As Sports On Earth turns 1, staff columnist Chuck Culpepper seeks sports, on Earth. He is spending 14 days rounding the only planet we know well, taking the pulse and temperature of sports in various regions at this particular time in this very large world.
DHAKA, Bangladesh -- If you're lucky, jackpot-lucky, lucky-stars-lucky, out-of-your-gourd lucky, you might end up on dreary patch of dirt amid a grimy bedlam of a South Asian metropolis. You might happen upon a little square of urban land with a stench so powerful near one wall that it actually seems to shove you back toward the middle. You might have seen, and barely comprehended, two cows milling around outside.
You also might feel within minutes a wash-over of gratefulness just to get to be here. You might know you will never forget this place.
To get here, you might have seen the world morph as it does on its westbound curve from Taipei through Southeast Asia -- Kuala Lumpur -- toward Dhaka. There would be the changes upon women's heads, the changes in airport gates and the changes in sport obsessions.
Headscarves would have started their star turn on the way west, from the Malaysian woman at the fragrance counter at the Kuala Lumpur airport to the African woman carrying the crying baby in the immigration line to frequency in the city. Jets would have begun to fill with the world's ceaseless flood of guest workers, such as the Bangladeshis who jarringly and wrenchingly unbuckled themselves within five minutes of landing in Dhaka and gathered at the windows to glimpse a homeland they surely hadn't seen in eons. The soccer that dominates such swaths of Earth would have given way to the cricket that dominates the one-quarter of humanity in Indian subcontinent, with the world's No. 2, 6 and 8 most-populous countries (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh).
Sure, in the rowdy Changkat area of Kuala Lumpur, TV bar after TV bar beams soccer after soccer after soccer (even some MLS). In a Kuala Lumpur seven time zones off from London, the vast reach of the English Premier League shows in the cheering pubs, even if the 3 a.m. kickoff for Manchester United-Chelsea did strain closing hours. In the newspapers blared Cardiff City's stunner over Manchester City because in a 21st century where the world is still more of a neighborhood, Cardiff City's controlling-share owner is Malaysian (businessman Vincent Tan).
Yet one merry little four-hour flight over Thailand and Myanmar yields a shift in fetish (to cricket), a fresh reminder of a global scourge (sports corruption) and a lucky spotting of a lousy little field in Dhaka.
When British colonial rule receded, cricket ruled. When the British gave way last mid-century, the cricket mania stayed all century and into the next, most explicitly in India and Pakistan. "For our forefathers in the area, life wasn't very fast," said the Bangladeshi cricket writer Mohammad Isam, so a game that took a while dovetailed nicely. "And, as it's such a sedentary sport compared to football [soccer] or athletics, I think the heat also matters."
Then when 2013 arrived, Bangladesh caught up to its neighbors in the area of cricket scandal, making Dhaka a poignant stopover on any 2013 round-the-world trek.
"There was always this feeling that, 'OK, cricket is clean,'" Isam said. "Everything else is corrupt but when it comes to cricket . . ." Later he said, "In every aspect of the country, whatever you say, wherever you go, there is a level of corruption. I think that's one of the things people were so proud of," that cricket seemed to lack the same.
There had been the match-fixing and spot-fixing scandals in India and Pakistan (with "spot-fixing" the fixing of certain plays within a match, in a sport wildly wagered). There had been even the argument holding that Pakistani players made insufficient money relative to the international market, stoking their need. Now, here came Bangladesh, joining anew the labyrinthine feelings of loving sports.
This grimness involved not only fixing in the two-year-old Bangladesh Premier League, but also a daunting sole figure among the 163 million, the beloved former national captain, Mohammad Ashraful. He's a 29-year-old feted in the hallways of Dhaka's Sher-e-Bangla Cricket Stadium for his youngest-ever century, at age 17 in 2001. He also had reporters at his house in southeast Dhaka in early June, when Isam of ESPN's Cricinfo asked a question about the sour timing given his recent prowess.
"He couldn't answer the question," Isam said, "so he decided to cry."
He made his teary confession, and later he told the TV channel Independent, "I should not have done this injustice to the nation. I feel guilty. I can only say, please all forgive me. My conduct was improper."
He had spot-fixed for a BPL match between his Dhaka Gladiators and the Chittagong Kings.
For that, the local reports went, he received a check for the equivalent of $12,800.
The check bounced.
Man, it can be complicated, following sport.
Since independence from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh had always tried to catch up to India and Pakistan and Sri Lanka in cricket prowess. For decades into the 1990s, soccer even trumped cricket in Bangladeshi popularity, until Bangladesh won the 1997 ICC Trophy in Kuala Lumpur and loosed craze back home. In 2010, Bangladesh won the Asian Games cricket competition in China, loosing further craze. Now in 2013, Bangladesh caught up in another way, loosing sadness and one of its many fraternal twins, cynicism.
Ride, then, in a car that dodges Dhaka's impossible, kaleidoscopic commotion -- the rickshaws in the alleged "Rickshaw Capital of the World," the buses with people hanging off the back, the people on foot pulling carts, the people (including children) on bicycles, the people balancing things on their heads and, oh, sorry, forgot, the other cars. Get out and walk the markets around the old cricket ground, Bangbandhu, where they held the 2011 World Cup Opening Ceremony. Halt through the narrow streets of Old Dhaka (Puran Dhaka), drop your jaw at the ninth-largest urban area in the world and spot the nondescript swatch of city that makes you lucky.
It's not that boys are scrambling around playing cricket barefoot or sitting on parked trucks waiting their turn while friends play cricket barefoot. It's not the clichéd old reminder about how all these sports big businesses start with -- and stem from -- play. It's not even some sort of tired grasp for innocence or, help me, perspective.
It's just these kids, running around, throwing cricket balls at each other, hamming hilariously for the camera until you laugh out loud unexpectedly. Their exuberance is so complete and so rare and so beyond much of anything you have seen in the world that it winds up bowling you over. They are so joyous, so oblivious to surroundings so many would deem imperfect, that you might wake the next day wishing you'd photographed them all day long instead of a half-hour.
After all, they made this dingy little plot of land one of the best places you ever went.