A cursory glance of the sporting landscape of Bangladesh will tell you that cricket, as organised sport, is head and shoulders above any other in the country. This is especially true for the time -- Bangladesh is hosting the Asia Cup for the second time in a row, and only three years after co-hosting the 2011 50-over World Cup, the country will play the role of sole host to the World Twenty20 from March 16. That such high-profile tournaments are hosted as a matter of course by the country points to a strong organisational structure that has been tried and tested by the sport's global elites and most crucially, an undying passion for the game within the country.
But it was not always thus; from the birth of the nation till the early 1990s, football was the sport of choice and it dominated the scene -- Argentina v Brazil has always stirred passions, but special verve was reserved for match-ups between local giants Abahani and Mohammedan, matches that attracted capacity crowds at the then Dhaka Stadium and sparked crowd fights. It was football that brought in famous players who played the World Cup to the domestic scene.
In the halcyon days of Bangladesh football, cricket jostled for prominence with hockey, a scarcely imaginable state of affairs now. Over time, cricket's organisers succeeded and were proactive where organisers of other sports, including football, were not. There was always potential for cricket, as it was a well-loved sport played between a small number of nations at the highest level. Also working in cricket's favour was that Bangladesh's neighbours -- India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka -- were established Test nations by the time the 1990s rolled around. And the India-Pakistan rivalry, brought to its zenith in the deserts of Sharjah, was as avidly and passionately followed as the Brazil-Argentina one with the difference being that cricket's version was much closer to home.
Sharjah's prominence in the global cricketing map, although it was not a cricketing region, worked as further encouragement for organisers to replicate the model. While in Sharjah passion for the sport emanated from Indian and Pakistani expatriates, in Bangladesh the passion was homegrown. As the organisers lobbied their neighbours and the Asian Cricket Council for support, Bangladesh were included for the first time in the Asia Cup in Sri Lanka in 1986. The first big step in the country emerging on the cricketing map was when, in 1988, the Asia Cup was held in Bangladesh. For the first time the world, or at any rate the region, saw the passion that existed for the game here.
Once the shoe was in the door, things started happening. The organisers, who had seen teams of retired professionals from Test nations tour the country throughout the 80s, pulled off a coup by dreaming up the SAARC Cricket Quadrangular. In 1992-93 and 1994-95 'A' teams from Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India played the quadrangular tournament in which the hosts fielded the full-strength national side. Cricket had assumed an international flavour in Bangladesh, and here it held the big advantage over football – while it will take decades for Bangladesh football to successfully make a place for itself in a global game contested by nearly 200 nations, cricket with only nine Full Member nations would not take that long.
The next watershed came when in 1997, led by Akram Khan, Bangladesh won the ICC Trophy and qualified for the 1999 World Cup, and also secured its ODI status. Around this time they were also regularly playing Kenya, who after their shock victory over the mighty West Indies in the '96 World Cup were the Associate Member team to beat.
The greatest showcase of the possibilities of the game in the country however came in October 1998, when Dhaka played host to the ICC Mini World Cup and the Dhaka Stadium was full to the brim for every match of the knockout event even though Bangladesh did not feature. No less a figure than Tony Greig, who was commentating on the tournament, rated Bangladesh one of the best places to watch cricket.
The rest -- beating Pakistan in the 1999 World Cup and securing Test status just over a year later -- is history. By the mid-90s cricket had usurped football as the dominant sport in the country and when after Test status fans saw their own players rubbing shoulders with the elites of the world and at times holding their own, there was no looking back.
While cricket's rise from obscurity to the number one sport in the country in a decade is a model for other sports to follow, there is also a cautionary tale in this. The administrators showed great initiative in taking the national sport to Test level and beyond, but it must always be remembered that the impetus for such growth came from the love of the game, and that remains the fuel for progress to this day.
But having taken the country there, the Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) is still beset by problems that a lot of other less successful boards are facing. Ad-hoc-ism has been the scourge of sports governance in Bangladesh, and it seems the BCB has been prone to descending into that state periodically, and as recently as last year the BCB was being ruled by an ad-hoc committee after the dissolution of the previous board. In line with the ICC directive that all member boards will have to be led by a democratically elected president, the BCB – which was till then led by government-nominated presidents -- held an election late last year. Even that was democracy only in name because Nazmul Hassan Papon was elected unopposed after opponent Saber Hossain Chowdhury withdrew his candidacy. The same refrain of unopposed ascension can be found in most boards in the country, i.e. those that are not mired in ad-hoc-ism.
Neither is the domestic game in rude health. Much like in hockey, the BCB is often bullied by the Dhaka Premier Cricket League Clubs, the result of which is that last year the league was repeatedly delayed to the detriment of the game and the players, many of whom rely on the league for a majority of their income. The spectre of match-fixing has also been seen in cricket, with the golden goose of the Bangladesh Premier League T20 eventually laying rotten eggs.
It is a cliché that with great power comes great responsibility, but it is true nonetheless. The BCB have been given a gift in the great love of the sport of which they are custodians. As football and other sports must learn from cricket's rise which was built on setting of goals and accomplishing them, cricket too must learn from football's fall and not rest on its laurels. The powers that be will have to show sustained professional intent and strong governance to match the sport's popularity and ensure that the growth spurt is not a temporary one.
The author is sub-editor, SPORTS,The Daily Star