Covid-19 lockdown threatens to push Bangladesh's fringe cricketers out of the game

Cricket, despite the gathering storm clouds - in Kumarkhali, Bangladesh Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In the year leading up to February 2020, Marufa Akhtar had started to believe that she could pull her family out of poverty despite being just 15. Mohammedan Sporting Club, one of the oldest clubs in Dhaka, spotted Marufa during a trial and picked her for last year's Dhaka Women's Premier League. A few months later, she impressed enough in an Under-18 trial tournament in Mymensingh to be among 40 cricketers in a training camp in Cox's Bazar. That was in February. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, and the lockdown. And Marufa, like many others, is still waiting for life to get back on the rails.

As the lockdown has extended to its fourth month, thousands of male and female cricketers, coaches, umpires, scorers and others have been put through a financial nightmare. Among the most vulnerable are the non-contracted players like Marufa. If the situation doesn't improve soon, they may have to leave the game altogether in search of a steady income.

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Marufa lives in Saidpur, a small town in the Nilphamari district, 350km to the north of capital Dhaka. It is one of poorest areas in Bangladesh. Returning home from the Cox's Bazar training camp, she had happily handed over her first earnings, BDT 33,000 ($412 approx.), to her father. With two more tournaments scheduled from mid-March, it was looking good. But since the lockdown, the only money Marufa has seen is the BCB's Eid gift, around BDT 8000 ($100 approx.), which was sent to more than 1500 cricketers across levels in May. That has also run out now.

"My father is a peasant. He works on someone else's land, so my earnings were a big contribution to my family. We are really not doing that well now. I handed my first earnings from cricket to Abba but now there's nothing," Marufa says. "I am at home all day. I can't even go to practice. It is getting tougher every day."

Sixty kilometers to the east of Saidpur is Rangpur, the divisional town, which is home to 18-year-old Khadija Akhtar, the wicketkeeper who has played in the women's league in Dhaka a couple of seasons. It has been a tough ride for her anyway, and she even missed the BCB's Eid gift and hasn't figured out whom to call to get it.

As such, when it became clear that the pandemic would put a stop to almost everything, one of the first things the BCB did was pay BDT 20,000 ($250 approx.) to the female players who took part in the 2018-19 Women's National Cricket League and a recent training camp. But the others, like Marufa and Khadija, were only eligible for the Eid gift.

"My father is a labourer, and we are a family of seven. I made a little money from cricket in the last three years, having played in the Dhaka league and in Narail. But this year there is no earning," she says.

"I think the government has to step in. They have provided stimulus package to other business sectors so I think it is time to consider this sector as well. Cricket clubs are expected to sustain their players but I doubt they can do anything. Traditionally, the clubs don't have revenue source. They run on donations" BCB director Ahmed Sajjadul Alam Bobby

Marufa and Khadija are among a few hundred female cricketers in Bangladesh's club cricket scene. Their entry into the organised game had a lot to do with the senior women's team's 2018 Asia Cup triumph, which was scripted by a bunch of women who mostly came from small towns and humble backgrounds.

In many of the impoverished areas in the country's north and the hill tracts of the southeast, sports has been one of the few avenues to earn a decent living for women like them. That, of course, after convincing their families and dealing with the conservativeness all around. Many are still in school or college, because women's cricket in Bangladesh is a new thing, and the surge in interest has only come in the last two years. Their pay structure remains basic for even the country's best female cricketers, and the rest depend entirely on seasonal club contracts.

The BCB has 19 female cricketers in its central contracts, and pay them a monthly salary that is one-third of the lowest category of contracts among the men. There was a mini uproar a couple of years ago when it was discovered that the BCB pays BDT 600 ($7 approx.) as match fee in the Women's National Cricket League, an amount that is incomparable to the men receive in the corresponding, albeit first-class, tournament - Tier-1 team players get BDT 60,000 ($700 approx.) and Tier-2 players get BDT 50,000 ($590 approx.). Not to forget, male cricketers have many more avenues to earn from cricket. There are hundreds of cricket-ball and taped-tennis-ball tournaments throughout the year in various parts of the country. In fact, the year 2020 was expected to be one of the most lucrative for Bangladesh's professional male cricketers, as hundreds of tournaments were scheduled to commemorate the birth centenary of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the father of the nation.

Like Mehrab Hossain. He was looking forward to his fourth season in the Dhaka Premier League after Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi Club retained him for the 2019-20 season. That aside, he was expecting to play smaller tournaments in Chattogram, Comilla, Sylhet and Satkhira to supplement his regular income by the end of the cricket season.

"This is what we do. Apart from the Dhaka Premier League, we play around the country. But now I am out of money, simple as that," he said. "The BCB had given us two payments since the lockdown started but it has now been a few months. The DPL clubs paid some of us 20%, but that isn't enough for such a long period.

"If the situation was normal, I would have probably played in 20 to 25 other tournaments, but all that is gone. The BCB paid us BDT 30,000 ($375 approx.) first and then the Eid gift. But you know, it's been a few months now so that money is spent.

"I have been in discussions with other cricketers, where we said that if this goes on for too long, we have to look for other work. Yes we love the game, but it also pays our bills, puts food on the table."

Debabrata Paul, the Cricketers' Welfare Association of Bangladesh secretary, agreed that the situation is grim. "The current situation is far from ideal. Most of the country's cricketers don't fall under BCB's salary, so they are not in a good way," he said. "We have also found out that some Dhaka First Division League clubs haven't fully paid their players [despite their competition having ended long before the lockdown], so now there are actually many cricketers who are suffering due to lack of income.

"We must coordinate between the cricket board and cricketers to make sure everyone's voices are heard. The cricketers deserve to know what the board is planning in terms of a roadmap to returning to cricket."

It would, perhaps, be unfair to expect more money to be paid by the BCB. It has made multiple payments to non-contracted male and female cricketers and has also not imposed any salary cuts on their staff, and has also made big donations during the pandemic. As for Bangladesh's contracted cricketers, some of them were among the first to contribute to the prime minister's relief fund.

According to Ahmed Sajjadul Alam Bobby, the veteran BCB director, the onus must now shift to the government, because the BCB's resources will be stretched as the lockdown is extended and cricket's comeback postponed.

"I think the government has to step in. They have provided stimulus package to other business sectors so I think it is time to consider this sector as well," he said. "Cricket clubs are expected to sustain their players but I doubt they can do anything. Traditionally, the clubs don't have revenue source. They run on donations.

"Of course, the players' economic condition needs immediate attention. The board has helped them with a couple of payments early on, but we have limitations. Our earnings have become uncertain without cricket. We are yet to finalise the new broadcast deal and if the World Cup T20 is not held, we will lose money."

Bobby was also mindful of how women's cricket has a lot to lose if the players are not helped financially at this time. "The female cricketers have very short shelf-life in our country. Usually they end up leaving the game after marriage. By playing cricket, they are not only inspiring their family members but also the next generation of women cricketers. So the board must have a role in sustaining them. The cricketers already earn very little from club cricket," Bobby said. "The bottom line is that only after the health situation improves, we can do everything. Every aspect of society has been affected. Many employers are cutting salaries and letting go of people.

"I wish I had an easy answer for all this, but there are many factors involved that we have to consider."

As much as Marufa, Khadija and Mehrab struggle, they are aware that these are unusual times. But they also need to feed themselves and their families.

And, much as cynics say that Bangladesh's passion for cricket is such that it will never run out of cricketers, for a young boy or girl sitting at home, cricket will seem less appealing if another avenue to earn money and make a livelihood emerges. It isn't a happy situation, or a desirable one. And one way or other, Bangladesh cricket will likely lose out at the end of it.