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Divided by war, united by cricket?

December 03, 2011

Captains Misbah-ul-Haq and Mushfiq-ur Rahim are facing contrasting fortunes with their respective cricket teams. —AFP Photo
Captains Misbah-ul-Haq and Mushfiq-ur Rahim are facing contrasting fortunes with their respective cricket teams. —AFP Photo

My Bangladeshi host stopped the rickshaw at a roundabout, stepped out and pointed towards the Independence square with much pride.

“This is the place where we got independence from Pakistan,” said Manjur Mohammad.

He then took a few steps towards the square and stopped. “Here your army surrendered their weapons,” he boasted.

Although December 16 will mark the 40th anniversary of the cessation of East Pakistan and the end of a war that began on December 3, the scars are still fresh and the bitterness lingers on.

For those like Manjur’s 74-year-old father, who witnessed the war and lived to tell the tale, the blame lies with Pakistan. But even for the younger generation of Bangladeshis, who have either read about the war or were narrated to by their elders, the friendliness comes with a hint of spite.

Cricket is no exception.

When Bangladesh achieved a sensational upset victory over Pakistan during the 1999 World Cup–although match-fixing allegations tainted the match – Bangladeshi fans celebrated it like a score was settled. That Northampton win remained Bangladesh’s only one over Pakistan in 26 one-day internationals (ODIs) and things aren’t going to change during Pakistan’s ongoing series against their former countrymen.

Pakistan’s recent mauling of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh’s hapless surrender in Zimbabwe suggest a series sweep for Misbah-ul Haq’s men, barring an extra-ordinary lift by their rivals. Considering Pakistan’s weakness against spin, the two Test matches could provide closer results than the three ODIs. However, even then Bangladesh will have to put up big totals on the board against Pakistan’s threatening pace attack and mature spinners in Saeed Ajmal and Abdul Rehman.

Pakistan are much superior and experienced than Bangladesh, and under Misbah-ul Haq the team has shown the kind of unity which had never been Pakistan’s hallmark.

Additionally, a renewed work ethic and training and fitness regimen is now instilled in the team, which was introduced by former coach Waqar Younis. Under him Pakistan’s training regimen was taken up a level and the players are reaping the rewards in terms of an improved performance on the field.

During the recently concluded Pakistan-Sri Lanka series, it looked as if Pakistan’s negative traits – disharmony, lack of discipline and revolt against the captain – could be found in the Sri Lankan team, whose senior players like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene were reportedly unhappy with captain Tillakaratne Dilshan.

The same ills seem to affect Bangladesh. Ever since Shakib-ul Hasan was replaced as captain by the young Mushfiq-ur Rahim, the seeds of discord were sown in the Bangladeshi team. Tamim Iqbal, replaced as vice-captain after the Zimbabwe debacle, is a shadow of the player whose twin hundreds on last year’s tour of England earned him a place in the Wisden Five – the first Bangladeshi player to receive the honour.

Off the field, Pakistan and Bangladesh have a common cause. They have to nominate a joint candidate for the vice-president’s post at the International Cricket Council (ICC). That candidate in turn will take over as ICC President once Alan Isaac (due to replace Sharad Pawar of India in June next year) quits in two years’ time. Since Bangladesh supported Pakistan’s candidate Ehsan Mani in 2003, it is now payback time for the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB). Although both the PCB and Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) have denied such reports, but speculations are rife that Pakistan have conditionally agreed to give Bangladesh a chance to nominate its candidate. In lieu, they want Bangladesh to tour Pakistan next year as the former world champions bid to bring back international cricket after nearly three years.

The writer is a senior sports journalist based in Karachi.