Opinion

Fans' reaction to ICC ban on Shakib Al Hasan speaks of both game and nation

Fans' reaction to ICC ban on Shakib Al Hasan speaks of both game and nation
Shakib al Hasan Ban, Bangladesh India tour, Shakib Al Hasan ICC ban bangladesh, Bangladesh cricket, India Bangladesh T20 series, Indian Express news, Cricket news

Soon after Bangladesh’s Test and T20I captain Shakib Al Hasan was banned for two years by the International Cricket Committee for failing to report multiple approaches by a bookie, Mashrafe Mortaza, their ODI skipper, took to social media to throw his weight behind his beleaguered team-mate. “Definitely I will spend some sleepless nights in the light of the recent incidents surrounding my comrade of 13 years,” Mortaza, who is also a Member of Parliament, posted on Twitter. “But I can also sleep in peace soon knowing fully well that he will lead us to the 2023 World Cup because the name is Shakib Al Hasan.”

“Karon naamta Shakib Al Hasan” — “because the name is Shakib Al Hasan” — is a common refrain in Bangladesh, employed in a variety of contexts. Non-locals may find it difficult to wrap their heads around it, but Bangladeshis consider it self-explanatory, often using it as the clinching argument.

This refrain helps explain what Shakib means to Bangladesh. A few years ago, while covering the Indian team’s tour of the country, I witnessed the kind of raw emotion the Bangladeshi cricket team inspired in its fans. I asked a local journalist why it was so, and he replied: “Look, there aren’t too many things that you can be happy about in this country. It’s only cricket that makes it easy.”

To be sure, it isn’t all doom and gloom in Bangladesh. Its economy is doing very well. In fact, with a GDP growth hovering above 8 per cent, it’s outperforming India by a considerable margin. Still, rapid growth brings it own pangs. There’s overpopulation and pollution in the cities, while millions still live in abject poverty in the countryside. For the well-off and the poor alike, everyday is a struggle: A five-minute journey from Dhanmondi to Farmgate in Dhaka takes half-an-hour. There aren’t too many distractions to lift the mood of the masses. The entertainment industry isn’t thriving. Cricket is their only opium. It gives this young, 47-year-old nation what it desperately seeks: Validation.

And in cricket, Shakib has been their first truly world-class player. Since his debut in 2007, he has consistently been rated as the best all-rounder in the world, often carrying the team on his shoulders. It’s not unlike India in the 1990s, when Sachin Tendulkar used to wage heroic, lonely battles. Only Shakib, arguably, has a far greater impact on Bangladeshis than Tendulkar had on Indians. In terms of popularity, he is their Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli, Shah Rukh Khan and Rajinikanth rolled into one. He is their lodestar, commanding their undivided attention — the first perhaps to do so after the great liberator Sheikh Mujib Ur Rahman. And hence, the phrase “Because the name is…”, that seems straight out of a Rajini blockbuster.

But one suspects Bangladeshis had to invent this response not to explain Shakib to others but to themselves. They don’t understand him much. He’s the most inscrutable cricketer in the team, always keeping to himself, rarely indulging fans, or the media — often not even his teammates. It, therefore, came as a welcome surprise to the country when Shakib led the players’ protest against the Bangladesh Cricket Board for better wages and reforms days before the ICC punished him.

So far, in the aftermath of the ban, Bangladesh has been overwhelmingly sympathetic to its fallen superstar. It’s strange, but perhaps not entirely unexpected. While the Pakistani fans are disillusioned, often trolling their own players; the Bangladeshi are the most committed supporters in world cricket, often to the point of being delusional. And so, hundreds have taken to the streets to protest not Shakib’s indiscretion, but the ban itself. They suspect it’s a conspiracy of the Bangladesh board who have, in collusion with the ICC and the BCCI, framed Shakib because he led the players’ rebellion. The fact that Shakib himself admitted to not reporting the bookie’s approach has been conveniently ignored.

In today’s game where cricketers from a young age are sensitised by their boards and the ICC about suspicious approaches, to not report three such overtures is a grave offence just short of match-fixing. That it was Shakib who did it and let down a passionate and unsuspecting country makes the whole affair all the more tragic.

In this one case, “because the name is Shakib Al Hasan…” is not the answer, but the vexing question.

This article first appeared in the print edition on November 4, 2019 under the title ‘Because the name is Shakib’.