Nafees responds to pressure
Shahriar Nafees's half-century on the first day of the second Test against Pakistan has put the other two Test fifties he made this year in the shade. Despite the significance of half-centuries in Harare and Chittagong, this innings has reinforced his place in the Bangladesh top-order from a position that could accurately be described as "hanging by a thread".
It was hardly a secret that Nafees was the most vulnerable among the top-order to get the sack after a string of low scores beginning from the second Test against West Indies at the end of November. In this ongoing series, he was averaging 13.4 in five innings before he walked out to bat in the third over of the cold, murky morning.
The pressure on him at that point was mostly at a personal level. He was one bad Test match away from oblivion. Having made two comebacks in his five-year international career already, expecting a third would have been quite un-Bangladeshi for a cricketer.
There was a time this year when he had struck three fifties in a row, two of them coming against Australia in the April ODIs. He carried that form into Zimbabwe but after a flashy 50 in the second innings, he looked out of sorts in the ODIs. He started off the West Indies series with a duck in the third one-dayer before being slammed on the head by Fidel Edwards in the first innings in Chittagong. He struck an unconvincing 50 in the second innings, though given his state of health, it was appreciable.
So when he saw Tamim Iqbal, Mahmudullah and Nasir Hossain trudge back to the pavilion in the first hour, it was clear that Nafees had to survive the onslaught of Pakistan. Shakib Al Hasan was, thankfully, striding out and it was quite clear what lay ahead for the left-handers.
After surviving till lunch, both batted at a fair pace to add 99 during the second session in 25 overs. Though innocuous, it meant a whole lot more for the Bangladesh side. This was the first time in almost two years that a pair had batted through a session without getting dismissed. The last time it happened was in March 2010 when Junaid Siddique and Mushfiqur Iahim were battling for survival against England. On that occasion too, one of them made a century (Junaid) and the other fell in the nineties (Mushfiqur).
Shakib went on to score his second Test century while Nafees fell in the nineties when a real snorter from Umar Gul had him fending to the wicketkeeper but his broad smile said something else.
"It is satisfying to have made the runs against this attack and in such conditions and especially when the team was in trouble," he told ESPNcricinfo, adding that he tried to focus on only two things during the four-and-a-half hour stay.
"Whoever I've met after the last Test whether it was family members, ex-cricketers, management, journalists, etc they said that I looked very hurried. I didn't want to do it today," Nafees said. "The other thing was that I won't get out badly. I could be out but I didn't want to raise the question of why you got out like this?"
His distinct lack of regret couldn't hide the fact that he was just pleased to score the runs but also that he had little to do against that particular delivery. "I couldn't move my hand, unfortunately. I was disappointed at once but I got out to a good ball so there isn't much to do. If I got out to a bad ball, then I'd have felt bad," he said.
The 180-run stand between Shakib and Nafees was also the highest fifth wicket stand for Bangladesh in Test cricket. Importantly, it took Bangladesh out of the woods and into a position of promise.
Nafees was highly grateful to Shakib's class as a batsman, which allowed him to relax at his end and the runs came more frequently. "The team needed this partnership. We weren't in a good situation when Shakib walked in. There was much to learn from this. I wanted to keep myself in control. We talked normally, nothing big, in the middle. Tried to enjoy the situation.
"Shakib is very cool when he bats," said Nafees. "He can calm things down. He was doing it today, playing spin so well. It became easier at my end. We talked constantly. The best part of the partnership was that we took a lot of singles, it took off the pressure from us."
This innings has taught him a few lessons, especially to calm down and not rush into decisions. Striking though would be the fact that a batsman in the Bangladesh team only reacts when his backs are firmly against the wall, his skills coming out and the mental blocks removed when the fear of the chop comes to the fore.
Mohammad Isam is senior sports reporter at the Daily Star in Dhaka