lost out outside the capital.
While football had no long-term plan, cricket’s rise coincided with the Cricket Board drawing up long-term projects.
For example, the BCB laid synthetic turf at Dhaka stadium in preparation for the 1999 WC. It allowed cricketers two full seasons to practice on the turf before heading to the tournament.
When Bangladesh played in Malaysia for the ACC Trophy in 1996, team manager Gazi Ashraf Hossain, a respected former national captain, took detailed notes on each and every ground in an otherwise unfamiliar Malaysia. The board used his notes to sketch out plans for the crucial ICC Trophy, the qualifying tournament for the World Cup. It would put players in the fields that suited them; their plans worked out beautifully!
Saber Hossain Chowdhury took over as president of the cricket board in the second half of the 1990s. Together with general secretary Syed Ashraful Haq, he made some bold moves. Bangladesh had begun working towards gaining Test status even before playing the World Cup!
International Cricket Council’s globalisation scheme came at the right time for Bangladesh. The team went ahead of Kenya, Scotland, and the Netherlands in catching the ICC’s eye. BCB convinced the ICC that Bangladeshi cricket fans were a great source of power for the team. Cricket was more popular in Bangladesh than in many countries that played Test matches. The government, too, was friendly towards the game and media was already hooked. Bangladesh was praised for the way it organised the ICC Mini-World Cup in 1998 even though it was not a Test-playing nation back then.
After a thorough review, the ICC chose Bangladesh.
When Bangladesh became eligible to play Test matches in 2000, it had only played a handful of One-Day Internationals but managed to beat a strong team like Pakistan. It was one of the final nails in football’s popularity coffin because beating Pakistan, a cricketing superpower at the time, had other connotations.
Football is still popular, as seen from the way people sit glued to TV sets during the World Cup. But the national team never delivered, while cricket did. In a smaller world, it gave Bangladesh a chance to stand tall. Everyone is together when matches are played making it a sort of national glue. Cricket moves on but football has not been able to lift the heart of the people that had once prided itself on its footballing passion, if not pedigree.