The steely, new Bangladesh

Coach Dav Whatmore has been a huge influence in Bangladesh's development.-AP

Football is a forgotten sport in Bangladesh. So, cricket is the hope. Cricketers, in true sub-continent style, are revered and feted, writes Vijay Lokapally.

Former Bangladesh batsman Athar Ali Khan is a busy man. He has business to attend to between his cricket commitments. There is work related to commentating on Bangladesh matches apart from guiding a young generation. A young generation that dreams big. Something that cricketers from the earlier era, from Rouqibul Hasan to Akram Khan to Habibul Bashar did not believe could be achieved. They would often be embarrassed by the national team's poor show. But this team, on a high after making it to the Super Eight in the 2007 World Cup, is the hope of a nation that is crazy about cricket.

Football is a forgotten sport in Bangladesh. It is another matter that newspapers dedicate one full page every day to football from all parts of the world. People like to watch international football, but avoid domestic stuff. Football is barely surviving. There are no sponsors and there is little talent.

So, cricket is the hope. It also helps the nation bind as a force. Cricketers, in true sub-continent style, are revered and feted. There is a special place in the society for international cricketers. Players like Bashar and Mashrafe Bin Mortaza command a huge fan following.

They are not really mobbed as the cricketers are in India, but they do often complain of their privacy being lost due to constant public attention.

Cricket in Bangladesh has come a long way. The Dhaka cricket league was once considered to be on a par with any league in the sub-continent. Players like Wasim Akram, Arjuna Ranatunga, Raman Lamba, Aravinda de Silva and Neil Fairbrother took pride in playing club cricket in Dhaka in the 80s.

Club matches would attract full houses at the Bangabandhu Stadium in Dhaka. The administrators were slow in providing the desired infrastructure, but then they had their constraints. Funds were a concern, but things gradually changed once Bangladesh attained Test status in 2000.

Despite Bangladesh making a decent Test debut — it came close to asking India to follow on — there was a lengthy debate whether the team deserved the status. The team did record sensational victories in one-day cricket over Pakistan and India, but then these were not enough to enhance its image as a cricket nation with the ability to shine consistently. Defeats were the order of the day and its Test record is still abysmal. But one-day victories over Australia, Sri Lanka and South Africa have given Bangladesh cricket a new image.

Skipper Habibul Bashar and vice-captain Mohammad Ashraful. The top players make handsome money in Bangladesh these days.-AP

For a small nation, Bangladesh has maintained steady progress in one-dayers. The seeds were sown by Eddie Barlow, the great South African, who had a stint as Bangladesh's coach. Barlow did not rely on a laptop, but his mind could read any situation astutely. He became instantly popular with the cricketers and is credited with forming the foundation for the cricket structure in the country. "He was the only man to have faith in Bangladesh cricket. He came to this country with a mission and deserves a large credit if the team is doing well today,'' says Utpal Shuvro, a seasoned cricket writer who travels frequently with the team. Barlow's passion and devotion were selfless and his professional approach meant an honest appraisal of the situation.

Seven years ago, the Bangladesh Cricket Board had decided to adopt a professional scheme to prepare its cricketers and assistance was sought from the Australian Cricket Board. The Australian stamp has been evident from the time the BCB invited Trevor Chappell to coach the national team. He lasted a season, to be replaced by Mohsin Kamal and Ali Zia of Pakistan, but both failed to deliver. At the 2003 World Cup, Bangladesh suffered unprecedented humiliation when it lost to teams like Canada and Kenya, both non-Test playing nations. It was time for a change and the stage was appropriate for Dav Whatmore to assume charge as coach.

Whatmore strove to change the face of Bangladesh cricket. There have been some pleasant and some not so pleasant stories about the Australian, who coached Sri Lanka to a World Cup triumph in 1996, but essentially Whatmore is regarded as the architect of Bangladesh's steady rise in the world of cricket, especially the one-day variety.

Bashar, the present captain, acknowledges Whatmore's priceless contribution. "He taught us self-belief,'' says Bashar even as it is widely accepted in Bangladesh cricket circles that the tough Australian has made a difference. He backed the players all the way and made them overcome the frustration that came frequently when Bangladesh lost from winning positions. Whatmore was convinced that the nation had the talent to make a splash in the big league. All he requested from the administrators was some patience. He had to work hard to improve the mental strength of the players, but he taught them to shed their defeatist attitude and concentrate on winning consistently against Test playing nations.

Meanwhile, the programme that the BCB followed at the behest of the ACB, was beginning to yield results. The junior cricketers were showing early signs of quality and there was a big thrust to the ambitions of the youngsters when the BCB signed an agreement with the ACB to send two talented Bangladesh cricketers to Australia each year for a month's training. The Australian Academy also came in handy for training the coaches and there was big hope from the young generation of talented cricketers, most of them coming from modest backgrounds.

The victories for the national team were sporadic, but the players were beginning to enjoy collecting souvenirs reminding them of those rare but inspirational triumphs. No more would the Bangladesh team enter the field with the pre-conceived notion that defeat was inevitable. "It was discouraging and gloomy,'' was how veteran left-arm spinner Mohammad Rafique described those difficult days during the Champions Trophy in India last year. The recent World Cup helped Rafique live some of the unfulfilled dreams from the past as Bangladesh crafted a stunning win over India and handed South Africa a convincing defeat too.

Cricket is looking up in Bangladesh with sponsors showing more interest even though job opportunities remain less for the players. But international cricketers can look forward to a decent life. A player like Bashar is reported to make 18 to 20 lakh takas a year apart from 5 lakh takas from his club commitments. The BCB has promised to increase the pay structure since the focus is now on giving the players the best of facilities. It is a truly corporate set up where transparency and professionalism are paramount. The BCB introduced the contract system for their players much before the Indian Board did so.

The BCB realises that this is just the beginning. The team would now have to cope with the expectations that will grow with time. The fans would want Bangladesh to record big wins more consistently.

"They are a good side and they showed it at the World Cup. We have respect for Bangladesh,'' Sachin Tendulkar said the other day. When Athar Ali Khan sits behind the mike now, there is pride on his radiant face. There is no need for him to be embarrassed of Bangladesh's cricket disasters anymore. It is a team that has adopted the right course to become a cricket force in times to come.