The power of sport to send an athlete into a finer socio-economic orbit is well known. Football has provided people and nations the world over an opportunity to raise their profile. Long distance running achieved the same goal in African nations.
In South Asia, cricket has played this role. It started with India and Pakistan, where successful players have been respected, well-ensconced members of society for some time now. Sri Lanka got there after their World Cup win in 1996.
Now it's happening in Bangladesh.
Over the last 12 years, Bangladesh cricket has received one boost after another. They hosted the mini World Cup in 1998, won Test status in 2000, hosted the under-19 World Cup in 2004 and flattened some mighty trees in this year's World Cup. Their under-19 side is among the best in the world. In a country of chronic political unrest and poverty, cricket has emerged as a source of hope as well as a viable career option.
“It's possible to earn a very good living out of cricket in Bangladesh now,” says captain Habibul Bashar. “The people love the sport and they respect the players. I never have to wait in a queue here.”
Rezwan ul-Haque, a Dhaka University student, says, “Candidates at a Bangladesh Civil Service examination were asked this question – 'What makes Bangladesh proud around the world?' The common answer was “participation in World Cup cricket.”
Bangladesh figures in the United Nations list of the world's 50 poorest countries. But the cricketers are extremely well-paid. As was the case in India till recently, those in the national team are graded. The categories are Grade A, B, C and rookie. Rabeed Imam, the Bangladesh Cricket Board's acting media manager and editor of the official Bangladesh cricket web site, estimates that a Grade A player in the Bangladesh team earns around Rs 66,000 taka a month as base salary from the BCB. In addition, he makes Rs 10-12 lakh taka per season from his club. A rupee is equivalent to 1.6 taka.
To be able to take care of its players, train them well (there is heavy Australian presence at all levels of elite coaching in Bangladesh) and develop the game, the Board needs to be in sound financial health. It does seem to be doing well.
Says Imam, “Bangladesh cricket will earn $56 million over six years from the television rights deal with Nimbus, which was signed late last year.”
The BCB also has big money deals with Grameenphone. They are the title sponsors of the team and also the current series between Bangladesh and India. An employee of the group said on condition of anonymity that Grameenphone had paid three crore taka for the sponsorship of the series. Despite the nation's poverty, the players in the National XI mostly come from well-off backgrounds. “If you are looking for that fairytale story, there's none,” Imam says. “Some are from affluent backgrounds, others middle-class. Mohammad Rafique's commuting by boat was seen by some mediapersons as a sign of struggle. But he took the boat because there was no other way, not because he was poor. Today, of course, he is doing even better. In fact he is quite a wealthy man.”
Normally, youngsters in Bangladesh deciding their professional paths head towards management, information technology, the garment industry, banks or cell phone companies. Now they, and even their parents, have realised that cricket is a window too.
“It's as good a career opportunity as any corporate job,” says Mehboob Anam, the BCB general secretary.
“You see more parents taking their kids to coaching,” says Haque.
Cricket's progress here started in the mid-90s. It had partly to do with the slide in ratings of football, till then the land's top sport. Bigger factors were a lively club and school cricket scene, Bangladesh's fast rise up the cricketing echelons and improvement in organized cricket coaching.
“In the early 90s, good money was only in football,” says Imam, who's witnessed cricket's journey having been a player himself. “Top level footballers in the Dhaka Premier Division Leagues earned well and had options to play anywhere – Sylhet, Khulna, Chittagong... That was the time when every sports-loving youngster in Bangladesh wanted to become a footballer.
“Then things started to change. The first catalyst was well-known ex-cricketers from India, Pakistan and mainly Sri Lanka came to play in the Dhaka Premier Division Cricket League. The interest in the sport grew.
“Coincidentally, football started going down. The public wanted the Bangladesh team to at least dominate the region. They wanted them to become the SAF Games champions. They came close but did not manage to win it.”
The investment for the 90s surge was made in the earlier decade. The Nirman Cup – a top schools event, came into being in 1986. It helped the growth of, among others, Bashar and Javed Omar. Around the same time, the BKSP (Bangladesh Krida Shikkha Protistchan) was established. The BKSP was a residential sports academy where trainees lived, played and studied from Class VII to XII.
“The first year the BKSP only admitted football and hockey players,” says Imam. “In 1987, they accepted cricketers too. It was our first exposure to organized, fitness-oriented coaching. A lot of players have come from there.”
These seeds bore fruit some ten years later, with generous consideration from the ICC, who made it possible for lower-rung teams to get into the World Cup. Bangladeshis always wanted their team to play in some World Cup – football or cricket.
The football team was nowhere near that level. The cricket team was. Test status then added to the attraction of cricket. Now it's at a peak. “Today the game,” says Anam, “has become a unifying force in our country.”