On the eve of the first ODI against Bangladesh, West Indies captain Jason Mohammed was asked about the threat posed by Shakib Al Hasan in his first international match since his ban. Mohammed – himself returning to top-flight cricket after two years and leading a relatively inexperienced side – had a straightforward answer.
“We have to play [Shakib] as we see it. We know he is one of the best going around the world,” he said. “We just have to stay positive against him. If there are balls that we can score off, we have to score. If it is good balls, we have to defend.”
Easier said than done. Shakib broke the spine of West Indies’ batting, as he finished with the cheapest four-wicket haul in Bangladesh’s ODI history. In the process, West Indies couldn’t score off 35 out of his 44 deliveries.
Shakib was in his element from his second ball, when he nearly had the debutant Andre McCarthy caught at slip. Bowling from a slightly straight run-up with an unmistakable loop and drift towards the right-hander’s middle stump, Shakib, still among the top four allrounders across formats, was back. It helped that he had the bite to snatch the ball away from the batsman.
McCarthy was eventually his first wicket back in international cricket, which was also his 150th at home, an enticing full ball from Shakib that he was unable to connect with a sweep shot. Mohammed fell in the 17th over, stumped to another that turned away and dragged him forward just enough. Nkrumah Bonner was lbw in Shakib’s next over, pressing forward but unable to remove his thrusting front pad, thus giving Shakib figures of 7-2-8-3 in his first spell.
Shakib then returned to pack up the West Indies innings inside two balls, clean bowling Alazarri Joseph to get his fourth wicket. There is always the temptation to find some fate in Shakib’s performance. But great cricketers like Shakib write their own scripts through sheer hard work, patience and – as his mentor Nazmul Abedeen Fahim explained shortly after his four-wicket haul – the often undetected “hunger and desire”.
Fahim and Mohammad Salahuddin are among the leading coaches in Bangladesh who are known for their mentorship of cricketers like Shakib, Tamim Iqbal, Mushfiqur Rahim and many others.
Shortly before his one-year ban was lifted, Shakib had returned to Bangladesh in September to prepare for the Test series against Sri Lanka, which was scheduled to be held in October but was later postponed. Shakib went straight to BKSP, his alma mater, where Fahim and Salahuddin helped him through fitness and skills.
Fahim, who is now BKSP’s cricket advisor, said that Shakib’s hard work over the last few months was exactly for this type of return to international cricket.
“It is not much of a surprise,” Fahim told ESPNcricinfo. “I mean, I didn’t expect him to concede just eight runs, but certainly I expected him to bowl well, having seen how hard he has worked recently. He has brought on some changes to his bowling, which we started seeing when we worked together in BKSP. Salahuddin worked on his bowling too.”
Fahim explained how Shakib has started to reinvent his bowling by bringing on a lot more than what he had been doing in the last few years. “[Shakib] used to mostly bowl flat and side-arm. His strengths were pace variation, angle and not much of turn. I don’t know what he did during his break, but now he can bowl more vertically as well as side-arm,” he said.
“He can bowl slowly, he can extract bounce and also better turn the ball. He has bowled a lot, but he started from the basic. He went step by step before reaching what he wanted to do.”
Fahim also said that Shakib’s greatness invariably lies in his “wonderful attitude”, which is missed by most observers. “It shows that he wants to develop himself more. It shows that he knows there is room for improvement. This is a sign of a player who is always striving to do better. It is a wonderful attitude.
“He is exceptional in his desire and hunger, which doesn’t meet our eyes. We only see him playing well. He was waiting for this moment and this platform,” Fahim said.
It is now a well-established fact that Shakib’s reticence to engage in conversation, which was seen as shyness in his early days and standoff behaviour more recently, has nothing to do with his on-field drive to be the best.
In the core of Shakib Al Hasan is a cricketer who seeks greatness. What Fahim meant by “waiting for this platform” was not Shakib being eager to take wickets against a relatively weaker batting line-up. Rather, Shakib’s wait was to prove that he will now be remembered for performances like his 4 for 8 in Mirpur.
Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo’s Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84