Najmul Hossain Shanto made his Test debut against New Zealand in Christchurch in 2017. After scoring 18 off 56 balls in his debut innings, he was dismissed by Tim Southee.
Six years later, both of them were at the helm of their respective teams in Sylhet in a Test match and unlike the Christchurch game, Shanto won the battle against Southee and New Zealand, both as a batter and the leader of the pack.
Although he could not do anything mentionable on his Test debut, Shanto made sure he made his captaincy debut in this format memorable and played one of his best knocks till date to script a victory for the ages.
He earned laurels from his opposite number Southee. “I think Shanto’s innings was a great innings, and one that obviously a very timely one as well, [given] the situation of the game,” the New Zealand captain told reporters after the Sylhet Test.
But when asked about his reaction after the match, Shanto deflected the praise towards his bowlers. “Credit goes to all the players. Taijul [Islam], [Mehidy Hasan] Miraz, Shoriful [Islam], Nayeem [Hasan] – they bowled very well,” he said.
How Shanto handled the bowlers and backed their skills by providing them with attacking fields was very refreshing to see.
For example, Nayeem, who was turning the ball into the right-handers on a regular basis, was given a leg-side heavy field. The move induced errors from even a batter of Kane Williamson’s calibre although fielding blunders denied the off-spinner the wicket.
The constant presence of close-in fielders was also noticeable, something that was absolutely necessary on a track that aided spin.
“I’ve enjoyed the way he has led the side,” said broadcaster and former South Africa batter HD Ackerman. “His field placings were absolutely superb. He had fielders [close] in at the right time and leg-side fields as well. It’s hard to believe he is starting out his career as a captain.”
The bowling changes he made worked more often than not as well.
A partnership between Williamson and Henry Nicholls for the third wicket was brewing in New Zealand’s first innings. It had already crossed 50 and Shanto brought Shoriful Islam into the attack and straightaway he sent back Nicholls to break the partnership.
Shanto made great use of the part-time left-arm spin of Mominul Haque. Twice in the first innings he provided vital breakthroughs. Mominul said it was entirely Shanto’s idea to do something different and the move paid dividends.
“I didn’t think much about my bowling. The captain wanted to do something different. I didn’t bowl much as a captain but myself but he pulled it off. He himself took that decision,” Mominul said after the end of the third day’s play.
In his first Test as captain, Shanto took help from Mominul – who was the captain when Bangladesh famously beat New Zealand in Mount Maunganui last year – and spoke regularly on the field with Mushfiqur Rahim which was caught on the stump mic. In the press conference after the match, Shanto said he is very “open-minded” as a skipper and takes suggestions from his teammates. Mominul talked about that as well.
Before the series started, Shanto said Bangladesh had the ability to beat New Zealand in these conditions. After the first Test, he made it clear that he did not say that to motivate anyone but because he and the rest of the team believed that.
“I developed confidence when I saw that the others believed what I believed. So I thought we could beat them,” he said.
His game plan as a batter was a little bit unconventional but it worked in the end. In the first innings, he made an enterprising 37 and started the second innings in an attacking fashion as well. But as time went, he reverted back to the conventional Test approach and notched up a hundred.
The Bangladesh captain explained this in the post-match press conference. “Initially, they had an attacking field-set for me. So, the [lofted] shots that seemed high-risk ones did not involve much risk. Because even if I had mistimed the ball, it would have carried over the fielders anyway. Then when they spread the field, I didn’t have any problem playing defensive shots. So after that, I didn’t play risky shots.”
“He understands the game very well,” Mominul said on Thursday. “He has a clear mind. He understands the situation in every format. He knows when and how to react.”
After this emphatic win, Shanto’s message to the team was that the job is only “half-done” and they had to regroup and play well in Mirpur. He said he is well aware that one bad game will make people critical of the team again and so there is no room for complacency.
Shanto would not have led the team against New Zealand had Shakib Al Hasan or Litton Das been available. He will lead the side again when the team travels to New Zealand in a few days’ time. Time will tell how he will do in other formats away from home but the small sample size available suggests that Bangladesh cricket will be in “safe hands”, as Ackerman mentioned, when Najmul Hossain Shanto will be given full-time captaincy.