If you get off the airport road 3.5km north of Sylhet city, you can enjoy the pleasant sensation that comes with walking in a tea garden. There are long rows of short plants, stretching up to the hills and down to the valleys. The Sylhet International Cricket Stadium, which is set to become Bangladesh’s eighth Test venue, is located in a tea estate.
Take left a little way after walking in through the main gate and you’ll see the Lakkatura tea plantations’ slope just outside the stadium’s boundary wall. Tea gardens are quiet places, devoid of drama. Keep walking onwards for about ten minutes, and you will reach the media centre.
The press box offers a panoramic view of the ground. West-wards lies the famed green gallery, the only hill inside a stadium in Bangladesh. There is a no-littering policy in the gallery, and during the 2018 BPL, the crowds were well-behaved and adhered to the rule.
A tiled roof above the pavilion and VIP seating adds to the charm of the stadium, giving it an old-world feel. However, the eastern side is almost entirely taken up by a more modern gallery, whose upper tier has an extended shade. There are also two small, uncovered galleries at diagonal ends of the ground which have the big screen and the scoreboard.
The playing area is pretty large, and that meant the ropes were pulled in considerably from the media centre end during the BPL. There are four practice pitches near the boundary ropes, that can be the media centre.
The venue was discovered almost by accident. BCB director Ahmed Sajjadul Alam was tasked by the board to look for a suitable place for cricket in Sylhet in 2007. Alam found that the existing district stadium in the city was run-down and not upto international cricket standards. During a chance encounter with Aminul Islam Khan, the National Sports Council secretary at the time, Alam heard of a stadium on the outskirts of Sylhet city, which was almost complete but wasn’t purpose-built.
“It was just a basic, round stadium with pavilions and stands that had been built in the middle of the Lakkatura tea garden,” Alam told ESPNcricinfo. “I had gone during an international home series so I took someone from the broadcasting company with me to assess the venue. The stadium at the time needed a separate media centre that could house the broadcasters and the press box, but otherwise almost everything was ready.
“I reported back to the board, and domestic level matches began within the following 12 months. We usually look for international venues in places where there is a lot of interest in cricket and where cities are well developed. Good hotels are a must, and the Rose View Hotel, where teams stay these days, was also under construction around the same time we went to look at the stadium. It was a pleasant coincidence.”
The venue saw first-class cricket in 2008, and it also hosted two England Lions one-day games in 2012. There was a 12-month break for refurbishment ahead of the 2014 World T20, when a total of 18 men’s and women’s matches were played at the stadium.
First-class matches have been played here regularly since 2016, and in 2017 the ground also became a BPL venue before finally hosting an international match earlier this year, which is considered the main event for any stadium in the country.
Sylhet Sixers won their first three matches at their home ground during the BPL, but there was little local representation in their line-ups. They picked only Abul Hasan, the pace bowler who has been in and out of the national squad, and Nabil Samad, an experienced domestic cricketer, in their squad. This year, Sixers have picked up Nabil, Ebadat Hossain, Alok Kapali and Jaker Ali, all Sylhet natives, in their 2019 squad.
In the current Bangladesh squad too, representation is quite low but the inclusion of Khaled Ahmed, with Abu Jayed already retained, means that there are more Sylhet players than any senior side in more than 10 years.
But between the late 1990s and into the 2010s, there have been players like Hasibul Hossain, Kapali, Tapash Baisya, Rajin Saleh, Enamul Haque jnr and Nazmul Hossain who have represented Bangladesh. Rajin, the compact top-order batsman, once even led Bangladesh during the 2004 Champions Trophy after regular captain Habibul Bashar sat out with a finger injury. Kapali, a stylish middle-order batsman, is sometimes looked at as not having fulfilled his talent. He does have Bangladesh’s first Test hat-trick, against Pakistan in 2003.
The sturdily-built Tapash carried the Bangladesh bowling attack, especially when Mashrafe Mortaza broke down frequently with injuries in the 2000s. Enamul burst onto the scene as a 19-year old left-arm spinner who led Bangladesh to their maiden Test win in 2005, against Zimbabwe. His 18-wicket haul in that series stood as a Bangladesh record for 11 years before Mehidy Hasan broke it against England in 2016.
Nazmul, a skilful pace bowler, missed more games than he played in eight years for Bangladesh. His two Test appearances were seven years apart, during which he played 33 ODIs. Abul became the first player from Sylhet in nine years to debut for Bangladesh, but his international career has been a struggle.
However, Sylhet as a Test venue is unlikely to face a struggle. Given how the town is a popular tourist destination, the BCB will find the idea of hosting more matches there attractive, particularly because the region also has a BPL franchise. But whatever the future holds, the fact that Test cricket is arriving at their doorstep is a proud moment for the region’s cricketing community.