“Best Team In Europe”, the sign read.
In one of the Blarney Army’s greatest moments, that was the placard they unveiled late in the 2015 Cricket World Cup.
While England failed miserably, losing to Bangladesh, being slaughtered by New Zealand, Australia, Sri Lanka, and only scraping victories against Scotland and Afghanistan, Ireland were at their nadir. A victory over the West Indies, a tight win over Zimbabwe, resolute fights against Pakistan and India, their elimination in the group round was down to external circumstances.
England and Ireland, each placed fifth in their group, but with totally divergent paths.
But while the battle for European supremacy played out, there was another continental battle afoot too. Asian giants were toppling. Newbies Afghanistan showed little more than promise, Pakistan were hot and cold like a victim of the plague, Sri Lanka showed deficiencies.
When it came to Quarter Final time, only Bangladesh and India looked like Asian nations of note.
And although Bangladesh were knocked out – by India – in their round-of-eight match, the furore surrounding that game overshadowed a key fact to emerge from the #CWC15.
Bangladesh were the ‘Second Best Team In Asia’.
Then came April.
Just a month after the conclusion of the World Cup, Pakistan toured Bangladesh.
In a sign of the way power is shifting within Asian cricket circles, Bangladesh have had to foot all costs for the Pakistani team this tour. It’s certainly not a quotation from the Book of Norms.
But Bangladesh don’t mind. The way things have gone, they would have been willing to pay those costs twice over.
Tamim Iqbal, who had been so irreverently inconsistent in past series, long finished seasons and bygone years, hit two centuries in the first two games to lead Bangladesh to dual victories in the opening One Day Internationals.
Soumya Sarkar, a youngster with all the promise in the world carried it on in match three.
And in the Twenty20 international, it was a young, left-armed quick by the name of Mustafizur Rahman who was the one to make all the difference.
No matter the excuse – a change of squad, a new ODI captain, Afridi copping a howler – the result still remains the same.
Four-nil over the course of the one-day leg of the tour.
A Twenty20 victory over Pakistan, an ODI series success.
It hadn’t been that way forever. Normally, Bangladesh was synonymous with collapse, despair, loss.
Bangladeshi cricket had been born out of the ashes of 1971.
Call it what you will – the Bangladesh genocide, the Bangladesh war for independence – the crux is the same. They were some of history’s most horrific days.
Indiscriminate killings of Bengalis, genocidal rape, the rounding up of Bengali intellectuals who were taken to torture cells and systematically executed.
Despite the efforts of those on one side of the war to undermine attempts to term the events genocide, few now would dispute that a clear attempt was made to wipe out the East Pakistanis.
Ten million Bangladeshis fled to India, thirty million were internally displaced, and although the casualty figure is contentious, that was likely somewhere in the millions too.
For those who know little about 1971, the centre of the matter was the division between Pakistans. West Pakistan, what we now know as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, was separated from the other half of the country – East Pakistan, or Bengal, now the People’s Republic of Bangladesh – by 1000 miles of Indian territory.
Partition of India, in August 1947, had caused as many problems as it had solved. Always the way with Colonial handling of Empiric affairs.
Bengali was spoken in East Pakistan, but the West Pakistan-based Governor General declared in 1948 that Urdu was the official language. Despite protests and agitation, this was a decision West Pakistan refused to relent upon. Bengali would not be a second national language.
As Bengali started to be withdrawn from all official documents – scripts, currency, stamps – protests grew in strength.
In 1952, police opened fire on civilian and student protestors. On February the 21st, five students died. The following day, four more were killed.
That war broke out in 1971 was inevitable. The first democratic elections in Pakistan, despite attempts by the West Pakistanis to rig the system in their favour, saw the Bengali Awami League win 167 seats in the Parliament, a majority.
A complex array of circumstances led to the East Pakistani’s anguish and elevation of the Awami League to a majority. That should have seen them rule, but the West Pakistani leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Pakistani President Yahya Khan couldn’t face this.
The Awami League was banned, martial law enacted, and the West Pakistanis invaded the east.
“Most of us just sat silently after the game, wondering what would happen to us,” Akram said. “I honestly thought it was the end for cricket in Bangladesh. Many of the senior players were at our peak and we couldn’t foresee doing it all over again in 1997. We thought cricket would be engulfed by football and the momentum we had gained for the sport would be lost forever. It was one of the toughest moments of our careers.”
That’s a quote from Mohammad Isam’s December 2014 interview with Akram Khan, Bangladesh’s captain at the 1997 ICC Trophy.
He’s referring to 1994. It was a tournament which so nearly tortured Bangladeshi cricket, so nearly took a cricketing future out of their grasp.
A team which covered all bases, which held a nation’s hopes.
They were going to make the World Cup.
But they didn’t.
The first round was easy.
Victories over Argentina, East and Central Africa and the USA placed them in a good position for the second round.
But then they flopped. They crashed to defeat in a must win match against Kenya.
Kenya went on to qualify for the 1996 World Cup, and rolled the West Indians for 93 in a stunning victory.
Bangladesh stayed at home.
Was it the end?
1994 might have been failure on a tremendous scale, but it wasn’t the first time Bangladesh had been embarrassed.
In 1979, just eight years after independence, Bangladesh sent a team to the ICC Trophy.
It was led by Raqibul Hasan, the only Bengali to play for Pakistan.
He hadn’t been a Pakistani selection based entirely on merit; as the protests in East Pakistan reached their peaks, he was named as 12th Man for a Test in 1969, and then played an unofficial Test against the Commonwealth XI at Dhaka in 1971.
That match had been abandoned part way through, as the political unrest hit new levels.
Civil war started.
One moment, said Commonwealth XI player John Murray, everything was fine. Then “the next thing I knew we were in the middle of an army escort screaming down a dark road to the airport, where we caught the last plane out to Lahore”.
In 1979, Raqibul was captaining his nation. He’d lost six family members and his East Pakistan opening partner in the war, but life had to move forward.
When Raqibul was run out for three, early on in Bangladesh’s first Trophy match, it looked as though Fiji would have the upper hand. At 54/8, the result seemed inevitable.
But with numbers nine, ten and eleven contributing 42 between them, the score straggled to 108. A 22 run win said more about Fiji than anyone else. Ashraful Haq took a seven-for, but the win was a faux success.
A big loss to Canada, a crawling victory over Malaysia, a surprisingly tight defeat to Denmark. If Ole Mortensen hadn’t taken Raqibul early, for nine, perhaps the result would have been different.
Instead, Bangladesh went home empty handed.
1982 was an improvement. They made the semi-finals, but were thumped there by Zimbabwe.
1986 was an abhorrent failure. Sixth in their pool, leaving them only ahead of Argentina. Gibraltar and Israel, in the other pool, also finished with fewer points than the Bangladeshis.
But finishing ahead of Gibraltar isn’t something you want to have to celebrate about.
The Asia Cup was equally painful. In 1986, India pulled out, allowing Bangladesh a route into the tournament. Playing their first ever One Day Internationals, they were hammered twice by seven wickets – they made 131 against Sri Lanka, and only 94 against Pakistan.
1988 saw three even larger defeats.
1990 saw the team reach 170 in both matches, but still fail to get anywhere near victory.
1995, 1997 and 2000 were no better.
2004 was the first time Bangladesh put a ‘W’ into the scoresheet in an Asia Cup match. And it was against Hong Kong. 2008 saw a victory over the United Arab Emirates.
2010 saw no win at all.
By 2010, however, Bangladesh were an accepted Full Member cricketing nation.
Players like Shakib Al-Hasan, Mushfiqur Rahim and Tamim Iqbal had managed performances which saw them admired around the world.
It’s remarkable to think, then, that only one Eastern Pakistani ever played a Test for Pakistan in the pre-independence days.
Raqibul might have received a token 12th Man slot, and an even more token selection against a composite XI, but he never played a Test.
Niaz Ahmed did.
And technically, he’s the only East Pakistani to ever play Test cricket. But he wasn’t really an East Pakistani.
He was born in northern India, moved with his family to East Pakistan after the partition of 1947, but spoke Urdu and was Muslim.
He certainly wasn’t Bengali.
But for years he was the gesture extended from west to east. Why are you complaining? We’ve got a non-Bengali speaking, non-Bengali born fast bowler as our perennial 12th Man.
That he elected to move to Pakistan after Bangladesh’s 1971 independence shows all you need to know about the veracity of his being an ‘East Pakistani’.
The fourth of April, 1997.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Medium pacer Roland Lefebvre manages to get one through the gate of Athar Ali Khan. The score reads 15/4.
With over 150 still required, and now just six wickets left, 1994 came flooding back to Akram Khan.
“All negative thoughts came to our mind. The failure in 1994. And now we thought we might never be able to play international cricket.”
Eventually, following farcical misunderstandings of the rain rule, the Bangladeshis scrambled to a victory, leaving three wickets and eight balls to spare.
It was the day that paved the way for the 1999 Cricket World Cup. The victory over the Dutch, which took them to the semi-finals of the 1997 ICC Trophy, saw their coach Gordon Greenidge in tears.
It saw the whole team in tears.
It was the biggest moment in Bangladesh history.
The victory over Pakistan at the 1999 Cricket World Cup was, as ever with Bangladesh, anything but smooth.
Gordon Greenidge, a coach with whom issues were arising at a great pace, was sacked on the morning of the match.
His comments, from denigrating individual players to denigrating the entire team, eventually wore thin.
Wasim Akram won the toss and bowled. And bowled a lot more balls that were needed – 28 wides, seven no-balls. Forty extras in total.
Combined with Akram Khan’s 42, and Khaled Mahmud’s 27, it brought the team to a small but tidy 223.
It shouldn’t have been any issue for a batting line-up including Saeed Anwar, Shahid Afridi, Ijaz Ahmed, Inzamam-Ul-Haq, Saleem Malik, Azhar Mahmood and Moin Khan.
But when Afridi slogged his way to dismissal, Ijaz played across the line, Saeed was stranded by Inzamam, Inzamam himself did the same as Ijaz, and Azhar Mahmood did little better, the Pakistanis were suddenly 42/5.
Given the cultural and political context, it couldn’t have been a more meaningful opposition for Bangladesh to be beating.
The final score, 161 all out, would have seen a Bangladeshi victory even if it wasn’t for those 40 extras.
A nation of 130 million citizens went crazy.
The ultimate reward.
The highest honour.
Reserved for the best.
But on this occasion, Bangladesh won it on the basis of one ODI victory. Perhaps the ICC saw the value of the large Bangladeshi audience and the potential revenue. Perhaps the ICC saw future ability. Perhaps the ICC just made a mistake.
But after that 1999 victory over Pakistan, Bangladesh went 75 international matches without a victory.
It wasn’t until March, 2004, that they managed another win. An ODI, played in Harare, saw Habibul Bashar, Rajid Saleh and Mohammad Ashraful all make half-tons.
Even Stuart Carlisle’s 71 couldn’t save Zimbabwe. They batted out their 50 overs, only to remain eight short.
January 2005 saw a Test victory, at last. June of the same year saw that victory over Australia.
Winning was starting to happen, but it was still an irregular occurrence.
A victory still felt…
It felt strange.
Zahur Ahmed Chowdhury Stadium, Chittagong.
The crowd, seemingly growing in size, stature and volume by the moment, make their loudest roar yet.
Mominul Haque, just 22 years of age, goes down on one knee to Trent Boult.
The ball’s far too wide outside off.
Haque square drives it. Beautifully. Through point it races.
That’s a century. A century out of just 128 team runs. A century off 98 balls.
A century that signals the future.
The previous year, Bangladesh had defeated India in the Asia Cup.
Two years prior, and two years later, they beat England in World Cups.
Bangladesh are no longer nothing more than whipping boys, no longer going 75 international matches without victory.
They’re more than competitive, they’re actually winning games. They’re performing with regularity and consistency, and proving themselves worthy of an ICC decision from a decade and a half ago.
From the 1979 ICC Trophy, it took 20 years for Bangladesh cricket to get to the next level.
It’s taken 15 years since their Test debut to reach a world standard.
Perhaps the next leap up the ladder will take ten years, perhaps less.
But one thing’s for certain: Bangladesh are never going to be taken lightly again.