The Financial Express

Bangladesh in 2071

A potential superpower in sports to recognise

A potential superpower in sports to recognise

Let’s imagine a scenario: On 26 March, 2071, at Dhaka’s Mirpur Cricket Stadium, Bangladesh face India in the final match of ICC World Cup. Chasing India’s challenging target of 315 runs, the match has come down to a nail-biting point where Bangladesh need 16 runs from the last over.

While India’s best bowler is set to bowl the last six deliveries, Bangladesh's hope lies in the presence of Ahyan Hasan at the crease, the ICC ranked no. 1 batsman. Bangladesh won a T20 World Cup in 2050, but never won a one-day international cricket World Cup with reaching the final once before.

The whole stadium is trembling with tension and excitement of the 80,000 fans, waiting to see their countrymen achieve greatness. Ahyan, the man of the moment, is unbeaten at 86. Can he take Bangladesh over the line to make history on the historic occasion of centenary of independence of the country?

However, for real-life Ahyans to get us over the line 50 years from now, Bangladesh have a mountain to climb. The country will have to establish proper infrastructure and provide top-notch facilities not only to the national level players, but also to the root level. Barring an exception of the U-19 Cricket World Cup last year, Bangladesh have little success to show even in cricket, the most popular and financially vibrant game in the country.

Bangladesh is currently ranked 7th or below in all cricket rankings, 185th in football, and 38th in Hockey, and furthermore have no Olympic medals either. Most of the sports-governing bodies, if not all, are heavily criticised for suffering from national team myopia and therefore not focusing much on root level development.

Nevertheless, amidst all the doom and gloom, for now cricket persists to be our only hope in sports arena. Although we are definitely not the favorites going into the next ODI world cup, we can surely take inspiration from Sri Lanka of 1996, Pakistan of 1992 and even India of 1983.

Atiquzzaman Maruf, who has seen very closely the rise of those Sri Lanka and Pakistan towards their respective titles, believes Bangladesh can take a leaf out of their stories. A retired service holder at BOC Bangladesh Ltd., this man in his late 50s believes Bangladesh has the kind of team these two nations had during their greatest cricket triumphs in history.

“Both the countries were clearly underdogs and there were not many people who would have bet in their favour. They came with sparks that were least expected. In 1992, Wasim Akram and Waqar Yunis were reversing the ball at a time when nobody knew what reverse swing was, let alone how it was done. In 1996, S Jayasuriya and R Kaluwitharana were belting the ball in the powerplay at a time when seeing off the new ball was the norm. Bangladesh needs such surprise packages to leave a mark in the grandest stage.”

Considering all the services our stalwarts Shakib, Tamim, Mushfiq, and Mahmudullah have put in over the past decade, a noteworthy performance in 2023 could ensure a fitting and well-deserving end to their international career. Since the world cup is going to be played in India, a country with almost identical playing conditions like ours, and even our youngsters are set to possess enough international experience and exposure by then, we can definitely hope that Bangladesh’s first set of international superstars will stretch their legacy to the next level.

But in cricket, the transition period is the most crucial phase for any nation. The instance of Sri Lanka facing a prolonged dry phase since the retirement of Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, T Dilshan and others shows the importance of having a strong pipeline for sustainable performance at the international level.

Nothing but a sharp focus on the root level is essential in ensuring strong pipeline and proper bench strength. As for Bangladesh, even though we are no way near finding anyone close to the repertoire of Shakib Al Hasan, we can be hopeful about Litton, Shadman, Naim, Soumya, Afif, Mehidy, and other youngsters to continue the legacy of Tamim, Mushfiq, and Mahmudullah.

Being the richest sports-governing body in the country, Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) is expected to play the leading role in guaranteeing utmost quality in the domestic circuit so as to ensure that these young players can live up to the expectation by growing in stature and more fresh talents as such keep coming through the system.

Furthermore, with a view to spreading facilities throughout the country, BCB can trigger the divisional cricket associations, each of which will be responsible for organising competitions at district level. Financing the divisional association and allowing them to arrange international fixtures according to its divisional team’s performance in national level league can motivate the bodies to maintain quality and extract raw talents even from the remotest areas.

Once retired, the current set of experienced cricketers of our national team can also be incorporated into the system to work with the age level teams as well as domestic sides, in the same way Rahul Dravid has been working for India age level squads. Finally, planning for a long-term goal instead of one series at a time as well as proper use of technology is another aspect that needs to be addressed.

According to Rabiul Alam, founder and CEO of Daily Cricket and an avid cricket analyst, Bangladesh needs to go through the hurdles patiently to achieve something greater.

“Success is not an event, it is a process. Without long-term planning and proper infrastructure, no success can be sustained. Besides, the use of technology is going to be a big factor in the coming years. The world has advanced a lot in terms of technology in sports and cricket itself has become highly data driven”.

Admitting the fact that after the retirement of the stalwarts, Bangladesh do not stand much chance of winning any global tournament in any format in between 2024-2031 cycle, Rabiul believes that BCB must start thinking further into the future in establishing a system infrastructurally and technologically sustainable enough to enable us reach a stage from where we can eye ODI world cups from 2032 cycle onwards, T20 ones from 2040 onwards, and Test Championships from 2048 onwards.

Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) can follow the footsteps of BCB as well. Even though it is apparent that BFF is not as financially strong as BCB, in a sports loving country like ours, football is always just one step away from creating a nationwide hype which will ensure a surge of money into the system.

Initially BFF can strategise to spread the game with the help of divisional bodies. Here the role of academies is huge since the amount of stamina and fitness required to play the game is impossible to be attained by oneself considering the food habits and culture that we have, as well as the fields our players play in.

Priyom Mozumdar, co-founder and managing director at Pavilion, wants BFF to exert their utmost focus on dealing with these issues.

“It is very difficult for us to compete at the international level given our lifestyle. We grow up consuming rice and the carbohydrate generated from it, which does not help gaining stamina. So, we have to change the lifestyle of the selected pool of players for them to succeed in the long run.”

Mr Rabiul also emphasised the importance of turfs saying, “The hard surface of our football grounds help neither the game nor the physique of the players.” Here, an academy can play a vital role by identifying talents and monitoring everything from diet charts to turf facilities to help the country with refined players.

Moreover, BFF in the long run can initiate a franchise-based football league that will not only create immense engagement in the entire country which brings in sponsors, but also give the country’s best players the opportunity to share a dressing room with comparatively far better sets of players than the overseas recruits in the national league.

If one just looks at our neighbouring country India which never used to be a superpower in football, one can find that since the inception of Indian Super League (ISL), their franchise-based football league, India have advanced a staggering 67 spots (from 171 to 104) in seven years in FIFA rankings.

Like BCB, BFF too needs to be patient and farsighted. It is not possible for us to even qualify for the Asian Cup, let alone World Cup, anytime soon. BFF can design its strategies aiming at restructuring the domestic football in 10 years, branding the franchise league in another 5 years, qualifying for AFC Asian Cup 2043, getting into top 100 in FIFA rankings within next five years, and finally aiming to qualify for the FIFA World Cup afterwards.

The field of individual games can be a place for Bangladesh to cash in. Here individual brilliance is good enough to win tournaments and medals.

According to Priyom Mozumdar, “Considering our lifestyle, Bangladesh will always have a more viable opportunity in individual games such as chess, shooting, archery, tennis, table tennis, weightlifting, athletics, and so on than team games where significant running is required from a whole unit.”

Execution of the proposed Olympic Village in Shibchar on the bank of Padma as well as enhancement of grassroots level infrastructure and academies with adequate investment can help youngsters aim gradually at South Asian, Asian, and Commonwealth Games, and finally at the Olympics.

The secret recipe for other sports, both team and individual, is not much different. Make long-term plans to spread the game as much as possible with divisional associations and academies or in any other manner suitable and to try fitting in a franchise-based league if possible. The former is the key to finding raw talents from the root level while the latter is instrumental in ensuring the improvement of the best of the talents.

We can look to ISL, Hockey India League, Premier Badminton League, Pro Kabaddi and other franchise tournaments that have played a significant role in the development of respective games in India.

With all being said, the key to all these planning and execution lies in some empathic leadership, a kind not satisfied with flukes but always looking at the bigger picture.

“The development of a nationwide sports culture requires a prescient leader with courage and determination backed up by an enthusiastic unit ready to commute necessary support,” said Rabiul Alam.

Furthermore, healthy competition among the sports-governing bodies is also essential for one another’s improvement as well, added Rabiul Alam, based on his first-hand experience of the sports culture in Australia.

“Competition amongst the sports can be pivotal in their development. In Australia, every sport has a season, for example, cricket in summer and rugby (Australia’s number one sport) in winter, etc. Here, cricket has to fight with rugby, football, and others to be in the spotlight and to get the sponsorship deals. If cricket fails to live up to the expectation, domestically it will not remain in consideration at all. Such competition which is missing in our system can intrigue development.”

All in all, creating a sports culture throughout the country in such a manner across the players as well as the spectators can lift our nation to the position from where the new generations will get the opportunity to get us over the line at critical moments in the next 50.

Ahmed Tanvir is currently studying at the Institute of Business Administration, the University of Dhaka.

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