Commentary

Bangladesh madly in love with cricket

Updated: February 21, 2011, 11:50 AM ET
By Wright Thompson | ESPN.com

DHAKA, Bangladesh -- The man waving the flag outside the stadium rode his bicycle here from India. Seriously. He rode the bike across rivers, through cities and towns, crossing the border into Bangladesh, pedaling for more than 500 miles. It took him nine days. Now he's here, the day before the first match of the Cricket World Cup. His name is Sudhir Kumar Gautam, and he's something of a superfan. Think Ronnie Woo Woo. He has an enormous Indian flag. His body is painted Indian colors: green, orange and white. His head is painted, too. His bike, a one-speed with skinny tires and a silver bell, rests nearby.

[+] EnlargeSachin Tendulkar
Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty ImagesIndian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, center, succesfully completes a run as Bangladesh wicketkeeper Mushfiqur Rahim, left, awaits the ball during the first match in the Cricket World Cup.

The India team bus rumbles down the street, led and followed by cops in riot gear. The crowds press forward, trying to steal a glimpse. Gautam gets in position. He needs to see Sachin Tendulkar, the greatest cricket player in the world, the most famous person whose name you've never heard.

Actually, Gautam needs Sachin to see him.

The Indian Ronnie Woo Woo doesn't have a ticket. He rode a bike from India without a ticket. If Sachin knows he's at a match, though, he'll leave one for him at will call. The bus swings in. Gautam begins waving. Sachin always sits in the front left seat. Everything slows down. The two men -- the superstar and the obsessed fan -- make eye contact. It's stunning. Can you imagine Michael Jordan riding a bus to the NBA Finals, seeing a fan outside the stadium, recognizing him, remembering his name, then telling the team to leave him a pass?

Sachin waves.

Gods do answer letters.

Hungry for the stage

The Cricket World Cup began this past weekend. It merited a brief in your morning paper, but here, it ground the capital city of this subcontinent nation to a halt. In fact, with Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka hosting the cricket world for the next month and a half, it has ground the entire subcontinent to a halt.

The Indian television channels feature wall-to-wall coverage, and not just the sports stations. The papers have designed special logos. Every other commercial is about cricket, every third billboard. Sachin is unavoidable. In one television ad, kids help him into his uniform, like adoring pages fitting a knight into his armor. And, in a news conference with India's team captain on the eve of the opener -- one that was almost canceled before it began because the reporters were yelling at each other -- a Sri Lankan asks for the microphone and informs fellow media members that his country is bonkers, too, lest anyone doubt their madness. Only then can he ask his question. Amazingly, it isn't about pressure. Every time someone says the word, the Indian captain rolls his eyes. Again? It seems like all the questions are about pressure. Everybody feels it. If somebody doesn't bowl a cricket ball soon, the subcontinent is going to explode.

I land in Dhaka the day before the first game. The airport smells like wet paint. The walls glisten with a final coat. Passport control agents double-take at the names crossing their desk; the most famous cricket players in the world are landing in their often forgotten nation. An official's features soften as he asks, quietly, "Are you a cricketer?"

[+] EnlargeBryan Adams
Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty ImagesFans here adore Canadian musician Bryan Adams.

Signs posted around the airport read, "Welcome to our Land." They are ready for a close-up. Desperate for it. Bangladesh is a young country, with a history of corruption, political violence, suicide bombers and overcrowding. But that's not the sum of the place. Life happens between the awful headlines. Ethereal calls to prayer from the mosques. Bowls of mutton biryani. The lyricism of Bengali poets and the artistry of sari weavers. There is the inexplicable love for Canadian rocker Bryan Adams, who will sit at the table next to me Saturday morning at the Westin. There are people here who get that these six weeks are their chance to show the world their country. Maybe their only chance. So they fill the neighborhood around the stadium, starting days before the match, looking to see, sure, but mostly, to be seen.

I step into the street outside the main gate of the stadium and am swallowed. It's Friday. There's no game today. The tournament begins tomorrow. That doesn't matter. People try for eye contact, grinning. They snap cell phone photos. A man asks me to pose with his daughters. A soldier asks me to pose, too. A woman rides by in a rickshaw. I wink. She winks back. People speak English. Where are you from? Enjoy! Thank you very much. Enjoy Bangladesh! Thank you! A space opens up in the crowd, and a little kid slides out of the mass of bodies until he's face to face with me. He sets himself. Something's about to happen. His arms shimmy, his limbs on hinges, his head sliding back and forth, a spin. He's standing before the only American on this street, or probably any other street nearby, and he's dancing like Michael Jackson. Welcome.

The street is a sea of green-and-red flags. On poles, on passing cars, on headbands. Families who live in the buildings across the street lean over balconies to look. There's a blur of details. AK-47s with folding stocks on the backs of soldiers. Riot police wading into the crowd with swinging sticks. When the sun goes down later, street performers blowing fire into the air.

"I've never seen anything like this before," says the Indian television reporter.

"It's absolutely crazy," says the man from the BBC.

The shrill blasts of whistles, honking horns, the buzz of vuvuzelas, shouts, cheers, singing, drums, constant chants of "Bangladesh! Bangladesh!" The noises lose their individual properties and become one noise, unified, constant, loud. Every so often, for no apparent reason, it ticks a notch louder, then another, changing gears. This goes on for hours. Workers string blue lights on the side of the stadium, which match the blue lights in the trees and the ones hanging across the road. The celebration outlasts daylight.

Then the mosquitoes appear, millions of them, squadrons, black balls of swarming bugs, and workers fight back with poison dispensers that look like chain saws, spreading clouds of what very well could be DDT. The media center is full of the stuff, the floors slick with it. No cars or taxis can get near the place. People are trapped, and, outside, the party goes on all night.

The streets stay crammed. Not just the one in front of the stadium. We try to walk far enough away to get a car, and the mob goes on for blocks. We reach the end, turn and find … another sprawling avenue full of fans. The entire city is in the streets. Bangladesh, my colleagues from espncricinfo tell me, has no winning cricket tradition. The Bangladeshis love the game, love it madly, yet it hurts them again and again. They are expected to lose tomorrow, and here they are, euphoric. A wall of people parts to let us through, forming a tunnel, fans reaching for a high-five, a fist bump or just a touch. They scream "Bangladesh!" directly into our ears. They blow the vuvuzelas inches from our heads. Hear us. That seems to be the point. It's an intimidating mass of people, jostling, moving in and out of shadows, swerving out of the way on speeding motorcycles.

It feels one incident away from a riot, but no spark comes, and the people of Bangladesh take to the boulevards and alleys of their capital, virtually all of them without a ticket to the next day's game, excited not for a sporting event but for a chance to show off their nation. There is something naive, even hopeful, about it, a place that isn't jaded by hype, that is moved enough by it to take to the streets.

The next day, we stand for the Bangladeshi national anthem. It's mournful. I don't know what any of it means, but the players sing, and the crowd sings, from deep in its belly, and in a sterile press box, the combined voices of local journalists whispering the lyrics creates an airy soundtrack. I look down at my arm.

I've got goose bumps.

Finally, the games begin

The crowd pitches and rolls. The sea of green and red has moved inside. A fan keeps up a steady beat of a bass drum, which grows frenzied before each bowl, then slows back down, an undercurrent. Only, the game goes much as the experts imagined, and exactly as the Bangladesh fans had hoped it wouldn't. India bats first and sets a target of 371 runs. The Indians, the favorites to win the World Cup for the first time since 1983, play like it. Several hours later, when India is finished batting, Bangladesh starts off strong. Runs come in flurries, a flicker of belief with them, the crowd jumping up and down, giving the bleachers at Shar-E-Bangla Stadium the look of something alive.

[+] EnlargeIndia V. Bangladesh
Daniel Berehulak/Getty ImagesRoqibul Hassan of Bangladesh bats as captain MS Dhoni of India looks on during the opening game of the ICC Cricket World Cup between Bangladesh and India in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

But cricket, it turns out, is about math. So much is made of the madness, the fans who hang themselves after their team loses, the riots, the wild crowds in the streets and in the stadiums, it's easy to forget that the game comes down to an equation. I never realized that. Bangladesh knows from the beginning the number of runs per over it needs to win; for neophytes like me, an over is a set of six balls. It's sort of like an at-bat in baseball. Bangladesh quickly falls below the target, and, in case anyone forgets, the scoreboard reminds them of the ever-fleeting chances of victory. They need 14.67 runs per over; they are scoring 5.84. They need 15.75; they are scoring 5.83. The stadium begins to empty. Just eight overs are left. In almost all circumstances, there are a maximum of 36 runs possible per over. They need 37.20 runs per over; they're scoring 5.85. Finally, victory, long nearly impossible, is actually impossible.

A loud horn blows. It's a conch shell, deep, full of bass, coming from the upper deck, and it's now the loudest thing in the stadium. A fan steps to the railing with the conch shell and an Indian flag. His face is painted. His head is painted. His entire body is painted.

It's Sudhir Kumar Gautam.

Indian Ronnie Woo Woo got into the game. Gods answer letters, and ticket requests, too.

Indian fans celebrate. Bangladeshi fans hit the exits. Outside the stadium, the atmosphere is completely different. The blue lights over the road are turned off. The energy, building for months, slips away in a long sigh. The stadium quiets. The streets are next. The opening match of the 2011 World Cup belongs to memory now. Dhaka will never forget the past two days, and those of us lucky enough to be here will never forget them, either.

In the next six weeks, the circus will consume India, and Sri Lanka and, yes, Bangladesh, with packed stadiums and scenes as mad as the one in Dhaka. Until the first week of April, the subcontinent will be on fire. That's all coming. Saturday night, as the final few overs play out, Gautam unfolds an expandable metal flag pole. This is why he rode a bike across India. He carefully attaches his enormous Indian flag, putting aside the smaller one. Every action is deliberate. Bangladesh fans crowd around him. At first, it seems as if they're about to jump him. Instead, they pose for pictures. The fans count down the last balls of the match, and Gautam gathers the slack material in his hands.

The last ball, the last swing, and the game ends. Gautam waves his flag, sweeping folds of fabric filling the air once filled by honks, horns and chants.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.