A miracle a long time ago
New Year’s Day, 1955. The Dacca Stadium. That is how it was called.
The new nation would not be born for another 16 years.
It would take 33 more years for an international match to be contested at this venue on the soil of Bangladesh. It would then be known as National Stadium, Dhaka, and in that 1988 showdown Sri Lanka would beat Pakistan by 5 wickets in a low-scoring Asia Cup encounter.
After its rechristening as the Bangabandhu Stadium, the arena would witness the first international match with India playing a pre-Test Bangladesh side in January 1998 in the Coca Cola Silver Jubilee Independence Cup. Mohammad Azharuddin and Sachin Tendulkar would guide the more experienced team to victory after Javagal Srinath’s torrid spell had broken the back of the local batting.
The first ever Test in the country of Bangladesh would also be contested on this very ground, in March 1999. Ijaz Ahmed and Inzamam-ul-Haq would hit double hundreds as Pakistan would crush Sri Lanka by an innings and 175 runs to win the inaugural Asian Test Championship.
45 years after that New Year’s Day 1955, Bangladesh would play their first ever Test match, again on this very ground. The newly minted Test playing nation would hold its own against India for much of the game before falling apart in the second innings.
Yes, Test cricket in Bangladesh is older than Bangladesh in Test cricket.
And it all started on the New Year’s Day, 1955. With nothing short of a miracle.
A few weeks before that, there had been no stadium. It had been a ground with a makeshift gallery, where a few matches were played from time to time.
Work on the stadium was started only in October 1954. Rs 3.5 million was spent on the construction. 2000 labourers worked frantically through the month of December.
Pakistan had played their first Test in the winter of 1952-53. They had lost to India at Delhi, and then stormed back through some exceptional fast bowling by Fazal Mahmood in the second Test at Lucknow. After that Vijay Hazare, Polly Umrigar and Vinoo Mankad had combined to clinch the Test in Bombay and that effectively had decided the series.
Now it was Pakistan’s turn to host their neighbours.
It was not long since the nations had been divided through the infamous Partition, the holocaust in the aftermath of the Raj. The relationships were a curious mix of camaraderie and communal tension. There had been riots, deaths, disbelief, yet the people were joined together at the roots. And the cricketing contests were reflections of the same.
There was too much to play for. It was not merely cricket. The competition was fierce enough to make the matches painstaking. No side wanted to lose. Both sides, and their followers, and by extension both the countries, wanted to win more than anything else. Special passes were organised. Men crossed borders to witness these matches, and some took the opportunity to shed a few tears in their erstwhile homes.
At the same time, Pakistan’s fast-tracked promotion into the Test-playing fold had much to do with the solid support of India. It was the Indian Board that pushed for Pakistan’s admission to the Test fold to Imperial Cricket Conference — as ICC was then known. The Indian Board had gone further than that. When the inflexible MCC had resisted the addition of Pakistan as an official cricketing nation, the friendly neighbours had ensured that visiting teams to India played unofficial matches in Pakistan. The proposal for admission had been submitted again and again, till in 1952 the young nation had become the seventh Test playing country in the history of cricket.
Those were the days before the relations turned frosty with the chill emanating from the Cold War. Pakistan, geographically ideally located as the fulcrum of political tensions between the super powers, and with the additional ‘desirable’ attribute of military rule, became an auxiliary ally to USA. On the other side of the border, India was the leading light of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and extremely friendly with USSR. This sparked at least as much tension as the history of riots and Partition.
But, this was 1954-55. Just before the frost.
After the tour of India in 1952-53, Pakistan had created history with Fazal Mahmood bowling them to another supreme victory, this time at The Oval. The four-Test series against England had been tied 1-1, and Abdul Hafeez Kardar’s men had taken the cricket world by storm.
Now, as a major force in the cricketing fraternity, they had to host India. Five Tests had been planned. And there were not enough venues to hold a series of such magnitude.
The charismatic Kardar appealed for help on Radio Pakistan … from the government and also from private citizens.
The zeal was infectious, in both West and East Pakistan.
In the land which is Bangladesh today, the Chittagong Stadium was constructed in just over a year. It was at Chittagong that the Indian tourists arrived first, and played a 3-day game against East Pakistan. Dattu Phadkar and Subhash Gupte skittled the local side for 98 in the first innings, and Gupte captured 6 for 37 as they surrendered for 87 in the second. The Indians won by an innings.
In the meantime, the Dacca Stadium was being completed. The 2000 labourers worked all day, all night. Every day several new rows of seating appeared almost by magic. After all, the first ever Test in Pakistan would be played there.
Yes, this arena, variously called the Dacca Stadium, the Dhaka International Stadium and the Bangabandhu Stadium, is the only one in the world to have hosted the first home Test of two nations.
There were other preparations as well, equally hectic.
AFS ‘Bobby’ Talyarkhan, the legendary Indian journalist, and commentator was rushed in from the neighbouring country to broadcast the match on Radio Pakistan. Known variously as ‘Iron Lungs’ and ‘Marathon Man’ because of his indefatigable capacity to cover an entire day’s play without break, pausing only during the lunch and tea breaks, Talyarkhan had made the Bombay Quadrangular tournaments come to life for listeners. And at that time, during the nascent days of Pakistani broadcasting, there was no one of the same quality in Radio Pakistan. The days of Omar Kureishi would come later.
When the day arrived, the work on the entire stadium had not been completed. It had been an impossible task to start with.
However, when the Indian captain Vinoo Mankad went out to toss with Kardar, there were enough seats to accommodate 25,000 people. And all those seats had been taken.
Kardar won the flip of the coin. And when Mankad led his men out to the field, the applause was deafening.
However, from that point onwards, the drama on the field was muted.
Drab draw and drama
As already mentioned, there was too much at stake for the cricketers. They were aware that every match and every act on the field had way more implications than cricketing. And hence, to paraphrase the contemporary reports in the Ambala Tribune, the onus was on saving matches and thereby in killing cricket.
The pace of scoring was glacial, and given that the Test was, like the rest of the matches of the series, scheduled for four days, the stalemate was almost inevitable.
On the first day, Pakistan crawled to 207 for 5 in more than 100 overs. The second morning saw little improvement, and they were bowled out for 257 after lunch, compiled in 136.2 overs.
The Indians responded by playing Fazal with extreme caution. The great pioneering fast bowler finished with innings analysis of 25-19-18-0. However, the other two pace bowlers, Mahmood Hussain and Khan Mohammad, combined to make the Indian batsmen uncomfortable.
By the end of the second day, the visitors had been reduced to 115 for 5 and the chances of a result had crept back into the scheme of things.
When Mahmood Hussain (6/67) and Khan Mohammad (4/42) dismissed the Indians for 148 on the third morning, Pakistan led by 109 and enjoyed a potentially winning position.
However, in the 73 overs that India bowled during the rest of the day, they crawled to 97 for 1, Alimuddin and Waqar Hasan stonewalling through two sessions.
On the final morning, Gupte’s spin was introduced surprisingly late in the innings. In six overs that he bowled, the champion leggie had figures of 5 for 18. Pakistan, from 116 for 1, collapsed to 158 all out. India required 268 to win, with plenty of time left in the game. Ultimately they faced 82 overs.
But, this time it was their turn to suck life out of the game. Especially when Khan Mohammad took two quick wickets to reduce them to 17 for 2, Pankaj Roy and Vijay Manjrekar proceeded to block their way to 147 for 2 when the match was called off.
The four days of cricket saw 710 runs. Good old days, indeed.
However, there was no lack of drama in off the field events.
A reception during the ongoing Test saw the sparks of tension ignited by the fire spewed by a Kardar speech.
No one from the press, either Indian or Pakistani, reported the speech or the altercation that followed. With diplomatic ties between the countries taut with tension and hanging on to this series, the instructions and embargoes on the reporters were obviously clearly outlined by the authorities.
However, more than a decade and a half later, after two wars had snapped all diplomatic ties and halted cricket for over twelve years, Indian commentator and journalist Berry Sarbadhikary disclosed the events of the evening.
His article in Sportsweek was titled ‘When Kardar Nearly Ruined a Test Series’. According to him, Kardar recounted the triumph in England by contrasting the Pakistan performance with the Indian capitulation against Fred Trueman in 1952.
An excerpt from Sarbadhikary’s 1973 article describing Kardar’s speech reads as follows: “Some British enthusiasts, say, at Lord’s and the Oval, spot Kardar as a member of the 1946 Indian touring team. They tell him: ‘Christ — but you don’t play negative cricket like the Indians, you don’t run away from our fast bowlers to square leg like the Indians (mischievous, provocative and highly exaggerated reference to Polly Umrigar’s drawing away from Trueman in a really nasty wicket during the Manchester Test of the 1952 series), and you don’t play for a draw like the Indians, you play attacking cricket, you play for a win.’ And Kardar, humbly, oh so humbly, clarifies: ‘But, then, we are no Indians, Sir, we are Pakistanis.”
Each and every time the word ‘Indians’ appeared in the above text, it was in bold. Sarbadhikary had his reasons for the emphasis. He added: “Kardar’s malignant stress on the word ‘Indians’ could be matched for its venom only by the women newsreaders from Radio Peking at the height of the 1962 Chinese aggression.” He also claimed that the response it drew from rival captain Mankad was furious. “Suddenly we saw Kardar and Mankad at a secluded corner of the vast Banquet Hall involved in an angry exchange of words and almost at the point of a scuffle.”
While Sarbadhikary’s account may be a trifle sensitive and exaggerated, there are nevertheless several facts that hint at the possibility of such an inflamed speech by Kardar.
Shujauddin, a member of the Pakistan side, later admitted that there was bad blood and the two sides seldom spent time together.
Additionally, Kardar was one of the most passionate Pakistani nationalists. When the Pakistan side was returning from their first Indian tour, the team had been entertained to a dinner in Burma. A fellow guest had been the former British Prime Minister and Labour Party leader Clement Attlee. In his speech on the occasion, Attlee had talked about the region’s issues but had not mentioned the name of Pakistan. It had always been, “India and other countries.” Kardar had gestured to his men and the entire squad had walked out.
However, the word ‘nationalist’ should not be taken in negative terms. Kardar was one of the few important Pakistan voices who spoke for the people of East Pakistan during the years that led to the formation of Bangladesh. Just before Bangladesh was born, Kardar was a member of a sympathetic three-man committee sent to East Pakistan to try and repair the damage done over the years.
The rest of the cricket
However, to return to the contest of 1954-55, it became the first ever five-Test match series to finish 0-0. The rest of the Tests were equally unenterprising and neither India nor Pakistan were prepared to take the minutest risk.
Before Dhaka became the capital of the newly formed Bangladesh, the Dacca Stadium hosted seven Test matches.
These included some memorable moments, especially in the 1950s.
Late in 1955, the sides were frustrated by three days of rain before Fazal Mahmood and Khan Mohammad destroyed the New Zealanders for 70. Hanif Mohammad hit a hundred and Pakistan declared with a lead of 125. However, on the final day, they sent down 90 overs but New Zealand survived with their final total reading 69 for 6.
In early 1959, the hosts were reduced to 22 for 5 by some express Wes Hall deliveries, but recovered to 145. This was followed by some sensational bowling by Fazal Mahmood and some questionable umpiring, and the West Indies were overcome by 41 runs.
Later that year, Hanif Mohammad and Neil Harvey produced respective masterclasses and honour was almost shared in the first innings before Ken Mackay took a break from his medium pace, resorted to bowling off-breaks at a perfect length, and engineered an 8-wicket win with 6 for 42.
This was followed by three rather painstaking draws in the 1960s.
This was followed by the final of the Asian Test Championship in 1998-99.
It was the ninth Test match played at the ground, as also in Bangladesh, that saw the nation take the field for the first time in the highest format of the game.