The popularity of cricket started to grow rapidly in Bangladesh following India’s triumph in the 1983 World Cup.
BTV started showing more international cricket. In fact, we saw the India versus Pakistan final at the MCG live in 1985. Also, more and more domestic cricket matches were held in the Dacca Stadium, or the Dhaka Stadium to use the spelling officially adopted in 1982.
And the game of cricket here got a big boost in early 1986, when the Pakistan legend Imran Khan led a strong team called the Omar Kureishi XI for a tour to Bangladesh.
Apart from Imran, the team included some familiar names like Sarfraz Nawaz, Abdul Qadir, Wasim Akram, Salim Malik and Rameez Raja. Also, there were a few youngsters hoping to break into the Pakistan team.
Omar Kureishi XI – January 1986
For those unfamiliar with the name of Omar Kureishi, he was something like a Tony Cozier figure in Pakistan cricket. With the Pakistan team not involved in any serious cricket in early 1986, he assembled some top cricketers of the country to tour Bangladesh with a bid to help the development of the game here.
The tour started with a three-day match at the Dhaka Stadium, or the National Stadium as it was called then. A crowd of almost 30,000 was there, and I was among them.
It was a great atmosphere there. We felt that it would be an exhibition affair, but actually the situation was bit different. While the senior Pakistan players took things easy, it was a trial for the younger players: batsmen Shoaib Mohammad, Mansoor Akhtar and Ali Zia plus the fast bowlers Mohsin Kamal and Zakir Khan. All were given chances to enhance the prospects of their Pakistan career.
In fact, it was Shoaib and Mansoor who opened the innings for the Pakistan. Left-arm pace bowler Nowshere Prince, the fastest bowler of the country, opened the bowling from the southern pavilion end. Jahangir Badshah started from the northern end.
It was new year’s day. But initially it wasn’t bright and sunny. It was a bit cloudy, ideal for swing and seam bowling. Prince bowled accurately, although for the conditions, his length was a bit short. The batsmen were able to leave a lot of the balls.
It was Badshah, the old pro, who asked more questions from the Pakistan openers. He had a short run-up and wasn’t bowling particularly quickly. But with the northern breeze helping him, he was getting his out-swingers going perfectly. He was unlucky to finish his spell without a wicket, although he had beaten the bat on a number of occasions.
As for the openers, they were cautious, knowing that they were being evaluated. It took a bit of time before the first boundary was hit. Both struggled against Badshah, but it was the part-time seamer Rafiq who made the initial breakthrough. Mansoor was caught behind just before lunch.
The morning cricket was absorbing, rather than exciting. But things got really interesting as Prince struck immediately after lunch, not once but twice, dismissing Shoaib and Rameez Raja. Raja was a bit unlucky as the ball kept very low before hitting his off stump.
We were excited, but out there in the middle Salim Malik was in total control. Along with Ali Zia, he took command. It was a beautiful winter afternoon. The early morning cloud was gone. The batting looked easy in these conditions. Our seamers were disappointing. The spinners were very ordinary.
Salim looked set for a hundred, but then he was run out for 77. It appeared that he ran himself out intentionally, so that we could see Imran bat. After all, this was an exhibition match and Imran was the big attraction.
And he didn’t disappoint us. A flick of the wrist and the ball few over the square leg fence for a six. It was so effortless that it took a bit of time for some of the crowd to understand what had happened.
Our family left for Cox’s Bazar via Chittagong the next morning. After returning, we went to the stadium to watch a limited-overs game. This time my mum and my sisters accompanied us, so it was kind of a family picnic. It was pretty much same for most of the crowd. There was never any doubt about who would win the match.
My only worthwhile memory of the match was watching leg spinner Wahidul Ghani bowl Salim Malik around his legs.
Despite the one-sided nature of the matches, this tour was a great success. Imran’s greatest contribution to Bangladesh cricket was emphasising the need for improving the fitness of the local cricketers.
The Asia Cup – October and November 1988
This was a genuinely big competitive event. And without doubt, this was the biggest sporting event in our country’s history until then.
A terrible flood, which lasted until the end of September, briefly threatened the event, but in the end it went on without any trouble. The one problem was that due to the rain, the curators in Dhaka and Chittagong had very little time to prepare the pitches. Batting was extremely difficult on the under-prepared wickets as the spinners got too much purchase out of the wicket. There was only one really high scoring match: the league match between India and Sri Lanka, and luckily I was there in the stadium to watch it.
The two biggest attractions were the India-Pakistan league match and the final. But I never enjoyed watching matches in jam-packed stadiums. So I bought a ticket to the Sri Lanka match knowing that there would hardly be 20,000 people at this fixture. Also, I had a keen interest in Sri Lankan cricket ever since Anura Tennekoon led the Sri Lankan team on a month-long tour in 1978.
A day before the match, my school buddy Mahtab informed me that he and some of his friends were also going there and asked me to join them. This surprised me, because back in those school days he didn’t show any interest in cricket. I think it was a result of the 1987 World Cup.
Anyway, sitting on the eastern gallery, we saw the best match of the event. Sri Lanka batted first and started slowly. But then the middle order cut loose. Athula Samarasekera and Aravinda de Silva both smashed quick half centuries, taking full advantage of the wayward bowling by the Indian spinners Narendra Hirwani and Maninder Singh.
The sqaure boundaries on both sides were fairly small, and Aravinda – a superb square-of-the-wicket player – took full advantage. And then captain Arjuna Ranatunga played a little gem, scoring 49 from 32 balls, as the Lankans finished at 6-271 from 45 overs.
A run rate of over six was very unusual in those days, but the Indians produced a fine chase before eventually falling short. A number of their top order got going, but then got out. Navjot Singh Sidhu’s 50 was their highest score in their total of 254 all out. It became very hot around 3pm, with sun directly coming on to our face. But still we ignored it as the fight in the middle was intense.
Interestingly, Kapila Wijegunawardene was the bowling hero for Sri Lanka. The medium pacer took 4-49 from his nine overs. He only played two Tests and 26 ODIs for Sri Lanka. A long career for him would have created great problems for the English and Australian commentators.
My plan was to watch the final at home. But my friend again invited me and he even arranged my ticket. To be honest, I didn’t enjoy it too much. The stadium was literally jam-packed. In early November it was still pretty hot, and the match was one-sided. Sri Lanka failed to show their league form. Their batsmen started well, but then four bad run outs in the middle of the innings slowed them down. In the end, veteran Duleep Mendis carried on a lone battle.
India easily reached their target, winning by six wickets with Sidhu leading the charge.
The Dhaka League: 1988-89 season
We all felt a bit dejected as the big event came to an end. But then came a memorable season of league cricket in Dhaka.
By this time our sports authority had fully recognised the growing popularity of cricket here. So the Dhaka Stadium was allocated for league matches, while the newly built stadium in Mirpur was reserved for football.
It’s ironic that what it is now known as the home of cricket in Bangladesh, the Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium, was actually built as football ground.
Another event in a foreign land had a profound effect on the league here. The violent political situation in Sri Lanka meant that the England team cancelled a tour there. That meant that all the leading Sri Lankan players were free, and most of them – including captain Ranatunga – came to play in the Dhaka League.
The league was already quite competitive, and the money was good. Traditionally, Abahani KC, Mohammedan SC and Bangladesh Biman were the main powers. But the introduction of the Sri Lanka cricketers completely changed the balance. Wari Club – a club I followed with interest because of my dad’s connection with them – had Athula Samarasekera. Surjyo-Tarun (the young sun) had Brendon Kuruppu, a wicketkeeper-batsman. Brothers Union had their own wicketkeeper-batsman, Romesh Kaluwitharana.
Often the fate of the matches depended on how their Sri Lanka stars performed. In the first round, Wari defeated both Abahani and Mohameddan mainly because Samarasekera scored hundreds in both these matches.
To make things even better for me, I had just joined the Dhaka University as a student, and the stadium was just a ten-minute walk from my department. The entrance was free except in the big matches.
So I became a frequent visitor, often joining the match after lunch. During the Brothers-Gulshan match, my support was with Gulshan, as I had spent my childhood there. In fact, our family had returned to Gulshan in 2011.
The Brothers team was without Romesh in this match, and this hampered their chase. Still, they started well but on a turning track the Gulshan spinners pegged them back and eventually Gulshan won.
During the Wari-Biman match, my support was with Wari. I joined the match after lunch to find out that they had only posted a modest target for the Biman men. However, my hopes were raised as they were putting on a good show on the field. They were keeping the run rate down and were also picking up vital wickets.
Then, a memorable incident took place. Yousuf Rahman Babu, the veteran, was playing for Biman in the twilight of his career. He had retired from international cricket in 1983-84 and was well past his best. However, he was looking good here, until he played lofted shot towards mid-on. The fielder dived forward and took the catch. But the umpire was not sure that it was clean. Obviously there was no TV replay available.
At this stage, Yousuf intervened. He asked the fielder whether he thought the catch was clean. After getting a positive answer, he walked off – a wonderful gesture from a very fine cricketer.
The departure of Yousuf gave me genuine hope, but the in-form Shehnewaz Shahid Shanu stood like a rock and along with the emerging all-rounder Enamul Haque Moni ensured a safe landing for Biman.
For the big match between MSC and Abahani, I was there right from the beginning. For this match we needed a ticket, but still it was only ten Bangladeshi taka. As a MSC fan, I sat with the Mohammedan fans in the northern end.
As I looked at the pitch, I saw a tinge of green. And, indeed, seamers from both sides enjoyed support. Abahani batted first, and found the going rather tough. Their two star batsmen – Arun Lal from India and Gazi Ashraf Lipu, the Bangladesh captain – both perished early.
Future captain Akram Khan from Chittagong played a couple of nice looking drives, and Nasir Ahmed, the national team’s wicketkeeper, played a little cameo towards the end. But in the end, the score was modest, and Ranatunga led the successful chase for MSC.
At the end of the league, Abahani, MSC and Biman were all equal on points. So play-off matches were arranged. The Sri Lanka stars had gone home and this helped Biman lift the title. They were the only team in the league without a foreign star.
They, however, had half the national team in their squad, including Athar Ali Khan, now a very distinguished TV commentator.