Bangladesh authorities are promising England’s cricketers unprecedented security when they begin a controversial tour on Friday, desperate to prevent the country from becoming a no-go zone for international sport.
An attack on a cafe in Dhaka in July that killed 18 foreigners threw a powerful spotlight on the dangers posed by Islamist extremists who have also slain dozens of activists and members of Bangladesh’s religious minorities.
After their own security expert carried out an assessment in Bangladesh, England’s cricket board decided to go ahead with a month-long tour that begins with three ODIs followed by two Test matches.
But while Alistair Cook will captain the Test team as normal, ODI skipper Eoin Morgan has decided not to travel on security grounds, handing over responsibility to Jos Buttler.
And even the Barmy Army, the diehard supporters’ group which normally follows the team around the world, has held back from endorsing the trip, saying there is “too much risk attached to travelling to Bangladesh”.
In an interview with AFP, the Bangladeshi board’s chief executive Nizamuddin Chowdhury said that “unprecedented security” measures have been promised by the law enforcement agencies during the England tour.
“We will take steps not only for the teams but we have also been given assurances by the police department that they will take special care for the supporters and the foreign media as well.”
Bangladesh police also pledged to provide top-level security to the team, saying there was no reason to doubt their ability to do so.
“We are committed to provide the highest security to the visitors and we are capable of doing so,” Dhaka police spokesman Masudur Rahman told AFP.
Australia pulled out of a planned tour a year ago after their cricket board’s chief executive James Sutherland said there was a “risk of terrorism in Bangladesh targeting Australian nationals”.
And Australia’s football team was only persuaded to travel to Dhaka for a World Cup qualifier last November after authorities drew up an extensive security plan, aware that a no-show would see them forfeit the match.
Bangladesh is desperate to avoid the fate of Pakistan who -- apart from a lone series against Zimbabwe -- have not hosted any international cricket since gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan team bus during a 2009 Test in Lahore.
The England team’s management has staked its reputation by seeking to persuade the players to travel to Bangladesh, with former skipper Andrew Strauss, who is now a board director, telling them “it’s safe to go”.
But as well as Morgan, opening batsman Alex Hales has also decided to stay away despite Strauss’s warning that they are giving teammates the chance to impress in their absence and keep them out of the team for good.
The Barmy Army meanwhile said that although they had been supplied with a list of hotels which would receive police protection as well as promises of security inside the stadium, there were no such assurances for their travel to and from the grounds.
“We have been supplied with the contact details of a private security company, the implication being that any extra security will have to be at supporter’s own expense,” said a statement on the fans’ website.
“It is a matter of great regret that we feel unable to endorse travel to Bangladesh,” it added.
The Bangladeshi government insists that July’s attack on the cafe was carried out by local extremists despite the gunmen posting images of themselves carrying flags of the Islamic State group.
Critics of the government say it is in denial about the nature of the threat posed by Islamists and an attack during the England tour would further undermine Bangladesh’s reputation as a secure environment.
If anything were to happen, there is little doubt that England and other teams would be in no rush to return to what is a cricket-mad nation while football’s world governing body Fifa would struggle to persuade other teams from fulfilling their fixture obligations.
Shahab Enam Khan, a security expert who teaches at Bangladesh’s Jahangirnagar University, acknowledged the stakes were high.
“Bangladesh would consider English cricket team’s visit as one of the highest security priorities and certainly will be committed to ensure every possible security measures,” he told AFP.
“Failing to do so, as we understand, will jeopardise Bangladesh’s reputation in the global arena which will result in incurring lack of confidence on Bangladesh among the foreign countries.”