Conference cricket, first announced in April 1997, was meant to be New Zealand Cricket’s grand new innovation. Its primary function was to serve as a step-between for First Class players in the frame for national honours.

The abundance of age-group and national ‘A’ cricket in the years since has changed those needs significantly, but back in the mid-late 1990s, New Zealand had a dual issue.

First was that players competing at First-Class level were in an environment where the player pool didn’t necessarily justify 66 players. The second, and more pressing, was that New Zealand Cricket was facing a tight fiscal situation, and it was First-Class cricket that was feeling the squeeze the most.

The resulting conference structure was the brainchild of John F. Reid, the former New Zealand batsman who had become a coach and then administrator – aware that NZC could no longer afford to sustain a double-round robin Plunket Shield structure, Reid wanted to ensure that the players weren’t the ones who missed out.

With New Zealand’s six Major Associations merging in twos – Auckland and Northern Districts became Northern Conference; Central Districts and Wellington (with one ND import) became Central Conference; Canterbury and Otago became Southern Conference – the depth and strength was, essentially, doubled.

The idea was something like this: the players most in the frame for national honours got a higher standard of cricket, and each round two of the three conference teams were playing, while the team with a bye would split back into their Major Association brands to play a Cricket Max game.

It seemed a good theory – a one-day competition, a four-day trophy (with a winner-takes-all $12,000 prize on offer) and a convenient (-ish) window for Cricket Max games.

Reid recalls that, with funds so limited, it was better to invest what they did have more narrowly on the players likely to step up to the New Zealand side: it was a way of getting greater return on the dollar.

But this structure was soon rattled. In June ’97, only four days after being granted ODI status at a meeting of the International Cricket Council, Bangladesh were announced as the fourth team for the 1997-98 conference series.

Cricket Max would have to find a new home, and now the New Zealanders had the challenge of the unknown. Bangladesh was in the midst of a relative run of success – victory at the 1997 ICC Trophy, which earned them a 1999 World Cup spot, with a 1998 ODI debut in between – but the side was yet to play a First-Class match, and their experience of any multi-day cricket was, at best, limited.

In the end, through the unavailability of top players, poor weather and pitch conditions, and the weakness of the Bangladeshis, the New Zealand Cricket Almanack was moved to record that, “its inaugural season was handicapped”.

It meant that the first season of conference cricket – which, the following summer, was a much greater success – ended up being more about the tourists than it did the hosts. It was Bangladesh’s first big step. 

“I think it was one of the greatest experiences that we had,” Athar Ali Khan remembers of the tour. “The experience of knowing we were getting the opportunity to play First-Class matches, and tour away from home, and in these conditions. I thought it was a great experience.”

But things began ominously for the Bangladeshis. They were unable to take a full-strength team, with luminaries such as Mohammad Rafique and Khaled Mahmud among those not to tour. To add to it, those that were coming struggled to get in the country – as the Almanack put it:

“November 15 [1997]. The arrival of three members of the Bangladesh party to New Zealand is delayed because of visa problems. The three concerned, two players and an official, are expected later after the problems were resolved by the New Zealand High Commission in New Delhi.”

Those that were able to arrive immediately did so less than 24 hours before their first match; and their Dhaka to Auckland flight, via Bangkok and Taipei, still required the hour-and-a-half drive to Hamilton.

In the end, that the game was abandoned without a ball bowled was probably a relief for the Bangladeshis. Though the dramas didn’t end there – the team decided to have an indoor training session, and discovered that the coloured pads they’d been given were too large, with bats continually getting caught in them. Officials had to source smaller pads, and take to them with green spray-paint, to make sure the tourists had correct kit.

The abandoned match – which would’ve been a one-day game against Northern Conference – was followed the next day by a First-Class match against the same opposition. It was the first in Bangladesh’s history, and despite a promising start, the tourists were hammered.

“From what I remember, it was quite a green wicket,” Mark Bailey recalls. “It was cloudy, the whole game was pretty overcast, so it was a fresh wicket.”

Hasibul Hossain took the first wicket, Phil Chandler for 17, only for first-drop Bailey to put on a stand of 60 with Michael Parlane. But when Parlane was dismissed by the very part-time leg-spin of Rokon Al Sahariar, it led to a brief patch of brilliance from Shafiuddin Ahmed – Richard Jones (12) and Aaron Barnes (0) both dismissed with Northern on 114.

In the end, though, Matthew Hart (65), Dion Nash (75) and Bailey (148) took the game away entirely: “I think that was my third First-Class hundred, I was around the age where I was starting to put a few together. It was always good to get a nice hundred – especially at home, at Seddon Park.”

The only bowler who came out creditably was Hossain, who bowled nearly 38 overs for his 6-143 – “he ran in all day,” Bailey comments.

Bangladesh had conceded 408, but overall, it was probably an acceptable beginning for them. Then came the real challenge: batting against Chris Drum and Kerry Walmsley on a fresh wicket. Bailey still remembers Walmsley hitting a couple of the Bangladeshi batsmen in the ribs who “went down like they had been shot by a sniper!”

For his part, Walmsley remembers that “the Bangladeshis were very green and lacked experience in our conditions” and while he “may have whipped a few short ones in and hit the ribs to soften them up,” generally speaking it was a more conventional plan: “we just hit a good length and kept it simple and got quite a few caught behind or slip from memory”.

“We had a pretty good team,” Walmsley says. Northern won by an innings and 151 runs.

“They were very keen and full of energy. […] I think the whole tournament was a big eye-opener for them,” Bailey recalls. “They weren’t great, but you could see – and a country that size, they were always going to keep getting better.”

Bangladesh had touched down in Auckland, been in Hamilton by the next day, and soon had to head off again – this time to Wellington, where they played against Central Conference at the Basin Reserve.

The one-day game was dominated by Roger Twose, who not only skippered and made a century, but picked up four wickets to boot. (Though, despite having such a great day, Twose concedes in an email that “I wish I could help but I have absolutely ZERO memory of the game!”) The 93-run victory would likely have been greater had Twose not been a little inclusive in his captaincy – Garvin Larsen only got five overs (four maidens), while Mathew Sinclair had a trundle, and Campbell Furlong was afforded ten comparatively expensive overs.

The following day saw the emphasis switch from batsman Twose to bowler Mark Jefferson. A left-arm finger-spinner whose First Class career otherwise tended to be more about tightness than incisiveness, Jefferson took three wickets for five runs off four overs in the Bangladesh first innings – Bangladesh were bundled out for 120.

Jefferson recalls that Bangladesh were “pretty raw, very raw” – “I find it hard to recall wickets and stuff like that, but by the looks of it, they missed a lot of straight ones!”

He admits his memories of the game are a little sketchy, but Jefferson remembers the conference structure warmly: “It was good to play with the likes of Campbell Furlong, Mark Douglas, Craig Spearman and all those guys from CD.”

A few batsmen did well – Robbie Hart, Mark Greatbatch and Mathew Sinclair among them – but the emphasis was quickly back on the bowlers. Carl Bulfin, hero of the ‘90s, and injury-ridden talent Stephen Hotter put together an excellent opening spell (“They wouldn’t have seen anything like Bulfin running in,” Jefferson comments) – but the seamers were soon overshadowed.

Jefferson, who took all his wickets in the top seven, picked up his one-and-only First-Class five-for (“a moment to treasure in my career”), while off-spinner Campbell Furlong nabbed four of his own. Bangladesh were again out for under 200, and had now lost two out of two First-Class matches by an innings and plenty.

“We were definitely outplayed,” Athar Ali Khan says, “I don’t feel shy about, or try to stay away from, what was the fact, the fact that we were outplayed in every department of the game.”

They continued even further south, heading to Carisbrook Stadium in Dunedin to take on Southern Conference. Rain again played havoc, ending the one-day game after less than 15 overs (in which time Shane Bond and Warren Wisneski had begun to tear through the tourists), and tampered with day three of the First-Class game.

Paul Wiseman still has one main memory of the occasion: “I can remember that they were bloody cold even in the typical balmy Dunedin summer.”

Batting first, the Bangladeshis managed to get 200 on the board for the first time – and it was against a good bowling attack, with one current Test quick and three future international bowlers, as well as the then-still bowling Mark Richardson. The backbone of the innings was a century by the young Al Sahariar, combining with Sanwar Hossain, who made 54.

“We had a real focus to bowl short at them because they weren’t used to that and we had a bit of pace in our team,” Wiseman remembers. “I do remember them showing way more resistance than we thought they would given the conditions and a quality innings from Al Sahariar.”

This time it was their bowling that let them down: Craig Cumming made his maiden century, Gary Stead compiled 96, and a promoted Wisneski hit a run-a-ball 46.

“I’d played close to 20 games by then,” Cumming recalls, “and [the first 100] always felt like a long way away – I enjoyed being in a little bit of a different environment, playing at Carisbrook was a lot of fun. It was hard work, I remember scoring a lot of singles and batting a long time.”

Although Javed Omar got Bangladesh off to a good start in their second dig, things quickly collapsed, and from 154-1, they lost their last nine wickets for just 90 runs. Southern knocked up the 165 runs required just three down, and with 13 overs to spare.

A few days later, they played a one-day game against Canterbury – rolled for 154, the tourists lost by 112 runs. Given no one in the Canterbury side went past 58, the Bangladeshis should never have got themselves into as bad a position as they did. Wayne Stead – playing his one-and-only game for Canterbury – and Michael Owens were the chief destroyers, picking up three scalps each.

They only had one day off before their next game, the final match of their tour. At this stage, having completed five games, they had a grand total of zero wins; and of the two washouts, the one that had offered a bit of play already saw Bangladesh on the ropes.

From Hagley Oval the tourists headed across town to the New Zealand Cricket structures at Lincoln to take on the Academy. It was a three-day game, though still given First-Class status, and still ended with about half a day to spare.

It was an exceedingly strong Academy side; seven players who would finish their career with a Test cap, two (Chris Gaffaney and Michael Parlane) who probably should’ve done, and the son of a Test cricketer (Tim Anderson). The only player left over was Hamish Barton, who finished his playing days young and instead became an excellent coach.

A five-for from David Sewell, backed up by three from Daryl Tuffey, saw Bangladesh rolled for 130. Then came an even bigger challenge: a top five that would accumulate 38,916 First-Class runs between them, and one where Jacob Oram (remarkably) was the least prolific FC bat.

A 213-run opening partnership between Gaffaney and Parlane put things beyond doubt – that Parlane managed to extend his innings to 190 was salt in the wounds. Craig Cumming declared the innings closed at 448.

This time it was future Test leg-spinner Brooke Walker, rather than Tuffey, who assisted Sewell as chief destroyer – the left-arm quick took 4-47 to give him nine in the match, while Walker took 4-36. Bangladesh were out for 206, and the match was won by an innings.

“Yes we struggled,” Athar Ali Khan concedes of the tour, “and we were hugely disappointed, because after winning the ICC Trophy we were really gearing up for the World Cup in England, in 1999. It was disappointing, disheartening as well because [we were] journeying all the way, miles and miles away from home and coming to play cricket and not performing.”

Ross Dykes, then a New Zealand selector, commented in the media that Bangladesh were playing to District Association (Hawke Cup) standard. It all meant New Zealand Cricket had to change tack: they’d always been willing to help promote and support emerging talent, and had announced Kenya as the fourth team in 1998-99, but Bangladesh’s failure forced a rethink.

Athar Ali Khan is still a little disappointed that it was just a one-off: “It was very difficult to get used to these conditions, you had the wind blowing across, I remember playing a game here [the Basin Reserve] and the batsmen did struggle, and bowlers struggled even more bowling into the wind. But then again, opportunities like this, I feel like that could’ve continued – because conference cricket continued for another one or two years, and we were a part of it for only one year.”

Soon Pakistan A would be announced as Kenya’s replacement, whilst England A and India A were scheduled for the two seasons after that. Pakistan A were a far better team, and the system worked far better: where Bangladesh had still offered “something different” and was able to “broaden perspectives for players,” as John F. Reid puts it, Pakistan A were able to give the Kiwis a flavour of the subcontinent to a much higher standard.

But as it ended up, Pakistan A in ’98-99 was the last time the conference system was played in that form: Reid remembers that the Major Associations were unhappy, feeling the structure undermined their place and resulted in the players seeing Plunket Shield cricket as less important.

Pressure from those sides meant the system crumbled. In the end, after a brief rejig in 1999-00 (a three-way competition with England A, North Island and South Island was attempted, but points weren’t awarded and the English were only really there for the ‘tests’ against New Zealand A) the idea was shelved, and the Plunket Shield (or Shell Trophy as it was then) reverted to a double-round robin.

It was a shame for the players: many of those involved – Paul Wiseman, Mark Jefferson and Marty Croy come to mind – speak highly of it, and Reid mentions that players and coaches (including Denis Aberhart) told him that the standard was good, and that they were being tested. In the end, though, quelling the concerns of Major Associations combined with the proliferation of national ‘A’ tours to put the idea to bed.

For Bangladesh, the failures in New Zealand of 1997 turned into much greater successes in the United Kingdom in 1999, where they beat both Scotland and Pakistan in the World Cup. It led to them earning (arguably premature) Test status in June 2000.

They next toured New Zealand in late 2001, but the issues were the same – a match against a New Zealand District Association XI saw a man who ended up playing a total of four First-Class matches, Harley James, make 117; Auckland beat them by an innings, with Chris Drum and Matthew Horne running rampant; and New Zealand beat them by an innings and plenty in both Tests.

But tours to New Zealand haven’t been common, and their record on Kiwi soil sits at five Tests, five losses. In all First-Class games, Bangladesh are yet to so much as draw, and even including non-First Class multi-day matches, are yet to win a game. This summer will be their first chance in nearly seven years to rectify that.