“Tucked away in the green foothills of the Himalayas, bordering the Indian state of Assam, and sprinkled with tea gardens, Sylhet is blessed with a climate conducive to cricket. And it should come as little surprise that the game has been played there since those long forgotten days”.
Reflect back to March 3, 1845.
Almost a decade before the first known publication on cricket in India appeared in the form of Calcutta Cricket Club Matches 1844-54. This quaint booklet, according to the renegade cricket historian Rowland Bowen, was the first ever book of cricket scores published outside United Kingdom.
March 3, 1845.
That was 3 years, 4 months and 15 days before the birth of WG Grace.
A year before Alfred Mynn and Nicholas Felix faced off in their final single wicket showdown.
A year before FP Fenner opened his ground in Cambridge.
Four years before the first ever Roses match between Yorkshire and Lancashire.
Three years before the Parsi Oriental Club was formed in Bombay.
March 3, 1845.
A year before the All England XI was organised by William Clarke, the wandering team that would reconstruct the entire landscape of cricket in England and thereby the world.
Four months before the formation of the I Zingari touring club.
Yes, in terms of cricketing chronology, March 3, 1845, is akin to prehistory.
Yet, on that very day, in the Calcutta-based sports periodical, The Bengal Sporting Magazine had published an article documenting a match between teams comprising of Indian Sepoys and British officers. The venue was Sylhet.
What is more, a complete scorecard of the match was published. The scores are a bit confusing if we go by the modern cricketing rules. It seems three sides batted during the game, and while each side batted the two others combined to do the bowling and fielding. However, the scorecard documents not only the scores of individual batsmen and their modes of dismissal, it also records each scoring stroke of the batsmen. Such rigour in keeping the scores was, to put it very mildly, extremely rare in those days.
Tucked away in the green foothills of the Himalayas, bordering the Indian state of Assam, and sprinkled with tea gardens, Sylhet is blessed with a climate conducive to cricket. And it should come as little surprise that the game has been played there since those long forgotten days.
Cricket tournaments were held in the tea gardens, mostly contests involving the British planters, right from the beginning of the twentieth century. With the tea gardens started the sports clubs for the British, specialising in polo, golf, cricket and football. With time the local population also got involved in the games.
After the departure of the British, cricket continued as Sylhet became part of East Pakistan, with the matches contested in the Sylhet Police Line Field and Madrasa Field. And it continued with exponentially increasing popularity as the young nation of Bangladesh was formed.
Unfortunately, there remain very few documents and photographs of cricket that was played in these regions in those very old days. Much of the tangible evidence departed with the British, the remainder were mostly destroyed in the flames of 1971.
Traces of a forgotten past
Yet, in the typical manner of the Indian subcontinent, there is a hint of something that was palpably present, carried along into the modern day through folklore and word of mouth.
Speaking to the locals who work in the tea gardens, one comes across age-old stories of how cricket was played by the British. We also hear whispers of how after some sort of an altercation the ‘native’ workers issued a challenge to the foreign planters in a game of cricket, and how they arranged the match at the height of summer, using the heat to their advantage to overcome the British at their own game.
However, we can never be sure of the proportions in which history and mythology intermingle in such tales.
But some of the traces of the unbridled stream of cricket from historic times is indeed visible on the landscape of the region.
For example in the Balisera Tea Gardens.
The picturesque premises nestle in the Srimangal Upazila (sub-district) of the Maulavibazar District of the Sylhet division. If the roads are not extraordinarily congested, this part is around two and a quarter hours of drive from Sylhet. The ride is particularly pleasant, through the soothing greenery of the area, with the vaiously scattered tea plantations.
The Balisera Club was established in 1887 by the British planters. The first sport they indulged in was polo.
After the First World War, the interest shifted to cricket.
The cricket ground was set up then, and still exists to this date.
Starting from the 1920s, cricket was played there regularly, with teams from the neighbouring and distant tea gardens travelling to take part in the matches.
Which makes one wonder about the journeys the cricketers had to make in those days.
Yes, there was a road, and there were some relatively powerful, smoke-belching, hill navigating cars around. However, most of the participating players had to journey on the backs of elephants and horses, with native coolies bearing their cricketing kits.
Matches are still played in the Balisera Club cricket ground. Former big names of Bangladesh cricket like Habibul Bashar and Rajin Saleh are some of the cricketers who can be seen in action during these games.
Of course, they no longer have to mount elephants and horses to get there. But the clubhouse where they are received remains untouched by the times in terms of physical structure and warmth of reception. Only the façade has been touched up and renovated.
The ground where they play remains the same, and is scrupulously maintained.
The players are put up in the bungalows of the estate. And the hospitality they enjoy harks back to the times of the British era when their predecessors used to arrive perched on the ambling pachyderms.
The face of Sylhet cricket in the modern times is characterised by the incredible Sylhet International Cricket Stadium with all its modern facilities. The sport has marched with the times in the region and rightly so.
But cricket in Sylhet is woven with a strand that goes back a long long time, till the pages of documented history fall off into oblivion. And as one traces that thread by journeying back in time and space there are plenty of treasures to boggle the mind.