Mohammad IsamBangladesh correspondent, ESPNcricinfo
Wrapped in a black shawl, Mashrafe Mortaza holds court at a community centre opposite his uncle’s house in Narail. It is 7pm and he has been out campaigning since ten in the morning, but he doesn’t look tired.
All day he has met people, often taking detours into areas cut off from the main roads because of river erosion, given speeches to large crowds, posed for countless selfies, greeted men, women and children standing outside their homes with sweets and pitha (rice cakes) for him.
He is covered in dust from having ridden pillion on a motorcycle, but is still energetic. Now he sits on a stage, getting up periodically to greet people who have come from Dhaka and from within Narail to see him and shake hands with him.
For over a decade now, Mashrafe has looked to help those less fortunate than him in his district of Narail, giving money to the poor and trying to get jobs for those who are educated but unemployed. More recently, with his Narail Express Foundation, he has looked to focus on some forms of aid in healthcare and education. He wants to do more.
ALSO READ: Mashrafe, the torchbearer
“There are so many underprivileged people who can have their lives turned around with a bit of help from us,” he says when I meet him in December during his campaign for Bangladesh’s parliamentary election. “I have been doing social work for quite some time now. When I started to do it on a big scale, I realised that solutions to problems, particularly the big ones, are only possible if you are in politics.”
Mashrafe stood for the Narail-2 constituency seat on an Awami League ticket and went on to win more than 96% of the votes and become the first active international cricketer to be a member of parliament in his country. The Awami League, led by current prime minister Sheikh Hasina, won in a similar landslide fashion in the rest of the country and will form the national government for a third consecutive term.
I ended up standing next to Mashrafe during his first press briefing about the launch of his political career. Like me, many other reporters there didn’t have experience of covering politics, but that didn’t mean the questions were easy.
“I am seeing the ground reality of the people. I can feel it, touch it. Those old ladies standing next to the road are telling me: ‘We don’t need anything but please ensure our roads are okay”
It was five days before the first Bangladesh-West Indies ODI, and many were about how he would manage his cricket career alongside his political one, whether he was playing his last home series, and whether or not politics would make it hard from him to decide what to do about his game after the 2019 World Cup.
Then came the ones about his politics: What sort of a politician would he be? Why hadn’t he spoken up on the recent student protests against traffic-related deaths where government supporters had attacked protesters? How is he better than the opposition candidate? Why should people vote for him? What happens if his party doesn’t win?
Mashrafe explained his position honestly, saying that he was new to the field so he would need time to understand many issues by going into them deeply.
ALSO READ: Mashrafe Mortaza wins parliament seat
“My playing career is coming to an end,” he said. “I have had thoughts to continue till the World Cup, which the honourable prime minister has ensured. After the World Cup, whatever I have to do for the people, I won’t get the opportunity of an election. If I can be elected now and the PM can form the government, I will have a chance after my playing career.”
Bangladesh’s recent form in ODIs, particularly during Mashrafe’s second spell as captain, since November 2014, has made him the most popular cricketer in the country, which in turn helped him achieve his ambitions in politics. At the press conference, Mashrafe didn’t speak of any concrete retirement plans from the game. If you’ve watched him play, you might guess that he is both calculating and instinctive when it comes to taking decisions.
Bangladesh went on to beat West Indies 2-1, winning their ninth bilateral one-day series since November 2014.
“One of the few things in common [between politics and cricket] is for you to keep working hard at something so that one day you will get a result at some point,” Mashrafe said. “But most definitely, a sense of responsibility is also something that you need in both aspects.”
We have stopped in a narrow street in the Lohagara upazilla, one of three sub-districts of Narail, which itself is the smallest district of Bangladesh. Four rivers flow through Narail, the most famous of which is the Chitra (in which Mashrafe swam growing up), which we have just crossed on our way to a small village, looking for him.
Asking for directions at a tea stall opposite a high-school playground, we meet Ruhul Amin, an elderly man in his 70s, who tells us where Mashrafe might be right now. “Digholia is 15 minutes from here. I was also hoping to go. Why don’t you take me there, he asks.”
We give him the remaining seat in our car and head towards Digholia. Amin tells us he was a freedom fighter during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971 and is currently in one of the Awami League committees in his upazilla. The inevitable question – about Mashrafe’s political career – pops up within minutes.
“I don’t think we ever had anyone close to his popularity from Narail in politics. He will do us great service when elected”
Ruhul Amil, member of an Awami League committee in a Narail sub-district
“We are really happy with him,” Amin says. “I don’t think we ever had anyone close to his popularity from Narail in politics. He will do us great service when elected.”
Mashrafe has got rousing receptions at every stop he has made during his campaign. Seasoned observers of Bangladesh elections say that they haven’t seen this sort of passion for a candidate, particularly among women and children, before.
“Narail has always been special to me.” Mashrafe says. “I am seeing the ground reality of the people. I can feel it, touch it.
Perhaps the biggest challenge he faces as an MP is to help people who have lost their homes and pastoral lands due to river-bank erosion – one of the biggest consequences of climate change in Bangladesh. “Those old ladies standing next to the road are telling me: ‘We don’t need anything but please ensure our roads are okay,'” he says.
“Someone held me and started to weep. They told me about how 30 houses went into the river due to erosion. Their relatives left Narail as a result. I am seeing up close the problems of daily life of these people. Cricket is emotional for Bengalis, but I am seeing a different world out here.”
Politicians in Bangladesh will tell you that theirs is a 24×7 job, and a member of parliament has far more responsibilities than the average political leader. Mashrafe can be expected to take on that commitment wholeheartedly.
He is not the first person from the world of sports or entertainment to have entered politics in Bangladesh, of course. This year, a person made infamous by his YouTube singing also stood for elections. But apart from Asaduzzaman Noor, a popular actor in theatre, films and television, who has been an MP since 2001 and has been cultural-affairs minister since 2014, other celebrities haven’t quite made a mark.
Mashrafe’s unique position as a cricketer-MP makes him a powerful figure in Bangladesh cricket. In terms of position, he is at par with Bangladesh board chief Nazmul Hassan and board director Naimur Rahman, a former Test captain, who are also both members of parliament, but Mashrafe is way more popular than them. Some reckon that it won’t be long before he makes his way into cricket administration.
If you step back and look at the big picture of Bangladesh’s democratic future, particularly under Sheikh Hasina, it becomes quite clear that Mashrafe is a jewel in their crown. He is a symbol of Bangladesh’s progress. It is now his responsibility, just like with his cricket captaincy, to be more than just a symbol; to make a difference to people’s lives.