While the eyes of the sporting world have fixated on the thrill and riches of the IPL, not to mention the glamour of the short-lived and ill-conceived European Super League, amongst the verdant surroundings of Sri Lanka’s highlands, a contest with an altogether different profile has begun. On the face of it, the two- Test series between the two lowest-ranked sides in the World Test Championship, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, offers little excitement to the causal cricket fan.
But appearances can be deceptive; both teams will be acutely aware that to lose the series will mean receiving the dreaded wooden spoon – that should be enough motivation to ensure an intense battle. The ramifications of finishing last in the WTC are uncertain. Whispers of dissatisfaction from the “big three” with regard to playing Tests against nations that are perceived to be commercially unviable, means that Sri Lanka or Bangladesh could face a sparse fixture list over the next couple of years. As it is, the lopsided nature of WTC scheduling, compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, has resulted in Bangladesh playing just five Tests in the current cycle (compared to 21 for England), creating the curious position whereby most of the teams above them in the table have lost more Tests.
Bangladesh’s day of dominance
When the tourists won the toss and chose to bat on a greenish wicket, a few eyebrows were raised, particularly when factoring in their long tail, a consequence of picking five specialist bowlers, albeit including Mehidy Hasan’s budding allrounder status. The fact that both teams selected three seamers each – the first time that’s happened in a Test between the two countries since 2013 – demonstrated prevailing thought about the conditions. The wicket of Saif Hasan in the second over would have caused further anxiety in the Bangladesh camp about the decision to bat first, but essentially that was the high point of Sri Lanka’s day. In the remaining 88 overs that were bowled, Bangladesh dominated proceedings as they have rarely done so before. Finishing on 302 for two, it was only the fourth time that they had lost fewer than three wickets when batting for 90 overs in a day.
A string of dismal recent performances, including a Test series defeat against a weakened West Indies team and an unhappy white-ball tour of New Zealand, meant that few outside the Bangladesh camp would have expected such a showing. On closer inspection, a more generous assessment of the West Indies series would suggest that the Tigers were undone by a once-in-a-lifetime innings by Kyle Mayers and a batting collapse when chasing a win at Dhaka. The difficulty of creating a winning opportunity is often overlooked in the aftermath of loss. Indeed, the recent bitter experience of not converting winning positions should mean any complacent thoughts after an excellent first day in Kandy, are banished.
Tamim’s fast start
Bangladesh’s mainstay at the top of the order is entering the twilight of his career, recent announcements suggesting an intention to concentrate on Test and ODI cricket, perhaps tacit acknowledgment of his weaknesses in the shortest form of the game. His blistering 90 off 101 balls showed how T20’s loss could be Test cricket’s gain. Tamim’s ability and longevity cannot be questioned. In the course of his innings he became Bangladesh’s highest Test run-scorer, but his recent performances have come under the spotlight, indelibly linked with the team’s slump.
Tamim went about erasing any question marks against him with a brace of boundaries in the first over, Suranga Lakmal feeding his strong leg-side game.
But it was his first perfectly timed drive through mid-off which suggested that he was in determined mood and great touch. During the remainder of the morning session his scoring shots were invariably boundaries and he got to his half-century off exactly 50 balls, raising the prospect of joining a select band of players to score a century before lunch on the first day of a Test.
A semblance of control from Sri Lanka’s bowlers and a lack of strike, meant that he had to settle on 65 not out at the interval instead. His departure, when it came, was unexpected. A century seemed to be a formality when he inexplicably steered the ball to a wide first slip off Vishwa Fernando. His soft departure briefly stirred memories of his previous Test dismissal; a meek catch to short cover off the innocuous bowling of Kraigg Brathwaite which sparked a collapse and ultimately the loss of a Test match. In Kandy, however, history did not repeat itself.
The burden of expectation in professional sport is something that armchair fans can never truly understand, and that scale of expectation is multiplied whenever Bangladeshi cricketers are involved Najmul Hasan Shanto’s inclusion in the team for the first Test, given recent form, inevitably sparked fierce social media debate. In the West Indies Test series he looked to be unsure of his game and generally out of his depth; he returned a paltry 40 runs and an average of 10. Only a minority of Bangladesh supporters wanted or expected him to play in Kandy.
Set against that context his unbeaten 126 was a truly impressive feat, a maiden Test hundred. Coming to the crease in the third over, facing a new ball on the most seam-friendly pitch in Sri Lanka and no moral support to speak of, the odds were stacked against his success.
Initially he played the support role to Tamim’s leading man but still took advantage of loose deliveries from a frequently rotated attack. On 37 not out at lunch and a burgeoning partnership with Tamim would have calmed any nerves, particularly after being dropped on 28. Niroshan Dickwella was unable to grasp a regulation outside edge off Dhananjaya, a drop that’s already cost 98 runs and no doubt a restless night’s sleep.
Shanto’s steel was tested after Tamim’s wicket. The end of the 144-run partnership meant a shift of responsibility to the young left-hander, as the established batsman. But he was able to form an equally effective alliance with his captain, Mominul Haque, and they combined to reach 200 for two by tea and then 302 for two at stumps. Shanto’s century came off 235 balls but perhaps even more impressive was his desire to bat until the close, negotiating the second new ball in the process. Alongside his captain, who contributed with a calm 64 not out, he walked off at the end of the day to applause from team-mates and most likely a few new fans.