Dhaka, Bangladesh – In Magura, a sleepy town in southwest Bangladesh, about 168km (104 miles) from capital Dhaka, more than a thousand people are gathered outside a circular-shaped auditorium.
The crisp winter air barely cut short their enthusiasm as they waited for Shakib Al Hasan – their “boy from the hometown” and arguably the biggest sporting icon in the South Asian nation of some 170 million people.
Hasan arrived in a swanky SUV, waved his hand like a seasoned politician, and quickly went inside the auditorium where again a couple of hundred people were waiting for him as he appeared for an interview with a popular YouTuber and talk show host, Rafsan Sabab.
The event was part of a PR campaign ahead of the national election in Bangladesh, to be held on January 7, in which Hasan, still an active player in the national cricket team, is contesting from his hometown constituency for the incumbent Awami League (AL) party.
As the interview began, Sadab asked, with a smile: “Every district of Bangladesh has its own speciality, be it food, garment or a monument. Here in Magura, when I ask anyone about its speciality, they unanimously say: Shakib Al Hasan.”
“Yes, I would have said the same,” Hasan wryly replied. Sadab laughed, so did the audience.
But that cheeky reply perhaps best portrays the 36-year-old cricketer, known for his aggressive style both on and off the ground. That he is often called the best ever athlete Bangladesh has produced also helps.
Hasan, currently the captain of Bangladesh’s one-day team, is ranked the number one all-rounder by the International Cricket Council in two of the three formats of the game simultaneously – one-day internationals (ODIs) and Twenty20 – and is ranked third in Test matches.
It is often said that cricket and cinema are the twin obsessions of people in South Asia, with some cricketers turning into superstars and adored by millions of fans. Some cricketers used their popularity to foray into politics, the former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan being the best example.
For Hasan, however, the situation is a bit complicated.
‘You call it an election?’
In October, Bangladesh’s opposition parties announced a boycott of the election after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina refused to cede power to a caretaker government to hold the vote. Hasina, ruling with an iron fist for 15 straight years, is seeking a fourth term.
Thousands of opposition activists, mainly from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), have either been arrested or forced into hiding following a government crackdown since October, raising concerns about the legitimacy of the January 7 election.
Rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also warned the crackdown on the opposition is aimed at subduing those against the government ahead of the vote. The government denies the charge, accusing the BNP of trying to sabotage the polls.
On Tuesday, the opposition parties began a new three-day campaign, asking people not to go to the polling centres, while the ruling party continued its poll campaign.
The manner in which the election is being held has angered many in the country.
Hasan, known as the “bad boy” of Bangladeshi cricket for a series of controversies on the field, isn’t immune to the criticism, as he seeks a seat in the country’s parliament from Magura.
“You call it an election?” asked Ali Ahmed, a prominent BNP politician in Hasan’s hometown. “It’s a selection. Declare Hasan the member of parliament now and save us all the embarrassment.”
Ahmed’s frustration was echoed by many others in Magura Al Jazeera talked to. While the town is not an opposition stronghold, years of an allegedly authoritarian regime and inflation have strengthened the anti-incumbency sentiments among the voters.
Mohammad Yusuf Ali, a confectionary shop owner, told Al Jazeera the Awami League party had robbed people of the festivity of a national election.
“We are being stripped of our voting rights. The last two elections were a farce. The upcoming one is even more so. Everyone here knows that Shakib (Al Hasan) will be the MP as he has no opponent. Is there any glory in scoring goals on an empty field?” he said.
“Besides, I don’t think he would have won it if there was a proper election. Shakib is no longer popular here.”
Hasan is undoubtedly the most famous person to ever hail from Magura, politician Ahmed said. He said the local people had been taking immense pride in the fact that the cricketer put the name of the small town on the world map by being one of the finest players the game has produced.
“In tea stalls, restaurants and markets, people used to turn on the TV and sit together whenever he played,” he said.
“But he is as disconnected a person as could be from his hometown people. He is arrogant, snobbish and ill-mannered. He doesn’t have the capacity to hold any political office. And by taking part in this election, he has probably lost the last bit of his popularity.”
Hasan’s supporters disagree.
Mehedi Hasan Ujjal, Hasan’s cousin and one of his campaign managers, claimed people are embracing him with open arms.
“Just look at the crowd Shakib draws wherever he goes. The gathering and cheering of these people speak to how popular he is,” Ujjal told Al Jazeera.
Wearing a kurta and black waistcoat, a garment worn by Awami League politicians, the cricket star has been campaigning in cramped markets and households. On one occasion, he was seen kneeling in a field to embrace a homeless man. The video went viral on social media.
“I am a sportsman. It doesn’t matter if I become a politician. I will come here to play cricket with you many times in the next five years. I will be there for you in your thick and thin,” he said in an address at a local school.
“The young people of Magura love him,” Noyon Khan, a pharmacy owner, told Al Jazeera, “They are very happy to see Shakib as our MP. Some people in the area hate him out of jealousy because he is rich and successful. But they are very few.”
Nazmul Aberdeen Fahim, veteran cricket coach whom Hasan once called his mentor, told Al Jazeera that people “misunderstand” the cricketer. “They think he is unapproachable. That’s not true. He is actually very down to earth.”
Fahim said Hasan has been able to break the mould of an “arrogant” star cricketer and has turned into a skilled communicator.
“He had it in him. You see, cricketers are advised to stay away from the public to concentrate on their performances. That doesn’t mean they can’t run public offices well. In fact, they can read the psyche of the common people better than most others,” he said.
Despite multiple attempts, Hasan refused to talk to Al Jazeera, saying he did not want to give any “interview to a foreign media”. Over a brief phone call, he however said it was “the right time to enter into politics” for him.
Journalist and political analyst Rezaul Karim Rony said Hasan perhaps is the best “representative candidate” of Hasina’s Awami League party.
“Arrogance, ignorance, lies, and not giving a damn to common people’s desires and demands – these are the hallmarks of Awami politics in the last decade. Shakib is a perfect embodiment of that.”
Terming the upcoming election as a “massive joke”, Rony said: “If you know the results before the election, it’s not exactly an election. It’s so disheartening to see sports icons and celebrities joining and promoting this charade.”