They’ve been the soundtrack to every one of Sri Lanka’s games at this Cricket World Cup, but back when their cricket heroes toured in 2002, Dihan Dewage’s Melbourne-based Papare Band weren’t even allowed to bring a trumpet into the MCG.
Undeterred, Dewage simply moved to the car park and became a one-man party, playing CDs from his car stereo and in the process recruiting enough musicians to form the band. Soon they were taking their show on the road, driving to more welcoming venues in Sydney and Adelaide.
By 2008, thanks the recognition and support of the Sri Lankan Cricket Board and players like Sanath Jayasuriya, they’d even found their way inside the MCG. “I think that the organisers saw that we were a crowd attraction,” says Dewage. Since then they’ve been central to the carnival atmosphere of Sri Lanka’s tours of Australia, making them feel like home games.
Backing also came from Cricket Australia and for the current tournament the ICC has provided the band with tickets for all of Sri Lanka’s fixtures. “They marketed us as the official icons of Sri Lankan fans,” says Dewage. As their appeal has grown, the Papare Band have also brought their joyous energy to Cricket Victoria’s Harmony in Cricket matches, Big Bash League fixtures and even scored an A-League gig for Melbourne City.
I speak to Dewage the morning after Sri Lanka’s disappointing quarter-final loss to South Africa and though deflated by the result he says that he and his colleagues - cricket fans foremost - will all attend the Melbourne final regardless. “Whatever is on in Melbourne we try to go.”
If ever it was in doubt, the antipodean installment of the World Cup has served as a reminder to Cricket Australia that the support base of Asian expats is a fanatical one. The cacophonous support for India at their Melbourne pool match against South Africa left even veteran MCG attendees awestruck. Outnumbered but not outdone, Bangladesh’s local fans have made enough noise for the rest of the country combined; this at a time when one-day international cricket so often fails to rouse Australian crowds.
“Cricket Australia and the ICC see the potential,” notes Dewage, “now it’s all about entertainment.” He believes that in embracing the match-day traditions of Asian nations CA has also allowed for healthy competition between the supporter groups, enhancing the live experience for everyone.
Before Thursday’s quarter final between India and Bangladesh even starts, both India’s Swami Army and large groups of Bangladesh fans congregate outside the MCG, beating drums, singing and chanting right up until they reach the gates in front of the Members stand. There, a giant Bangladesh flag is unfurled and carried around by boisterous and excited supporters.
Among those Bangladeshis is a man known simply as ‘Milon’, now one of the most recognisable figures of the World Cup on account of his bright yellow Tiger-print face paint. The Bangladesh fans rallying around him as he waves his national flag say he doesn’t speak a word of English but he’s both cult hero and unofficial team mascot on account of his dedication to the cause.
Milon has travelled to each of Bangladesh’s World Cup fixtures on his own dime. He also applies all of the paint himself, they say. At one stage in the Bangladesh reply, the big screens at the MCG exult him as “Tiger Man!” to the somewhat incongruous musical accompaniment of Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’. Still, even the Swami Army cheer this event like a Virat Kohli boundary.
Right in the middle of the most vocal group of Bangladesh supporters I meet Naiful Islam, who has lived in Melbourne for three years. Owing to the infrequency of their visits to Australian shores, this is the first time he’s been able to follow the Tigers around and watch them live in Australia. “We are following Bangladesh everywhere in this tournament,” he says as he alternates between a bass drum and a tambourine, “all the way from Adelaide, through New Zealand and now here in Melbourne.”
Kitted out in team colours like all of the supporters around him, Naiful is still bubbling with excitement that the tournament made it down under. “Wherever Bangladesh go, we want to be there,” he says. When I speak to him in the innings break he promises that he’s got at least another five hours of enthusiastic drumming left in him.
The coordination of the Bangladesh supporter group – who on a number of occasions throughout the day joke with Indian fans and engage them in drum battles - is a little more ad-hoc than others. Most of the wrangling happened through a Bangladesh community Facebook page, from which the word was spread pre-tournament to make section M34 Bangladesh territory.
As the night wears on and the Tigers’ fortunes sag, not only does the noise and enthusiasm among Naiful and his cohorts fail to dissipate, it actually becomes louder. “It’s not just cricket for us,” he says. “It is something else.” On nights like this one – with a half-filled stadium maintaining fever pitch for hours on end – you can see exactly what he means.
This article was written by Russell Jackson, for theguardian.com on Thursday 19th March 2015 23.05 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010