Cricinfo’s Mohammad Isam was touring with the Bangladeshi team when they headed toward Al Noor mosque on March 15 to pray. He recalls that fateful day, and how it stayed with him.
The last time I saw Black Caps media managers Willy Nicholls and James Bennett was half an hour before my world came crashing down on March 15. When I saw them in London again this week, Willy and James, who learned a few choice Bengali words and phrases from me during this year’s Bangladesh tour of New Zealand, grabbed and hugged me. They asked me several times how I was.
“You alright?” is a greeting I’ve got used to during two trips to New Zealand over the last three years. On Monday at the Oval in London, I heard this same greeting again a number of times. When I met some of the New Zealand team again this week, some of the players held their gaze towards me as they said, “You alright?” I don’t know if they recognised me, but I wouldn’t fault them if they didn’t. It was the fact they asked.
Listen to The Offspin’s interview with Mohammad Isam about his experience of the Christchurch terror attack, and the effect it had on him and the team. Download this episode (right click and save), listen on the player below or subscribe via Spotify.
My role in what happened in Christchurch on March 15 was brief. In the most terrifying moment of his life, Tamim Iqbal, the Bangladesh cricketer, called me for help. I wasn’t capable of doing anything, but as a human being I thought running towards the Al Noor mosque on that fateful Friday afternoon in March, was the right thing to do. But that day had begun like any other on tour.
I had only met James on this tour, but we became fast friends. I knew Willy from Bangladesh’s 2017 tour of New Zealand, when I figured out that he was the elder brother of the New Zealand batsman Henry Nicholls. Around midday, on March 15 Willy, James and I were together during Tim Southee’s press conference.
Southee was sat with newcomer Will Young who had replaced the injured Kane Williamson for the third Test. It was an exciting time for him as the New Zealand cricket team as they were winding down the 2018-19 home season. Having defeated Bangladesh so convincingly in the three ODIs and two Tests up to that point, they were hoping for a clean sweep in the final match of the tour.
Ahead of the test, this was our last day to do a spot of shopping around Riccarton Road, and perhaps check out a bookstore or two, maybe head to Cashmere Hills for the view. Some of us were mulling whether to have lunch first or leave our laptop bags in our hotel room. For others, including the Bangladesh team, it was time to pray.
“You can’t pray wearing shorts, Shree,” I jokingly told Shrinivas Chandrasekaran, the team’s analyst as he boarded the bus. The plan was that those who wanted to pray would get off at the Al Noor mosque, less than a kilometre south of Hagley Oval, while those who wanted to rest would go to the team hotel in central Christchurch.
About ten minutes later, Tamim called and desperately asked for help. I think it’s a joke. How can there be a terrorist attack in New Zealand?
Tamim calls a second time, and I become nervous. I tell another journalist to call the police while I run out of the car park. A lady pulling out of the Hagley Oval asked me what was wrong. I told her what I heard, and she just told me to hop in.
Three of us got into her car when she asked me for directions. I opened Google Maps and typed in “mosque”. It showed a left exit towards Riccarton Road, and then another left. I quickly realised that I could see a mosque in that direction. When I arrived the true horror of what was happening became clear.
I managed to run back to the Hagley Oval with 17 members of the Bangladesh team. We were holed up in the Hadlee Pavilion for four hours with the Sky TV and ground crew. Then te team were quietly taken back to their hotel, as the city of Christchurch went into shock. The next day we were flown out.
It took me a while to sleep properly after returning home to Dhaka. At times I tried to find solace in my surroundings. My parents and wife helped me get through this ordeal, but those thoughts come back.
Happily, it didn’t affect me much during the World Cup match between New Zealand and Bangladesh. It was a tense affair at the end, but it was a good contest. It was good to see these two teams play again.
Sport has the power to turn the youth of this world away from extremism. It is wishful thinking, but one that can find hope in the Bangladesh team that has instantly forgiven New Zealand, and stood by the country in solidarity. Many of them are barely out of their teens but their spirit showed on that fateful afternoon, and the months that have passed by since.