You can see pictures from this day here.
In 1999 at the peak of my cricket obsession I went with a friend down to Hove to watch India play South Africa in the World Cup. I remember travelling from Waterloo in a train full of Indians, Hove being full of Indians, who even offered us 500 quid per ticket, and the ground being awash with Indian flags and happy faces (until they lost). I thought I’d had a real taste of the South Asian passion for the game. But I realised on May 12th that Hove was just a pale imitation compared to the full-on feast of euphoria that greeted us when we went to the Mirpur stadium in Dhaka.
The game was Bangladesh vs India, always an intense rivalry, but with added spice after India’s humiliation (and huge financial loss) at the hands of lowly Bangladesh in the recent World Cup in March. This was the second of a three match series, and India had narrowly won the first game on the Thursday giving an added incentive for Bangladesh to retaliate and win the second – however, as India have some of the world’s best players, and Bangladesh definitely don’t, for the Deshis to come back they would need a bit of extra help from the crowd.
And they got it. When we stepped out of our taxis in front of the Stadium gates we were instantly surrounded by hundreds of children, particularly as Tom and I were wearing our Bangladesh shirts and each had a large flag. Remarkably though this was almost camouflage, as almost every person there was either carrying a flag, wearing a flag bandanna, or at least dressed in the dark red and green colours. Bangladesh is a very nationalistic country anyway, but here at the Stadium they could really rejoice in it.
We waded our way through the mob and past the guards, and the noise of the children outside and the hawkers began to diminish as the beat and roar of the crowd inside began to rise. The whole South Asian region, despite being spread over a huge area and divided by hundreds of languages, cultures, caste, religion and wealth is united by cricket, and I’ve never been in a country more devoted to one sport, particularly given that Bangladesh aren’t actually that good at it. When I cycle to work I will pass at least three or four street games played with just a tennis ball and plank of wood. Kids get up to start playing at 6am in the field behind my house. Nearly every alleyway or open space, if it’s not full of rubbish, traffic, or water, will have people playing cricket. It’s wonderful.
It’s possibly taken too seriously as well, as I’ve now read two stories of people being beaten to death (in India) over cricket, one case due to a disputed LBW decision, and another when some footballers refused to give up their pitch for a cricket side. When Bangladesh beat India, irate fans burnt effigies of their disgraced Indian heroes, and Dhoni, one of their biggest stars had his half-built mansion attacked and demolished. That would have motivated Steve Harmison (England fast bowler, mental weakling).
We stepped out of the heat of the courtyard and in to the shadows of the entrance to the stadium, and began to climb up decrepit concrete steps, excitement building as we gained height, and when we finally reached our tier and stepped out in to blazing sunshine, the view was spectacular. Directly in front of us was a perfect green cricket pitch, with the players all standing in their positions as the game was about to begin. And everywhere to our left and right was just a sea of spectators, all decked out in the national colours again and sitting crushed together so rather than being able to make out individuals, it just appeared to be one living crowd. It was a concrete stand, but the authorities had erected a temporary roof-frame with bamboo poles, stretching sponsored canvas across to try and provide some shade. This was definitely not the Wembley arch, and the use of simple materials, which were already bending and swaying, added to the sense of being back in time. Crowd psychology itself is pretty much timeless, so after we’d clambered over people to find our spot, and got the rhythm of both the game and the stadium, looking around it felt like we could have been in the Coliseum in Rome…it was one of those moments.
Ice-cream sellers darted around the gangways selling frozen chemicals to desperate hands, and small children would occasionally walk about offering water. Some people were watching the game intently, some people were more focussed on being part of the surroundings, but there was a constant buzz and energy, sounds of horns and drums and whistles and shouting and clapping. India started reasonably well, but lost wickets, and when they did, the whole stadium almost bounced as fifty thousand people shrieked in ecstasy. I was quite pleased about it as well.
The heat was relentless as we were under no shade during the hottest part of the day, in the hottest month of the year. But the guys in front of us continued their drumming throughout, even when the actual events on the field slowed down as India began to steadily increase their score.
The actual game was fairly irrelevant, India didn’t shine, but managed to post 284, helped along by some sloppy fielding (albeit in intense heat). Bangladesh never really got going, and were 92 – 5 by the 19th over, with their star man Ashraful out. At this stage some of the crowd began to leave; it was 3pm already and most people new that Bangladesh on the cricket pitch had no chance. They came back in the end to post a respectable 238, but a win had always looked unlikely. You can see the full scorecard here.
What was more important though was that Bangladesh in the stands was still pulsating, alive and kicking. The normal conventions out on the streets, which allow for sometimes animated arguments but generally modest behaviour just didn’t apply, as people laughed, danced, joked, shouted. More interestingly, some of the women there were joining in too, and I really got a sense of this being a place where individual restrictions were abandoned, and people were there to take pleasure not just in watching the sport that they love, but being together, united under colours and symbols that they love, and able to express it joyfully.
Particularly with all public gatherings and meetings banned now, this was one of the few opportunities for Bangladeshis to get together and be part of the power of a crowd, and it was a fantastic thing to witness. The atmosphere was definitely the best I’ve ever experienced at a sporting event – sitting in the bleachers at the Yankee stadium in 1998 was pretty good too, but there I was the only person in the stand not drunk. Here the fans didn’t need alcohol, even if it were available. The spirits we had were generated through the passion of the mob, and everyone was drenched in it.