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Meet the former Bangladesh cricketer who is also a rock star

Omar Khaled Rumi (left) with his band Underground Peace Lovers in 2011 

Omar Khaled Rumi chuckles when asked if he sees himself first as a cricketer or as a musician. You wouldn't ask the question of Sanjay Manjrekar, Brett Lee or Mark Butcher, whose cricket careers were far more well established than their musical ones. Rumi's dual careers set him apart from those names.

As a top-order batsman who bowled legspin, Rumi was an integral part of Bangladesh's first two ICC Trophy sides, in 1979 and 1982. Several years earlier, shortly after Bangladesh gained independence in 1971, Rumi formed the band Underground Peace Lovers (UPL) with a few friends. It is widely regarded as the country's first rock band, although Dhaka and Chittagong had an established rock scene in the decade preceding the war.

Rumi and his friends held their first concert at Dhaka's Hotel Purbani and played - mostly covers of western hits - for three years before going their separate ways and reuniting again in 2017 for their first album.

In the early days of a new country ravaged by a bloody war, Rumi's adventurous spirit wasn't out of place among the youth of the time.

"I think I am both a cricketer and a musician," he tells me over the phone. "I cannot leave out one of them. But I usually call myself a cricketer-cum-musician because cricket has given me the bigger identity, since I played for the national team."

In the late '70s, Rumi had a full-time job with the planning department of the national airline, Bangladesh Biman, but he made time for his twin passions.

"I trained in the morning, went to work at Biman, and played for the band every evening. We used to play every day of the week, and sometimes got home at three in the morning. I would go for practice every morning for Abahani [cricket club]. When I started working in Biman from 1977, my routine was my job, cricket and music."

Rumi was bitten by the music bug on a visit to Dhaka in 1965, when he was greatly inspired after watching a performance by a band called Iolytes (who later changed their name to the Windy Side of Care). "Seeing them play, I lost my mind," he says. "I bought a guitar, but I didn't have a [music] book, so I took a long time to learn how to play."

Ahmed Sajjadul Alam, better known by his nickname Bobby, is a veteran cricket organiser in Bangladesh and the Bangladesh board official of longest standing. He believes the social atmosphere during the first few years after Bangladesh's independence made Rumi's careers in cricket and music possible.

"We had great expectations from an independent nation. We believed it would instantly become an advanced society, but that wasn't going to happen so quickly," Bobby said. "Our economy started from scratch. Then there was military rule from 1975, which never does any good.

"But culturally, it was a revolution. Concerts, dramas and theatre were unheard of before independence, but in the mid-1970s it was a great scene. Freedom of expression made sure there was a band scene, street theatre, and generally a culture that encouraged arts and literature. There were some great writers, poets and musicians from that time and we are still enjoying their work."

Bobby remembers attending some of Rumi's shows in the early days where they played in packed rooms in hotels, private clubs and university halls.

"There were hardly any recording studios. Concerts were mostly indoors, where 200 to 500 people could attend. Rumi bhai and his band played cover songs at the Intercontinental Hotel for patrons who weren't quite used to Bengali songs. They started that scene despite limited resources. A guitar or a camera was really expensive in those days, and there was not much exposure.

"We would pay 20 or 25 taka [about US$3.5 at the time] for entry into their concerts. But they played with passion, and often in those days, it wasn't about the money. I remember a lot of people would turn up. There weren't too many bands or concerts back then, so it was a big event whenever one was announced."

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Born in January 1950, Rumi's tryst with cricket and music began at school. "My father was a police officer. He used to have transfers after one or two years. We have lived in Jessore, Faridpur, Sylhet and Cumilla. I was into cricket from Class VI in Sylhet. We played in the para [neighbourhood]."

Rumi took his batting seriously after making 40-odd at the Cumilla Zilla School, well known for its sporting excellence, and he later became interested in bowling legspin after watching Pakistan legspinner Zafar Altaf bowl in Jessore.

"Around 1964 came the Commonwealth team touring Pakistan. It was the first time I saw international cricketers like Rohan Kanhai, Charlie Griffith, John Murray and Basil Butcher, when they played in Dhaka. We sometimes used to have Hanif Mohammad and Mushtaq Mohammad come to Dhaka to play for PIA [Pakistan International Airlines] against East Pakistan."

Rumi played cricket at Rajshahi University, where he studied, and while he was there, the MCC made its maiden tour to Bangladesh, shortly after Christmas in 1976.

"I was picked in the North Zone team that played against MCC in the first match of their tour. I made 27 and took one wicket."

The following year he made his Bangladesh debut against the touring Sri Lanka side, led by Anura Tennekoon - who, Rumi says praised his all-round game and invited him to play in Sri Lanka - and was then picked for the 1979 ICC Trophy in England, Bangladesh's first international cricket tournament. Rumi was the top scorer in Bangladesh's win over Fiji in the first game, but he made only 31 runs in the remaining three innings and took two wickets. Bangladesh fared much better as a team in the 1982 ICC Trophy, reaching the semi-final. Rumi made 107 runs and took six wickets in seven matches.

He enjoyed better success at home, in club cricket for Abahani and Biman, and even took an eight-wicket haul and scored a century against a strong Dhaka University side in the regional competition.

"When Hyderabad Blues toured Bangladesh in 1978, I took the wickets of Anshuman Gaekwad and Roger Binny."

After one final appearance in the 1984 South East Asia cricket tournament, Rumi decided to focus on his job and get more serious about his music. "I was losing interest [in cricket] around 1985-86 and didn't go to the 1986 ICC Trophy. I started focusing on music and joined Renaissance band."

Rumi was a fan of Deep Purple way back, and enjoyed listening to Carlos Santana, and later, Steve Vai. "You have to listen to every type of music, starting from classical, otherwise you won't be able to compose properly," he says. "My strong basics came from playing the tabla, the banjo and then the guitar. I tell young musicians now that you have to listen to every type of music to establish your own style."

While his musician friends would often attend his club games, word of his singing career also got around cricket circles, and at an event during the MCC's 1976-77 tour, he was pushed on to the stage to perform.

"I sang 'Take Me Home, Country Roads'. The touring players were surprised with my English, but I told them it came naturally to us. After I played the song on BTV [Bangladesh Television channel], Badsha [his former Bangladesh team-mate Jahangir Shah] gave me the nickname Country Road.

"I played the guitar on our 1982 tour of England, borrowing it from someone at a pub."

Rumi would play in three bands over the next two decades, including Windy Side of Care. In 1997, he formed the band Bangladesh, which his daughter Fariba Omar joined two years later. They mostly play western rock and pop songs.

"Baba's band would practise at home, so I was always intrigued to find out what was going on in the studio and why I wasn't let in," Fariba says. "Around 1999, their drummer left the country and they had to perform at a university. I was learning how to play the drums then, so Baba said I could do it for half the show. I played keyboard and sang for the band from 1999 till I came to [live in] Australia in 2010."

She describes her childhood as one filled with music, books and art. Her mother Rokeya Sultana is an accomplished painter. "Musicians and artists would come by often. My parents had their own studios. It was a really nice time to grow up. My friends still remember my father telling them, 'What will you do studying? Focus on your music!'

"We have done shows in the Army Stadium [in Dhaka] in front of 20,000-30,000 people. We have performed in every single big hotel in Dhaka as their permanent band."

Rumi's days are filled with activity. "I read and write for a couple of hours every morning for the last 30 years. I paint for a little while and enter the studio after a bit of jogging." He also makes time to watch cricket and is a familiar face on sports-related talk shows as well as cultural programmes.

"I tell the younger generation that they should stick to what they like doing, whether it is studies or poetry. People give up too easily. I have played cricket, been a musician and even [tried my hand at] painting, writing poetry."

It might be impossible to follow in Rumi's footsteps today, since career paths are carved out early, but his rich life is a lesson for parents everywhere. If a child is allowed to take up a passion, it usually helps them grow as a person. Rumi can take some credit not only for laying down the foundations of Bangladeshi cricket and rock music but also for encouraging and inspiring a mindset in which talent and passion are not secondary to career goals.