The original premier league
As Fazle Mahmud and Prashant Chopra steadied Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi Club's tricky chase against Abahani Limited in an early game in the 2017 Dhaka Premier League (DPL), a helicopter was heard landing near the stadium in Fatullah. A few minutes later Dhanmondi's owner, Safwan Sobhan, wearing a melon-coloured blazer and escorted by bodyguards in suits, walked in through the southern entrance. He was greeted by the players and coaches near the boundary rope as he walked towards the Dhanmondi dressing room.
Safwan, in his early 30s, is the vice-chairman of Basundhara Group, one of the largest conglomerates in Bangladesh, whose investments and influence span property, cement, paper, gas, steel and the media. Sitting in a glassed enclosure, he watched his team lose a couple of wickets in their pursuit of 270 before the broad-shouldered Ziaur Rahman walked in. Ziaur, who played one Test and 13 ODIs for Bangladesh a few years ago, has built a reputation as a big hitter. He struck 15 sixes in a first-class innings in 2012, and the number on his yellow jersey was 167 - his highest first-class score, which included 13 sixes. Now he got to work on the predictable Abahani bowlers, clattering rapid across-the-line heaves that landed deep in the empty stands, prompting kids from adjacent galleries to run to retrieve them.
As Ziaur steered Dhanmondi's chase, the helicopter rose over the stadium and took three laps before cutting across over the building that housed the dressing rooms. Safwan was catching a final, aerial, glimpse of the game before flying back to Dhaka, just north of Fatullah. The players tracked the helicopter's path for a bit, and a crowd of about 100 cheered. Television cameramen captured the scene. When Ziaur wrapped up Dhanmondi's chase with two overs remaining, he learnt that this win over Abahani, the defending champions and firm favourites, had pleased Safwan, who had decided to award the players Tk 10 lakh (about US$12,500) as a win bonus. To put things in perspective, that is close to five times what a Bangladesh national cricketer is paid for an ODI.
The DPL might not be as relevant as it once was - it has not been televised over the last six years - but it still tickles the egos of some of the richest people in the country. While it might have made little financial sense for Safwan, one of the sons of the Basundhara Group's chairman Ahmed Akbar Sobhan, to pour Tk 2 to 5 crore (about $250,000 to $625,000) into a DPL team for a season, winning the 50-over one-day competition fetches a certain prestige among the crème de la crème of Bangladesh society.
That is not all. Owners of DPL clubs invariably serve as their councillors and represent the club's interests at the Bangladesh Cricket Board - which can lead to them having a significant say in the way the game is run in the country. When Dhanmondi finished among the top six in this year's DPL, they stood to have two councillors in the BCB, which would translate to two votes during elections. It will come as no surprise if Safwan were to be one of the councillors, putting him in line for a directorship in the BCB.
Politics aside, the DPL remains one of the most beloved competitions for the country's cricketers. Many have gone so far to suggest that playing in the DPL is a bigger deal than being selected for the country.
For Tamim Iqbal, currently the most prolific Bangladesh batsman in Tests and ODIs, the DPL was the "ultimate tournament" while growing up. "Everyone has a dream to play for Bangladesh but to get to that stage we knew that we had to do well in this league," he said.
"It is the most competitive tournament and has high-quality cricket. Even now, when we play for the national team, we look up to this tournament for various reasons - quality of cricket, financial benefit, and the amount of pressure we go through when playing for certain clubs. We rate this tournament very highly. Overseas players who come here for the first time are surprised with the quality of cricket in this tournament."
Tamim shot to prominence in the 2007 World Cup, announcing himself by charging Zaheer Khan and swatting him over long-on for six, but it was his 188 for Old DOHS Sports Club in the 2006-07 DPL that led to him being noticed in the first place, an innings that the Daily Star described as a "storm".
This year Tamim could have chosen to skip the DPL in May to recover from a gruelling season and get ready for the Champions Trophy, but he played anyway, scoring 157 in his first game for Mohammedan Sporting Club. That he is obsessed with scoring runs is obvious, but he admits that the DPL has an appeal that makes players push themselves.
"There is a difference in pressure when you play for the national team and when you play for a Premier League club," he said. "A big club pays you a lot of money, you have to perform. The hunger to play for a big team that always demands you win every game teaches you a lot of things.
"It is definitely helping Bangladesh cricket, how we want to win every game and score runs in every game."
Shahriar Nafees, the former Bangladesh opener and senior to Tamim by a few years, dreamt of playing in the DPL since he was ten. Six years on, he played his first game in the league. "The national team started to come into prominence after it won the 1997 ICC Trophy, which prompted many of us to dream to play for Bangladesh," he said, "but my first aim in life was to play in the Premier League."
Neil Fairbrother and Richard Illingworth might seem like unusual choices for a cricket club in Bangladesh in the early 1990s, but there they were, turning out for Abahani in the 1993-94 DPL. This was thanks to AHM Mustafa Kamal, the main financier for Abahani at the time and later the president of the Bangladesh board and the ICC, whose idea it was to invite players from the 1992 World Cup to boost the profile of his team and the league.
Illingworth struck two fifties and was regularly among the wickets with his steady left-arm spin. Fairbrother, the more accomplished of the two, began with scores of 25, 47, 41, 4 and a duck, but against Abahani's arch-rivals Mohammedan he made his experience count with an 86-ball 90 - an innings that entered Bangladesh cricket folklore because it came against the team that mattered. It also enhanced Abahani's title chances, and they eventually ended up joint winners.
Twenty-three years have passed but Fairbrother still has fond memories of the game. "It was a very big crowd, winner-takes-all game, lots of pressure, and afterwards [we were] not able to get out of the changing room at the stadium because of the crowd waiting to see us."
In 1995, Kamal coaxed the Pakistan captain then, Wasim Akram, into filling Abahani's foreign quota, and spectators often took more interest in his performances than in the games themselves. In one game, when Akram clean-bowled Shahnewaz Shanu from Biman Club, team-mate Saiful Islam ran in all the way from third man to celebrate the wicket. By then Akram had noticed that the umpire had signalled a no-ball, and screamed at Saiful to run after the ball, which was headed for the boundary. Saiful stood no chance - the ball raced away for four - but that little episode stuck in the minds of many: Akram going wicketless was bigger news than Abahani winning a thriller by one run.
Arjuna Ranatunga also played in the DPL for a couple of seasons in the mid '90s, and it is said that he played for some clubs in the lower rungs too. Legend has it that Ranatunga, who hadn't been paid his full fee when one particular match began, sat firm in the dressing room with one pad on, in protest. Only when the officials paid him his dues did he walk out to bat - wearing both pads - and went on to win the game for his team.
Through the '80s and '90s, a large number of Pakistanis and Sri Lankans, and some Indians, added to the flavour of the DPL. Some like Raman Lamba, Athula Samarasekara, Ashok Malhotra and Arun Lal contributed to the growth of young Bangladesh cricketers, taking time out to educate them on the game's nuances. There was a phase when fast bowlers from Sri Lanka - like Janak Gamage, Graeme Labrooy and Ravi Ratnayeke - had plenty of success in the league, despite the slow pitches in Dhaka. Kenyans like Steve Tikolo, Maurice Odumbe and Thomas Odoyo also made a name for themselves in the tournament, with Tikolo scoring heavily for Mohammedan over a couple of seasons.
Often the stakes were so high that games occasionally descended into chaos. Like in 1999, when Pakistan batsman Zahoor Elahi, on being given out, struck fast bowler Hasibul Hossain with his bat, triggering off a brawl at the Bangabandhu National Stadium. Bricks rained onto the outfield and one of the groundsmen sustained serious injuries. Zahoor was later banned for three games and fined $200.
Among the home-grown players none was more famous than Minhajul Abedin "Nannu", widely regarded as Bangladesh's best batsman in the '80s and '90s. Nannu, who led Bangladesh in two ODIs in 1990, was the rock who held together the batting orders of the national side, Abahani and then Mohammedan for most of his career. A son of a freedom fighter, Nannu had a distinct aura. His dashing looks made him a poster boy and he hardly ever came off the field with his whites dirty.
Nannu's transfer from Abahani to Mohammedan was one of the biggest stories of Bangladesh cricket in the '80s. "After I had been the highest scorer, Mohammedan offered me Tk 150,000 when I was getting Tk 70,000 from Abahani the previous season. The pay was double, which, at the time, was a big deal," he said. "Back then, the goal was to become the highest scorer every season. Plus, there was the payment, which made me a true professional. It was always about getting a better contract next season."
From the time foreign teams started visiting Bangladesh in the '70s, starting with one sent by the MCC in 1976-77, cricket's popularity grew at a steady pace. In the late '80s and early '90s, the introduction of cable TV brought the game to many homes in Dhaka, elevating cricket's profile on par with that of football.
This coincided with the spread of Dhaka cricket from its predominantly southern base. Clubs were not just based in the Motijheel and Old Dhaka areas anymore but sprang up around Azimpur, Dhanmondi, Mohammadpur and localities further north and east of the city. Except for cricket teams run by the national airline and banks, most of the participating clubs were synonymous with specific neighbourhoods.
The Dhaka First Division Cricket League (which changed its name to Dhaka Premier League only in 1986-87) began in the 1973-74 season with clubs like Abahani, Mohammedan, Victoria Sporting Club, Wari Club, Azad Boys Club and Eaglets Club taking part in the first edition.
If the neighbourhood was blessed with a small ground, volunteers would organise net sessions ahead of the cricket season, and then, with help from wealthy patrons, allocate funds for players, equipment and food. While Abahani and Mohammedan hosted outstation players in luxurious clubhouses, smaller clubs rented apartments for temporary lodging.
Player payments were in the thousands of takas in the 1980s, but with the likes of Nannu, Akram Khan and Aminul Islam in high demand, their price rose to the order of hundreds of thousands in quick time. What also boosted the cricketers' pay rates was how top footballers were demanding pay in the vicinity of Tk 10 lakh (about $20,000) in the early '90s.
The clubs were largely responsible for creating a professional structure in Bangladesh cricket. The wealthy donors were granted seats on the club's committees. The seasoned organisers, called "officials", who ran the clubs on a day-to-day basis, were included on these committees too. Many of these officials would become part of the Bangladesh board committee that ran the league - the Cricket Committee of Dhaka Metropolis.
Today the Dhaka league system begins with the Premier League at the top, in which 12 clubs vie for the top spot, followed by three lower divisions with about 20 clubs participating in each. Clubs that weren't part of any division used to play a tournament called the Third Division Qualifying tournament, but the BCB scrapped it in 2014.
Bangladesh found a proper foothold in international cricket only after their ICC Trophy win in 1997. Until then, it was the clubs that kept cricketers in the system, and naturally became more and more powerful over the years. When politics entered the fray, either thanks to clubs aligning with a political party or through politicking within the BCB and the clubs, it wasn't uncommon to see players leveraging their influence to intimidate umpires, the cricket committee and opponent clubs.
Bullying umpires has been a tactic used in Bangladesh by players and officials for many decades. In the late '80s and early '90s, players would go after umpires with vociferous appeals and aggressive gestures, which often incited crowds into pelting stones and bricks onto the field. Umpires were even beaten up at the end of many DPL games.
In the last four years, there have been allegations of collusion between some umpires and high-profile clubs. The situation came to a head last year when several clubs complained of biased umpiring in Abahani games. Like in the last over of a crucial match, with his team nine down, photographs showed Abahani's Taskin Ahmed about a foot out of the crease when the stumps were broken at his end. But the umpire adjudged it not out, much to the fielding team's horror. Abahani went on to win.
Abahani officials and the BCB president Nazmul Hassan, who was earlier a long-standing Abahani official, denied the allegations, but the questions never went away. Hassan addressed a press conference that descended into a shouting match with journalists. However, he did insist that he would look into the umpiring issue, and to his credit, there were hardly any complaints from clubs about umpiring in this year's DPL.
The DPL's biggest test came when Bangladesh gained Test status in 2000. Over the next five years, cricket's popularity shifted from club to country, and even the Dhaka derby - between Abahani and Mohammedan - began to get smaller crowds each year. In fact, the last time there was a big turnout for this contest was the 2009-10 season, when it turned out to be the title decider, and was televised live.
The pressure was so intense that Abahani captain Shakib Al Hasan miscalculated how many overs his main bowlers had remaining. Sixteen runs were required off the final six, bowled by the legendary left-arm spinner Mohammad Rafique, but Mohammedan pulled off a win off the last ball - a four edged to third man. Abahani loyalists were so incensed by the loss that some stormed the dressing room, asking Shakib to explain the defeat. Even Mustafa Kamal, then the BCB president, who was also running Abahani, was shaken enough to bring up the game during a board meeting.
The BCB launched the Bangladesh Premier League (BPL) in 2012. In a television show before the tournament, a seasoned club official, Lutfar Rahman Badal expressed concerns about the BPL and said he would prefer watching the DPL instead. It took just one season for the BPL to be mired in controversy around spot-fixing and player payments.
The DPL meanwhile had 82 foreign players in 2013 - the year the games got List A status, which allowed performances in the league to count towards players' overall statistics. New rules allowed two foreign players per team per game, and with the Pakistan board not allowing their cricketers to take part, clubs went far and wide to lure talent. This included 18 Englishmen - among them Eoin Morgan, Ravi Bopara, Luke Wright and Samit Patel - and a whopping 41 players from Sri Lanka. Cricketers from Afghanistan, the Netherlands, Zimbabwe and New Zealand also turned out. Last year the Indian board permitted 20 players, including Dinesh Karthik, Yusuf Pathan and Manoj Tiwari, to play in the DPL.
Despite its global flavour, the DPL is limited in terms of sponsorship and coverage. The ownership of clubs may have moved away from the neighbourhood-based structure to a corporate-based one, but the BCB hasn't done much to modernise the tournament. Title sponsors are mostly signed on at the last minute, and cameras to assist umpiring decisions were only introduced this year. Coverage is limited to the tournament website, providing live scores, and none of the matches are televised.
Still, the DPL continues to throw up moments of magic. As was the case with Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi Club this year, after they stuttered to three defeats in a row and needed to win their last two first-phase matches to make it to the Super League. They beat Prime Bank Limited in their penultimate match, but in their last game they had to chase 339 to beat Mohammedan.
Never had such a big total been chased successfully in List A cricket in Bangladesh. Prashant Chopra, Sohag Gazi and Tanbir Hayder offered them hope with rapid fifties, and it was left to Elias Sunny to get the last 20 runs with Nos. 10 and 11. He stayed calm through the final stages, and when Dhanmondi's place in the Super League was assured, Sunny was chaired off the ground by his jubilant team-mates. However, Dhanmondi lost their final Super League game, and in the end a new DPL winner emerged - Gazi Group Cricketers.
Over a 15-year career, Sunny has gone from being a young, talented allrounder to a journeyman selected for Bangladesh in 2011, only to lose his spot within a year and a half. In the domestic circuit, though, he soldiers on.
"Dhaka Premier League is above everything in Bangladesh cricket," he says. "It doesn't matter if tournaments like the BPL are held or not, as long as we get to play the Dhaka Premier League. This is the platform from which all of us, young and old, aim higher."
Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84