Aminul Islam, the former Bangladesh captain, remembers randomly going for a haircut along with Steve Waugh and Gavin Robertson, the former Australia off-spinner, at the hairdressing facility inside the 1998 Commonwealth Games Village in Kuala Lumpur. “They said, ‘hey, let’s go and have our hair cut.’ So all three of us went.”
Alistair Campbell, the former Zimbabwe captain, recalls queuing up at the “old-school” phone booths in the athletes’ cafeteria to request his sponsors for replacement bats after he broke a couple. Former India batsman Amay Khurasiya would wait for refills to arrive as the limited vegetarian options in the round-the-clock cafeteria would get polished off early.
For cricketers used to operating in their own cocooned world of bilateral tours and the odd multi-team, but still single-sport, event, Khurasiya feels the CWG Village atmosphere gave a “slight indication” of what an Olympics Village must feel like. Coming from a land where cricket remains “a religion”, Gagan Khoda, the former India batsman and selector, remembers the sobering experience of watching hundreds of elite athletes from vastly different disciplines train and compete.
Cricket returns to the CWG for the first time at Birmingham 2022 since that maiden appearance in Kuala Lumpur 1998. While 16 men’s teams competed in the one-day format in 1998, with South Africa taking gold, eight women’s teams will play in the T20 version this time. Cricket was part of the 2010 and 2014 Asian Games as well but India did not take part in both, which leaves CWG 1998 as their only major multi-sport event till date.
The Kuala Lumpur Village was a great leveller for the cricketers; among the biggest stars of the game, such as Sachin Tendulkar, the Waugh brothers and Curtly Ambrose, were “not that important here,” as Aminul says. “The swimmers and athletes were a much bigger attraction.”
Starstruck by sprinters, swimmers
Campbell says he was starstruck initially. “You saw the people who you had watched only on TV – the sprinters, the swimmers, so it was peculiar from that perspective,” Campbell says. “You would walk past a big name and go, ‘hey, that is so-and-so,’ or ‘isn’t he the 400m record holder?’ and so on.
“A lot of us in the Zimbabwe team were avid watchers of other sports. We knew the faces, knew what they did, particularly in athletics. And the ability to hop on to a bus and go anywhere, from aquatics to athletics to hockey, was a huge eye-opener. Any spare opportunity, we would grab a bus and go watch the heats and cheer on the few Zimbabweans who were also competing.”
Found my jacket from the Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games in 1998. One of the few occasions we weren’t good enough in a big tournament, South Africa outplayed us in the gold medal game. pic.twitter.com/8Mh6jJ1XP3
It wasn’t that the cricketers would go absolutely unrecognised. “A South African swimmer was very excited that cricket was in the Commonwealth Games and his heroes like (Shaun) Pollock, (Makhaya) Ntini, (Mark) Boucher, (Jacques) Kallis were all there, and they won gold also,” says Aminul, who would make 145 against India in Bangladesh’s maiden Test match two years later.
Still, cricket was a novelty for many at CWG 1998, and Campbell would end up explaining the basics to other athletes over dinner. “A lot of the guys there weren’t sure about what this game was and how it is played. Some wanted explanations on the laws and what not,” says Campbell.
Cuisines and conversations
For Khurasiya and Khoda, the conversations over meals with the other athletes were memorable. “It was a world full of beautiful sports, beautiful athletes and beautiful people. People would start biking or training at 5 in the morning. The commitment levels were unbelievably high. It was something to sit with such people and have your meal,” says Khurasiya.
Witnessing at close quarters what athletes in individual disciplines go through in their daily routines was a lesson for Campbell. “As cricketers, even then, things were sorted out for you as a team. As an athlete, yes, you have your training or sparring partners, but otherwise it is a lonely existence in an individual sport. It was an eye-opener to see these guys train and just how disciplined they were. Just the solitude they go through, especially athletics.”
Standing in line with hundreds to fill their plates in the cafeteria buffet was another novel experience for the international cricketers used to laidback five-star hotel spreads and room service.
“There was no VIP treatment for anyone, everyone would stand in line. But it made no difference to Sachin Tendulkar, who was as modest then as he is now, and when Tendulkar is not complaining, nobody complains,” says Khurasiya.
While the vegetarians obviously had fewer choices – and minus the Indian spices too – overall, the Malaysians hadn’t held back with the variety of fare on offer. So the cafeteria was a ceaseless melting pot of cultures, in more ways than one.
“Those foods were very healthy, mostly steamed, not much oil. I became a fan of steamed salmon after those days,” says Aminul.
“They had cuisines from all over the world. They really pushed hard. You could have Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, typical English fare, they really did an outstanding job in catering for all the different cultures there. It was no mean feat, 24 hours a day,” says Campbell. “Some of the disciplines would finish really late, and they would want a midnight snack. So the cafeteria was a hive of activity all the time. It wasn’t just starch and protein, there was something for everybody there.”
Campbell also recalls the sheer ease of getting around the Village and the metropolis beyond it. “It was like every sort of whim was taken care of. Even if you wanted to leave the Village to have food outside or go to a bar, the transport system was unbelievable. You just had to look out for the shuttle. It was like being on the London subway. It was clockwork 24 hours a day.”
Apart from life in the Village, the opening ceremony at a packed stadium was where the difference really hit some of the cricketers. For Bangladesh, the moment was even bigger as they had been on the rise as a cricket nation; they had won the ICC Trophy in 1997 to qualify for their maiden World Cup in 1999. Already, there were great expectations from the team.
“When you go for the opening ceremony, you are not just cricketers, you are part of the Bangladesh contingent. That is a completely different feeling,” says Aminul.
“Our captain was Akram Khan, but I became captain after the Commonwealth Games. That was Akram’s last as captain, and he was supposed to carry the flag, but at the last moment, I think one of our shooters did.”
Campbell, meanwhile, had to wait, and wait, along with the rest of the Zimbabwe contingent, for their turn to come. “We were ‘Z’, and Malaysia is very hot and humid. But when we did go in eventually, it was marvellous. You see it on TV but to actually go through it was terrific,” says Campbell.
In contrast, the cricket itself was largely uninspiring at the CWG. Played across six venues in Kuala Lumpur, the competition produced several low-scoring howlers; bronze-medallists New Zealand were bowled out for 58 in the semi-final against silver-medallists Australia; in the other semi-final, South Africa were 96 for 9 chasing Sri Lanka’s 130 before scraping through.
Practice facilities were scarce, and the pitches had been hastily laid and were, understandably, under-prepared in a place that is still not known for its cricket. In fact, the ICC Trophy, also held in Kuala Lumpur a year earlier in 1997, had been played on synthetic pitches.
“The wickets were bad and nowhere near international standard. They were soggy and bouncing awkwardly,” says Khoda. “But all of us would sit and eat together, so many people from across sports and countries coming together. And I loved that.”