The rise of the Bangladesh cricket team has been one of the biggest stories of the cricketing word in recent years. The team has evolved from being a pariah to a weak side whose test-playing status was questioned to a scrappy maverick side to occasional giant killers to its present status as a worthy cricketing force. All through this rise, cricket in Bangladesh, as elsewhere in the subcontinent, has been a potent vehicle for nationalism.

Before 1971, cricket was scorned by East Bengalis because it was seen as a game that lighter-skinned sharif elites played. I once heard an anecdote revealing this attitude from a person who was visiting a veteran left-wing trade unionist in Barisal, Bangladesh. The veteran fighter of the masses was irritated by the enthusiasm for cricket among Barisal’s youth. “Amago polapain khyalbe cricket? Cricket khyallbe Hanif Mohammed. (Our boys will play cricket? Cricket is for Hanif Mohammed),” he said. Hanif Mohammed was a legendary cricketer from Jamnagar and then West Pakistan. For the trade unionist, as for many others, cricket and Bengalis were incompatible.

Things have certainly changed since then, especially after the Bangladesh Cricket Board’s team made an appearance in the 1999 World Cup and attained test-playing status in 2000.

The enemy's enemy

Initially written off as a “basket case” after 1971, Bangladesh cricket's rise has been seen as the victorious struggle of an underdog people fighting against insurmountable odds. It echoes the popular narrative of the 1971 Bangladesh liberation struggle and the nation-state formation itself. Multiple politicians from Bangladesh have associated cricket wins against Pakistan as revenge for the atrocities of 1971.

Cricket comes with the nation-state’s hegemonic assumptions. And when the nation-state’s ideology is a contested one, cricket reflects these contestations. Before Bangladesh team’s emergence as an admirable cricketing force, the audience’s allegiance was mostly divided between the teams of the Pakistan Cricket Board and the Board of Cricket Control in India. The rifts, visible most clearly during India-Pakistan matches, were as much about domestic political attitudes and self-identities as they were about cricket.

Support for a team was defined more by what the supporter opposed. For some, the original sin of Pakistan defined their predominant dislike, translating into support for the India team. On the other hand, the Pakistan team gained the support of those for whom the regional hegemonic moves by the Indian Union in general – and anti-Bangladesh actions like the killings by the Border Security Force in particular – served as the primary dislike.

Apart from these, there were true and alleged undercurrents.

For one, there was the odious suggestion that the Hindus of Bangladesh tended to support India since their religion supposedly tied them to the Indian Union, their “natural” and “logical” post-1947 homeland. This had sad consequences, ranging from harmless taunts to not-so-harmless aspersions of “disloyalty”. (The similarity to the India Union, where Muslims are accused of supporting Pakistan cricket, is unmistakable.)

For another, there was the insinuation that a shared Muslim-ness is the basis of support for Pakistan, and that this support equalled disrespect to the lakhs killed in 1971 by the Pakistani occupation forces. This, in turn, led to the more damaging inference that such support is a sign of their collaboration with Pakistan or their razakar political stance.

What's in the news?

With Bangladesh becoming a worthy team, much of the energies now manifest during the Bangladesh-vs-Pakistan or Bangladesh-vs-India matches, where the pro-Bangladesh sentiment is at times coupled with anti-Pakistan or anti-India sentiment, as the case may be.

Immediate political events cast their shadows on the matches too. A few years ago, after a Bangladesh team victory over India, a Facebook picture went viral showing a crouching tiger amidst tall south Bengal grass. “Amra kantatar-e noy, maathe mari (We vanquish you in the cricket field, not in barbed wire),” the caption read, referring to the Indian Border Security Force’s sordid record of often gunning down people it considers criminal trespassers from Bangladesh. Naturally, there’s anger at this in Bangladesh, which already bears a sense of powerlessness due to the Indian Union’s superior military prowess and its geostrategic location that links Bangladesh’s economic life strongly to the Indian Union.

The post-partition nation-states of the subcontinent, whose hegemonic self-identities carry the indelible imprint of Partition-era fault lines, make it very difficult for people to hold multiple loyalties or “wrong” loyalties. That’s true for cricket too. It is, therefore, not easy being a genuine fan of the Indian or Bangladeshi or Pakistani team while being the citizen of the “wrong” nation-state.

No-one can doubt that Bengal was partitioned in 1947 on the basis of religion, with West Bengal conceived as the Hindu Bengali dominated homeland and East Bengal as the Muslim Bengali dominated homeland. Nobody can also doubt that the West fared much better than the East in providing security to its minorities. Nonetheless, it is a fact that there have been more Hindu East Bengalis in the Bangladesh team at any given time than Hindu West Bengalis in any other international cricket team.

When the Bangladesh team wins big against any team other than India, the press in West Bengal is typically jubilant. However, when the Bangladesh team defeats India, the loyalties of West Bengalis understandably remain unacknowledged, unpublished and undiscussed.

In the right context

With corporate money banking heavily on cricket hyper-nationalism, the game is often reduced to war by other means. With cricket stars being elevated to the dubious status of warrior-gods, it’s important that this phenomenon is put in the context of greater society, beyond nationalism and pride. Few do this better than Mashrafe Mortaza, the philosopher-captain-hero of the Bangladesh team.

He says, “I am a cricketer but can I save a life? A doctor can. But no-one claps for the best doctor in the country. Create myths around them. They will save more lives. They are the stars. The labourers are the stars, they build the country. What have we built using cricket? Can we make even a brick using cricket? Does paddy grow on the cricket field? Those who make courtyards using bricks, make things at factories, grow crops in the fields – they are the stars.”

Mortaza continues: “What do we do? If I say it very bluntly – we take money, we perform. Like a singer or an actor, we do performing art. Nothing more. The Muktijoddhad [1971 Liberation warriors] didn’t face bullets to get money on winning. Who is being compared to whom? If there are any heroes in cricket, they are Rakibul Hasans or martyrs like [Abdul Halim] Jewel... Rakibul Bhai had dared to enter the cricket field with ‘Joy Bangla’ inscribed on his bat [before the 1971 Liberation]. That’s big. Even bigger was his going to the front with his father’s gun. Shohid (martyr) Jewel left cricket and joined the crack platoon [a 1971 Liberation war guerrilla formation]. That’s bravery. Dealing with fast-bowling has romanticism and duty, not bravery.”

On cricket-based patriotism, Mortaza says, “I say, those who cry ‘patriotism, patriotism’ around cricket, if all of them for one day did not drop banana skin on the streets or did not spit on the streets or obeyed traffic rules, the country would have changed. This huge energy was not wasted after cricket and was used to do one’s work honestly even for a day, that would be showing patriotism. I don’t understand the definition of patriotism of these people.”