“The surroundings are hilly and lush green, sprinkled with tea plantations. If the charm of cricket is equated with men in white plying their trade on the greens, the Sylhet International Cricket Stadium adds several delectable shades to the hue”.
Nothing uniquely characterises the traditions of cricket quite as much as that idiosyncratic interval called the ‘tea break’. This cuppa-combined hiatus during the sporting tussle of the day goes a long way in underlining the social signature of the game, why it is different from other sports, why it is more than just a quest for victory.
In that context, can there be a more apt setting for an international cricket stadium than bang in the middle of a tea garden?
The picturesque Sylhet International Cricket Stadium practically nestles inside the Lakatura Tea Garden. Yes, the country is still Bangladesh, but the heat and humidity synonymous with the land take a backseat here. The location is in the northeast. The climate is subtropical, pleasant. The breeze and the occasional mist hint not only at comfort of the cricketers, they also signal the possibility of riveting contests between bat and ball.
The surroundings are hilly and lush green, sprinkled with tea plantations. If the charm of cricket is equated with men in white plying their trade on the greens, the Sylhet International Cricket Stadium adds several delectable shades to the hue.
Indeed, the modern stadium retains a stand carved from the hills, a quaint green grassy bank that adds a distinctive stamp of the area.
In terms of visual delight, the venue must rank among the best in the world.
But visual extravaganza, amicable climate and serendipitous links to tea are not the only cricketing claims for this arena.
Cricket has a long history in these parts. Rest assured, the phrase ‘long history’ has been used here with proper care and diligence.
The earliest scorecard recording a match played at Sylhet goes back to 1845. Yes, that far back.
The Bengal Sporting Magazine produced an article that year documenting the details of a match played between the British Regiment side and a Sepoy unit. What is remarkable about the report is that a full scorecard was produced, which included the scores of each batsman and his mode of dismissal along with every scoring stroke of individual batsmen. Such detail ranks among the rarest in documents, cricketing or otherwise, hailing from those times.
The tea gardens in the district did witness plenty of cricket over the years. Not surprising that, given the agreeable climate. Sporting clubs were formed by the British planters. For example, the one in Balisera was set up in 1887, and cricket was played there regularly from the 1920s.
After the formation of East Pakistan, matches were played in the Sylhet Police Line Field and the Madrasa Field. The official Sylhet District Sports Association was formed in 1963 and the Sylhet Cricket League kicked off in the 1975-76 season.
The Sylhet International Cricket Stadium itself was built in 2007 as a divisional venue. Later, in 2013, it was expanded into an international stadium. Rapid and further renovations have been carried out from 2017.
Yet, as in the case of climate, colour and tea, historical relevance is also not the key claim to the excellence of this venue.
World class facilities
It is in the available facilities that the Sylhet International Cricket Stadium stands out as one of the best in the subcontinent, if not the world.
The premises seamlessly combine cutting edge technological advancement to the culture of hospitality that characterises this part of the world.
Just a short hop from the Osmani International Airport, the stadium boasts stands that can house nearly 18,500 spectators. The two-tier east side gallery is covered, shielded from the sun. The Club House and the Grand Stand are both striking and spectacular. The green gallery adds its unique charm to the mix. Imposing floodlights tower over the action.
The facilities in the pavilion are truly world class. From surveillance cameras to the fully equipped gymnasium, every modern amenity is available. The elaborate touch of the region’s hospitality abounds everywhere, from the luxurious viewing boxes for the members, to the expansive premises facilitating catering, to the plush seats for the players in the dressing rooms alongside the lavish baths they can soak in.
At the other end, the newly constructed media centre offers one of the best views of the ground. Apart from marked areas for the press contingent, radio and television crew, there is also a business centre for the media-personnel, equipped with all the available communication facilities.
Behind the stadium, there is an indoor training facility with three full cricket pitches, with enough space for bowlers to indulge in the longest of run-ups.
In terms of infrastructure, the venue towers above most in the world. Including several established Test centres.
Besides, an outer field akin to the Nursery Ground at Lord’s is being planned and looks likely to be completed in another couple of years.
The Next Steps
The stadium has it all. Except for one glaring gap in its record.
The venue has not yet hosted an ODI, in spite of getting the nod of the ICC in 2014.
There have been six matches of the ICC T20 tournament, 2013-14, played here, and that has been followed by one solitary T20I between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka a couple of months ago.
That is terribly minimal fare for such a superb setting.
There have been a couple of dozen Women’s T20 matches played during the 2013-14 tournament. There has been a solitary Under-19 Test Match and some Under-19 ODIs, including a few matches of the 2015-16 Under 19 World Cup.
But an official One Day International is yet to be played in the stadium.
Besides, Test status is still elusive.
Sad really, especially given that this writer can vouch that the ground ranks quite a few notches above several established Test venues around the world.
For a cricket crazy Sylhet, this has been a major disappointment. With the city boasting a couple of five-star hotels and this stadium just three kilometres away from the city centre, every logical and logistical consideration points to more international matches being hosted here.
One hopes that this is remedied and the Sylhet International Cricket Stadium soon witnesses a clutch of international matches in the two oldest formats of the game. Perhaps it is the same ray of hope that makes Joydeep Das Sujak, the venue manager at the ground, relentlessly run operations from his office in the clubhouse even during the lull of the offseason.
Yes, the ground has every claim to being a world-class venue. And there is work underway to make it even better.
One awaits eagerly for the day when Test cricket will grace the venue. The sound of the willow on leather, with men in white moving around on the lush green premises, with the backdrop of green hills sprinkled with tea plantations, people thronging in the stands and in the grassy banks of the green gallery.
It will be an experience to savour.