“If you play cool and concentrate we can win. Don't be overconfident or hot headed. It's not the time for foolish risks.” I'd come to Narail Government High School field to find the answer to a question. It was lunch break on the day of the under 14s divisional cricket championship final and coach Md Imrul Kayes, 25, his face whitened with sunscreen, was half-whispering a pep-talk to his team. “Don't forget your role or get distracted at the crease,” he was saying, “The match is in a vital position. You know what to do.” It sounded like advice for life.
Fahim, Bappi, Oruno – he'd be relying on his promising batsmen. But with the visitors, Bagerhat, having set a target of 72, with 22 overs complete, 40 runs on the board and eight wickets in hand, the situation was far from hopeless. “This is no time for heroics.”
The question I sought the answer to was larger than the under 14s. I wanted to know why Narail District performs so well at sport. One might've thought it'd be enough for a small district to excel in culture – SM Sultan, Bijoy Sarkar and the others. But no, when it comes to sport, with national champions too many to list, in cycling, weightlifting, archery, kabbadi, handball, volleyball, table tennis and cricket – did I name them all – little Narail punches above its weight.
Coach Kayes gave an initial clue: enthusiasm. He plays in third division cricket himself and dreams of becoming a first division player. And he's playing the sport that produced Narail's most famous player, Mashrafe bin Mortaza, the fast bowler for the Tigers known affectionately as the 'Narail Express.'
Mashrafe's familial home being just beyond the field I thought to wander over to find out more from his father Golam Mostafa. “I wanted him to be a doctor,” he says of his son, “but as a child he was restless, always active. If he wasn't swimming he'd be helping himself to green coconuts or lychees from other people's trees.” His talent for cricket was “totally God gifted” with no coach or training at first.
Is it a coincidence the field is close by? Perhaps that's another clue: Narail town has open spaces including the stadium and historical Kuriddobe. But open spaces is a feature common to at least some other district headquarters.
It's surely true that success breeds success. Coach Kayes attended the Ataur Rahman Cricket Academy named after Mashrafe's grandfather – and it's about more than sports stars giving back. It's about town pride and a belief in winning. It's because when that kid down the road made it to the national level why shouldn't I? Kayes says he is inspired by the success of Mashrafe and others. I'm certain he isn't alone.
Yet despite his emphasis on the importance of practice, Mostafa believes natural talent is essential. Similarly, he observes that sporting prowess came naturally to Narail. From the 1970s the town started to perform well in kabbadi, weightlifting, cricket and athletics, he remembers, and by the end of the 1980s table tennis had taken off.
So where was all this talent coming from? Was it something in the town's rather salty water which the locals drink often enough not to notice? Was there a peculiar chemical combination that gave rise to a higher proportion of naturally gifted sportspeople?
One person who might know would be Riaz Mahmud Rocky, 24, a national table tennis champion. You can find him down the road at what's optimistically called the Table Tennis Academy. It's basically a brick shed that's currently lined with sandbags while under renovation. Inside is a slightly dour space featuring the single functioning ping pong table in town. Perhaps 200 players take turns on that table, Rocky says, and yet he guesses that up to 90% of top table tennis players in Bangladesh, men's and women's, hail from Narail.
“All my friends were playing ping pong,” he recalls of the beginnings of his own career, “I used to watch them and I tried it. It was a way to pass time.” His protégé Javed Ahmed, 18, meanwhile, says he took up table tennis because the building was nearby.
“As I got older I started to think about life,” continues Rocky, “I understood the need for study and a job but I saw that from table tennis some money could come.” By age 16 Rocky was district captain with a monthly salary of 10,000 taka.
“When we started to compete outside,” he recalls, “I saw we weren't bad at it. The taka prizes encouraged our training.” As his income rose, Rocky's parents who had once taken a “Do your schoolwork!” approach to his sport became less worried. “Before it wasn't possible to earn a living from table tennis,” he says, “but now it is.”
He's not the only one to notice. According to local high school physical education teacher Orun Sarkar, who once went to live in India with his relatives but missed Narail so dearly that he only lasted four days before returning, “Earlier people wanted their kids to be doctors or engineers but many now hope their kids will be sports players.” There's lots of support in the district for sport, he says. Rocky takes it a step further, “Sport in Narail is very well organised.”
Yet the reality of Narail's one table suggests facilities are not a major factor in achieving excellence. Once, while at a training camp in India Rocky was asked how he practices. He explained the one-table situation. “They were all laughing,” he says, “But while they had many tables they had no champion players. Other districts have better opportunities too. We have to wait to play – but then, when our turn comes we really try. We really enjoy it.”
Now, if you want to know why anything is the way it is – little trick – look at history, and Narail has a colourful one. The main founder of the Narail feudal estate or jomidari was Kalisankar Roy who, like his father Ruphram Roy, first served the King of Natore. His father was faithful and rewarded by being allowed to establish a property in Narail and build a small house there.
Kalisankar was healthy and intelligent and known for achieving a task using any means. Over the years he managed to amass vast tracts of land for himself using other people's names – the Natore Raj did not suspect this trickery. He was even involved in an act of piracy on the Chitra River, and when sepoys were sent from Jessore to arrest him, with his henchmen, he started a fight. Two sepoys died and fifteen were wounded. Kalisankar spent time on the run but was later arrested in Kolkata and ultimately released without conviction from Jessore.
In place of his father's small house Kalisankar built a massive palace with dozens of ponds.1
Now, while this history might have nothing to do with sport, it's true that the Roys are best remembered as Narail's founders and less for trickery and criminal cases. It would hardly be the first instance where, once dubiously gotten wealth has been amassed, inheritors seek to establish genteel credentials. Subsequent Roy generations are famed for encouraging culture and sport. They established the Kuriddobe and by the early twentieth century had introduced a football competition.
The zamindars took advantage of the rich sporting traditions in Narail's villages. Lathi and shorki khela were stick fighting games where opponents would dance and manoeuvre in an attempt to hit the other. There'd be the tap-tap-tap of the sticks and players would call “ali-ali-ali-ali” as they played. Large crowds of spectators would gather. Both games required skill and were dangerous, but especially shorki khela where the valid zone for hitting the opponent included not only the waist to feet of lathi kehla but also the ear lobe – but not the ear. The shorki stick could pierce the human body – mistakes could be fatal. At times of puja Narail's zamindars organised jousts.2
There were numerous other games including khol lathi played by farmers, dhaker bari which was marginally cricket-like but involved a rectangular wooden puck in place of a ball – with the potential to blind an eye, danguli – another cricket-like game, and golla chhut, where the fastest runners would win. An early version of kabbadi was called ha-du-du, dug-duga or chol-kut-kut. Yet many of these games do not distinguish Narail from other districts and besides, history can only take one so far...
At the stadium still in search of an answer I meet Mukul Chowdhury, 35, who suffered polio as a child which resulted in one of his legs being half the diameter and shorter than the other. “I was not good at school,” he confesses to explain his sporting interest – and his supportive parents by habit would say, “Go, play!” An all-rounder, Chowdhury has represented Bangladesh in cycling at the 2010 Asian Para Games, in karate in Jharkhand and in football at the 2013 Special Olympics of the Asia-Pacific Games in Australia.
Chowdhury notes that in Narail it's easy to join any sport and when it came to playing football in Australia he was surprised at the pitch's smoothness. Chowdhury suggests “training on rough ground” might actually be an advantage when the relative ease of a polished field presents itself.
For national kabbadi player Sharmeen Sultana Rima the path to success was more difficult than what might be usual for males. “My parents didn't like the idea of sport,” she says, “They were really stressed about it. In the villages people said bad things.” Fortunately Rima had a supportive brother-in-law and an encouraging coach. Her career has taken her to Thailand, Malaysia, Oman and China – but it was the day she was selected for the national kabbadi team that she considers her greatest. Her parents now wish her to pursue her dream to study Bangla; and also encourage her sport.
“In Narail the sporting environment is very good,” says Rima, “All twelve months one or other sport is running. Nearly every national team has one or two players from Narail.”
It's late in the day when news arrives: it appears Coach Kayes's pep-talk worked. At 37 overs with four wickets in hand the under 14s have become divisional champions.
And yet, to my question there remained no definitive answer. On the bus to Dhaka was the last chance to shed light on the matter. Beside me sat Md Sujan who was either 20 or 22 – his parents wrote it down somewhere. At his feet was a large pot full of pitha cakes such as village mothers may well send with their younger sons returning to work at a sweater factory in Savar in order to pay for an older brother's college education. He dabbled in cricket but was hardly a sportsman – yet he was from Narail. There could be no harm in asking...
“The sporting success...” I ask, “Is it something in Narail's water?” It proved to be a poor word choice – Sujan's face became suddenly burdened with anxiousness over Narail's water quality. I rephrased. He thought. “I think they practice a lot,” he says.
1 History of Narail from SM Royis Uddin Ahmed, Laraku Narail, 2009.
2 Ibid., p.302-303