An excited group of female performers at the World Cup opening ceremony on Thursday finished their routine and jogged into an exit, squealing. A volunteer ushering them in put a finger on his lips, demanding quietness. But he was smiling. He knew adrenalin is not easily silenced.
Moments later, another girl from the same group headed towards the exit. She was limping and leaned on a male volunteer for support. It was obvious she had hurt herself, and now she appeared to be holding back tears.
And thus, pain, joy, song and dance all played a part in one of the better, and expensive, World Cup opening ceremonies. Colour as well. There was so much of it, that too in neon bright. One moment a blue glow bathed the Bangabandhu National Stadium, the next it was pink, then green or red or yellow or purple. The stadium seemed to have turned into a concrete chameleon.
The opening did not have the originality of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics or the 2008 Beijing Games. In Barcelona, the paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo fired a burning arrow into the Olympic torch to set it aflame. In Beijing, Li Ning, the great Chinese gymnast, ran along the rim of the Bird’s Nest roof, tethered to a harness. Dhaka stuck to the modern formula—entertain people, give them a show. This too is commendable. Cultural acts and speeches were there, as they always are. But they were either brief or not as somnolent as in the past. It is evident that the genre of opening ceremonies is undergoing a change for the better.
Laser beams swept across the sky like windshield wipers or bounced off neighbouring skyscrapers. The psychedelic feast was comparable to a techno holi, or an Austin Powers movie set. “Shagadelic,” Powers might have called it. After an indifferent start, the $30 million ceremony improved exponentially. It ended on a rousing note with Bryan Adams singing Summer of 69, Let’s Make It a Night to Remember and 18 Till I Die (which must be the favourite song of Shahid Afridi, sitting with the other team captains in the audience).
“Now we’re officially inside World Cup,” a local said to me after the last of the fireworks cannoned up into the sky.
For host countries, opening ceremonies are a matter of prestige. Everything must be right because the world’s eyes are on you. And while it does not have a bearing on the tournament, a memorable curtain raiser can get the host country in the mood. At times, it can even become as legendary as a sporting performance, as happened with Barcelona and Beijing. Closer home, the successful opening ceremony of the Delhi Commonwealth Games eliminated some of the public negativity towards the event.
If Bryan Adams was the best part of the evening from the entertainment standpoint, the cricketing highlight was the entry of the team captains. Each sat in an illuminated tricycle rickshaw and entered the stadium to huge applause. The audio system played the official World Cup song—De Ghuma Ke—by Shankar Ehsaan Loy. The rickshaws took a lap of the ground before dropping their privileged occupants at the circular white stage in the center of the field. Ricky Ponting came first, since Australia are defending champions. The captains of the three host countries rode in the last. Mahendra Singh Dhoni of India. Kumar Sangakkara of Sri Lanka. And lastly, Shakib-al Hassan of Bangladesh. The crowds loved it. You could see that the captains loved it too. However, none of the skippers bopped their head as vigorously as Darren Sammy. Naturally. He is West Indian.
The Bangabandhu National Stadium is located in the extremely congested Motijheel area of Dhaka. And when a charged up mass of humanity advances to the stadium, overburdening the narrow streets, one fears a calamity. There could easily be a stampede, you realise. A small spark could send the mob out of control. The pretence of disaster management at stadiums in the Asian sub-continent wouldn’t stand a chance. But when all is well, the chaos adds to the intensity of the sights and sounds.
On Thursday, thousands who did not have tickets for the opening ceremony danced outside, chanting oaths of love and loyalty towards the Bangladesh team. Many of them wore the team’s equatorial green shirt or waved the national flag. The police in army fatigues looked on with a touch of menace. You could tell that one small chance and they wouldn’t have hesitated using their club. But the throngs were beyond caring. Up in the smoggy evening air, floats and balloons bobbed about, their weightlessness enviable and comical at the same time. The adjacent Imperial Hotel put up a large billboard of Shakib, with the kicker, “Our guests can have everything except the World Cup.”
The presence of the massive Baitul Mokarram Mosque, right outside the stadium, added to the sensory range and excess. It is the country’s national mosque and the tenth largest in the world. Its 40,000 capacity rivals the Bangabandhu’s. Even with the World Cup ceremony on, hundreds made their way to the mosque. There were some, of course, who answered the call of cricket as well as the almighty by ascending to a vantage point in a minaret. From there, they would have witnessed the assimilation of the nation’s two major languages. On the cricket field, performers made a banner in Bangla script that said, ‘Amaar Bhasha Bangla’. Installed in the mosque was a large green illuminated Urdu sign that said, ‘Allahu Akbar’.
For journalists, it was a typical first day of a tour. Unpredictable and busy. The day’s itinerary strung you from one place to another. But this way one got a glimpse of the varied cast and aspects of the World Cup. Prior to the opening, the 14 captains addressed a press conference at the Dhaka Sheraton. Of those, less than half were asked any questions. The rest just sat and smiled politely. It was more a photo-op, really. More interesting than the captains was the International Cricket Council’s media manager. His wild gesticulation and enlarged pupils as he handled the typically unruly press mob were reminiscent of Jose Mourinho at the touchline.
Early in the morning, Shashank Manohar, the Indian cricket board president, and Ratnakar Shetty, the World Cup’s tournament organiser, were the first people one met on the flight from Mumbai to Dhaka. They were sitting in the first row in business. Manohar read his Lokmat, like all Vidarbha people. After greeting the more amiable Professor Shetty, one headed to cattle class.
The BCCI bosses parted with their blazers as the flight commenced. They reclaimed them when it landed. A business class journey is incomplete, it seems, without an elaborate reunion with your jacket.
Back in economy, I scanned the film menu. Considering the purpose of my visit was a mega bucks event, considering the BCCI presence on the flight, I chose Wall Street II.
That is how the day began. It ended, of course, in Dhaka. Late in the night, after a crawl through the city’s notorious traffic, one returned to the sanity of the hotel, rather, insanity. Like with all budget hotels in the third world, the instructions in the room continue to be enjoyably stern. “Anti-social element alone or with guest is strictly prohibited to enter the hotel,” was one of the instructions in the room. I made do with pillows.