March is the cruellest month for us all. March 1971, and now March 2011, the first a hurling into the Hall of Terror and now a permanent place in The Hall of Shame. ‘Black Friday’, it has been dubbed by some of our newspapers.
Public perception of the Bangladesh-West Indies match is at odds with the soothing versions – it’s just a game, there will be haar jeets, let’s now all calm down – being propagated by various well-intentioned levels of the television and the written sports commentariat.
The anger that boiled over after the match on the streets is not an isolated, one-match explosion. It was seething for a long time, and the tipping point came with Friday’s disastrous performance. What has happened is not only a specific game-match disaster – with Bangladesh now quite out of the quarter final race, let’s not kid ourselves about it! – but also a public relations disaster for the Bangladesh Cricket Board, the selection committee and the coaching team – in short, the whole cricketing Establishment. Along with captain Shakib Al Hasan, they are the real targets of public fury.
An example of the public relations disaster would be the pre-match interview given by the Bangladesh bowling coach, Ian Pont, for the benefit of the ESPN discussion panel of Harsha Bhogle, Navjot Singh Siddhu and Pat Symcox, the South African ex-Test player. Ian gave away the Bangladesh strategy for getting into the quarter finals by acknowledging that they had given up on the two end-bracketed games with South Africa and England as basically unwinnable. This public acknowledgement of defeat left Pat open-mouthed in astonishment: how can you tell your players they can’t win against England and South Africa! What kind of a strategy is this? You’ve already adopted a defeatist mentality. Pat then dismissed Ian as somebody who had no real experience of international cricket, somebody who was just a county cricketer. And along with Pat every Bangladeshi fan who was listening in was also left feeling confounded.
A PR disaster, for the Bangladeshi bowling coach to be publicly scolded by a reputed panel discussant.
But the real public relations disaster has been the failure of the Bangladeshi cricket establishment to dispel the widespread public perception that the country’s most popular cricketer, the fast bowler and ex-captain Mashrafe Bin Mortaza, has been hard done by. This was the bowler, after all, who blew off Sehwag’s wickets in the momentous defeat of India by Bangladesh in the 2007 World Cup. Mashrafe was not selected for the tri-nations tournament in January 2010, and then lost his captaincy. The reason given was injury, but the way he has been sidelined, without dignity in the process, had raised temperatures among Bangladeshi cricket fans. And to top it all, he was dropped from the World Cup 15-member squad. That did not sit well with fans. Especially, when Mashrafe has publicly countered the official reason of injury by saying that he’s fit. There were demonstrations in Narail, his home town, and deep rumblings from the fans. My driver, the guards at my office, my housemaid’s husband, all told me that this was part of a deep ‘conspiracy’ – a conspiracy hatched to keep Shakib Al Hasan as captain. And indeed, there are some manoeuvring, some finessing in that whole allegation.
But far more important is that the Bangladesh Cricket Board did nothing to counter such a public perception.
This was some of the tinder that lit the explosion on Friday.
The coach and the selection committee have also been the targets of public discontent. There were rumblings among the public and some of the commentariat from the time the World Cup squad was named that were not answered by the Board and its many minions: why were, for example, Shahriar Nafees and Alok Kapali out of the squad? It has long seemed to the fans that the selection committee and a coaching team led by Jamie Siddons had ditched all experienced old hands – with the miserable exception of Ashraful – for the sake of ‘fresh talent’ and ‘young blood’ . When there are fair winds, young talent and fresh blood is fine, but when one runs into severe gale winds then young talent panics and goes down. The latter qualities fail miserably when a cricket team is sinking and experienced hands are needed to save the ship.
Which is what happened in that match, what underlies all the questioning of match temperament that was lacking in the team’s performance. When things are going well, when Bangladesh retrieves a match from Ireland’s grasp, the nay-sayers and conspiracy theorists shut up. But stories and rumours nevertheless keep on rumbling on beneath, and the moment the cracks in the building showed up badly, immediately the construction firm and the superintendent were hauled up before the court of public enquiry for an answer. In that atmosphere all the conspiracy theories (and Bangladesh, used to hearing about ‘conspiracies’ left and right from their leaders, love a conspiracy theory!) immediately boiled up: what was Ashraful doing in the team? Where were the experienced, mature hands?
Not much more was needed to light the fire…
Other stories had also proliferated. That the Bangladesh Cricket Board was run in an autocratic manner where the one-eyed man was king. Examples were the departure of administrators like Khaled Mahmud and Shakil Kasem. Where was the reassuring hand of a Saber Chowdhury?
And the picture that emerged slowly of the Board was of an regime heedless of fan wishes, pushing its own agenda, with good men leaving, a selection team that persisted with its own choices, a regime that had no Plan B, which had ditched the national agenda for its own, and which had gratuitously insulted its most popular member, the pace bowler that had taken Virender Sehwag’s wicket in the previous World Cup’s defeat of India by Bangladesh. Why? And why Imrul Quayes and not Shahriar Nafees, and Alok Kapali?
These are not idle questions. These are the rumblings that were heard for days before Bangladesh’s team imploded in so humiliating a manner that ‘Black Friday’. And while there may or may not be truth to all this, there is no doubt that all this could have been countered more effectively had Bangladesh’s cricket Establishment taken steps to justify its actions and not have been seen to be high-handed, isolated from its fan base, and insensitive to its gripes.
So the dominant lesson is to heed the fans! Listen to them, talk to them, and explain your actions. And most of all do not seem to be insulting their darlings!
Next time, they may want to storm the Bastille, and then watch out!
Khademul Islam is a Bangladeshi short story writer and critic.