|Volume 5 Issue 02 | February 2011|
The Struggle to Stardom
With the 2011 Cricket World Cup in the offing, MOHAMMAD ISAM tells stories of our players' struggle, success and, sometimes, failure.
When Rubel Hossain goes back to his hometown Bagerhat in between international tours, camps and Premier League matches, the children of his Nagerbazar locality are seen gathering around him. They come to see and marvel at one of their own who made it, big time. Some gaze in awe, the face so recognisable from television yet the boy next door who was just like them only a handful of years ago, is now part of their hope and aspirations and a great example of how powerful dreams can be.
The youngest boy of a family of seven, Rubel broke out from his scenic home district and came to Dhaka in the summer of 2005 to try his luck with a non-league team. The Mirpur Boys Club provided Rubel with the first taste of what cricket in Bangladesh is like. The experience with the Mirpur team only made Rubel's resolve stronger and it led to him travelling to Khulna where a talent hunt programme had arrived.
It was the Grameenphone Pacer Hunt, a nationwide search for fast bowlers (it has sadly stopped). Rubel, not the typically strapping fast bowler type but 5'7 and thin, bowled at 80mph and made a return to Dhaka, this time with purpose. "There were times when my parents and family members thought it was no use. There wasn't much happening, but my mother always encouraged me and was very supportive from the early days," says Rubel from his Mirpur apartment, moments after he returned from Prime Doleshwar's game at Bangladesh Krira Shikkha Protishtan (BKSP).
"My father was into business but now my brothers look after that. I also have two sisters and all of them are always excited when it comes to my matches. They want me to stay healthy before the World Cup," he says.
From the success at the Pacer Hunt (he clocked 82mph in the final round in Dhaka and won the competition), Rubel caught the eye of the national team players with his slingy action (a la Lasith Malinga) in the nets at Mirpur where he was a regular, earning Tk 500 a day for his troubles. In late 2008, Rubel was picked in the national team after some more good performances in the Academy and A team, and henceforth, the shy young man from Bagerhat cemented his place in the national team.
But the journey undertaken by Rubel was risk-laden from the beginning and the process itself has seen many casualties. Mostly heartbreak, a cricket career in this country is win or bust and mostly, it has to be bust. It is a bit like how a layperson (and a sceptic) would view the current stock market: full of risk with little in return.
Yet, so many boys from all across the country are ready to take the plunge. Discouraging parents sometimes win the battle of wills, in most cases education being the safer option. But for a boy like Rubel, of little education and stuck in the constricted world of Bagerhat, cricket offers a window of hope.
Cricket took him outside his town, northwards, to Narail, where he met his childhood hero Mashrafe Bin Mortaza in 2003. "It was called the Pepsi Cup and Mashrafe bhai played as a batsman in that game," he says.
"I had him caught behind and was completely speechless for the rest of the day. At the end of the game, I went near him, shook his hand but I couldn't say a word," he says, breaking into laughter.
"You know, I never realised I would go up so fast. I played Third Division one year and then in the space of 12 months, I was in the national team. At first it was just a blur, touring different countries and everything. It all happened so fast. Nowadays it hits me that I play for Bangladesh," says Rubel.
Cricket has now transcended every barrier that ever existed in this country. A clever man said a few years ago that only cricket can bring Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina together and probably it does. In the same vein, cricket has become a career option for thousands of children across the country.
In the northern regions, Rajshahi takes the lead with their academies strewn across the town as well as other parts of the division. They have heroes to look up to, notably Khaled Mashud Pilot, the former national captain and a figurehead of the divisional side. Pilot has also launched an academy in the main playing ground, ensuring a fair and proper passage for every single player. The wicketkeeper has inspired and mentored the likes of Forhad Reza, Naeem Islam and Junaed Siddiqui into the national team and he does the job every year, without fail.
Down south, Khulna is far ahead in producing cricketers, particularly Satkhira, Magura (Shakib Al Hasan), Narail (Mashrafe) and Kushtia (Habibul Bashar) while the picture is somewhat bleak in thriving divisions like Chittagong and Sylhet. Barisal, meanwhile, has the trouble of detachment with the cricketing centres and lacks the idols that the boys from Rajshahi or Khulna work on.
Rabeed Imam, Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) media manager and the closest confidant to most of the Tigers, thinks that cricket has become a career for boys from the different districts for quite some time now and the awkwardness is over. "The parents didn't initially encourage the boys but now it is a career path for sure," he says.
"Now they have realised that it is an option. The players come from different backgrounds and this is part of the package. We have several boys from the BKSP (the country's lone sports institute) and most have come through the BCB programmes like the Academy, age-group and High Performance (HP). It is modelled after the Australian system which not only focuses on cricketing skills but also life lessons.
"So when they are in the national team, they are able to handle stardom better than before and with the likes of Mushfiqur Rahim, Tamim Iqbal and Shakib Al Hasan -- their straight-forwardness makes them different," says Rabeed, now the media manager of the International Cricket Council (ICC) for Bangladesh.
"There is a lot of change coming into Bangladesh cricket and these players have become ambassadors. The cricketers' perception in this country has already transformed and with the rise in expectations, we can easily say that they have become the most recognisable faces. We stress on the fact that they are national idols," adds Rabeed.
There is a pattern here which is most evident in Dhaka, in terms of taking cricket up as a career. Among the players in the divisional side, 90% are from the adjoining districts like Narayanganj, Gazipur, Tangail and Mymensingh and not from the capital city itself. This is because cities like Dhaka have a lot more to offer than the smaller towns up north or down south.
"These boys come to Dhaka to become cricketers but their roots are elsewhere. Dhaka is the centre for cricketing excellence but you won't find many cricketers from the city itself, born and brought up here," says Rabeed.
But cricket's lure has spread far and wide and especially in those parts where the economy is slower than the Dhaka traffic. It is first an escape from the drudgery of daily life and once the boy figures out how good he is, he gets hooked.
A trip to Dhaka follows and either the club officials here will chew them up and spit out their bones or, they will be embraced. The whims of these men decide and dictate cricketing fortunes of thousands every year and while the level of corruption has gone up, it hardly deters anyone from trying at least once.
The number of crash and burn stories is strewn all over the world but in Bangladesh, poverty makes these stories even more depressing. I knew of a batsman who did well enough to play in the lowest league there is, the Third Division, but he had to take care of his parents. He tried out in different clubs, focused the most in matches; but it is a sport and it doesn't listen to the heart. A few years ago, I spotted him around the local cricket park, sitting inside a CNG-driven autorickshaw. I didn't feel too bad for him, at least he was working. "Do you remember how I used to bat?" he asked me, looking into the distance.
The Rubel story spreads hope and light but even that has its troubles. The boy is a fast bowler, the dirtiest trade in the business with the highest propensity of injury. Without education to fall back on, it could be an uphill task. But the upside here is the salary and perks they receive. A year in the national colours could confirm a good life for these boys.
What we will see out in the middle on February 19 is the greatest cricket tournament in the world, and the most celebrated. What we sometimes don't see is the struggle they have gone through or the risks they run.
A serious look at the structure is a must because for every Rubel, there is that CNG driver who sips tea while recalling his unreachable dream.
Mohammad Isam is Senior Sports Reporter, The Daily Star.
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