Naeem Islam remodels himself for success
Naeem Islam has completed the shift from being a bit-and-pieces allrounder to a top-order batsman with a maiden Test hundred against West Indies on the third day in Mirpur. He is now only the second Bangladesh batsman after Aminul Islam to score a hundred at No. 4, a position which couldn't be filled adequately by 16 different batsmen.
Naeem's innings was a revamped version of his batting, and the revamping process had begun two seasons ago; he has grabbed every opportunity since to make the transformation successful. The result of all that work was the gritty 108 off 255 balls, which kept him at the crease for nearly six hours. A clip to the fine-leg boundary in the 88th over took him to the three-figure mark, and was followed by a shout, a fist pump, some tears, a hug and an instantly flashed smile towards the dressing-room.
"I got a little emotional there," Naeem told ESPNcricinfo. "It was an innings that took some time coming. Over the last year I have worked hard on my batting, corrected a few shots. I spent a lot of time in the nets and, of course, the matches for Bangladesh A, in the Dhaka Premier League [the club one-day tournament] and the National Criket League [the domestic first-class competition] helped me become a better batsman."
Naeem broke through into the first-class scene in 2004, after winning the Plate trophy in the Under-19 World Cup that same year. Over the next four seasons, he made 2,178 runs at an average of almost 37 for Rajshahi, including four centuries. The runs earned him a place in the Bangladesh side, lower down the order, and three years ago to the day he was an altogether different batsman. On November 13, 2009, he struck six sixes in an over during a domestic league match at the Shere Bangla National Stadium (which was a first time by a Bangladesh player at any level). That came a week after he blitzed Zimbabwe in a one-wicket win. These knocks defined him as a lower-order hitter and the limited opportunities he got jeopardised his place in national side. Soon he was cast aside for long periods, particularly in Test cricket where he never batted above No. 7.
Now, in his first innings at this new position, Naeem calmly saw out the second evening without any more damage after Tamim Iqbal's dismissal. On the third morning, Naeem's plan was to control the innings, and while he went about executing that plan, he added some much-needed solidity to Bangladesh's first innings. His partnership with Shakib grew into a Bangladesh record for the fourth-wicket, and when he added 76 runs for the fifth wicket with Mushfiqur Rahim, the pair took the team past the dreaded follow-on mark.
"I kept telling myself not to play any silly shots," Naeem said. "This is what I have done for the last two years - keep telling myself to be disciplined at the crease. It has certainly helped me bat long.
"I try to follow a certain game plan: select only a few shots and try to execute those properly. I always try to play strokes to the deliveries in my zone and avoid anything otherwise."
He revealed how chief selector Akram Khan had sounded him out two months ago for a possible call-up, at this position, for the West Indies Tests. "When we were playing against the West Indies High Performance team, Akram bhai told me to bat at No. 4 in the NCL. At that point of time I felt that if I could perform in the NCL, I would have a chance in the senior team. I prepared well, scoring two hundreds, so I think I made my case stronger."
Having made a mark on the big stage, Naeem is not looking too far ahead: "The first match of a series is always important. I have started well, so I want to build on this. It actually becomes a lot easier to execute your plans after you have had some success."
If Naeem can repeat this performance for Bangladesh, it will go a long way in helping them take advantage of Tamim's early shows of aggression and allowing the likes of Shakib and Mushfiqur express themselves. And his story could well be one to follow for players who are reluctant to make adjustments even during the course of a single innings.
Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Bangladesh