Ashraful surprises once more
Mohammad Ashraful's career has had several surprises: his debut century against Muttiah Muralitharan, the breathtaking 158 against India, or the wondrous century against Australia. It has always been about how he handled a top spinner or attack with ease, even at the tender age of 16.
So the moment Ashraful broke his own record of highest individual Test score for Bangladesh, you wondered how a batsman who had averaged 13.22 in domestic first-class cricket earlier this season, could reach such a height?
Unbeaten on 189 in Galle, Ashraful batted for little over eight hours, and faced more deliveries than any Bangladesh batsman ever did in a Test innings. He was mindful of all these records, as you would be after reaching such milestones. Ashraful had to play a more risk-free brand of cricket to reach this stage and you wonder how a naturally aggressive batsman could restrain his instincts for so long on a good pitch.
He withstood several challenges in this innings. Ashraful was returning to the Test side after more than a year and was batting at No. 3, a position where he has previously averaged 8.25 and has not batted in since mid-2008.
He hardly skipped a beat after Jahurul Islam's dismissal before tea on the second day. Despite Anamul Haque's sluggish batting at the other end, Ashraful continued to hit the gaps and ensure Bangladesh didn't stop scoring runs. When Mominul Haque came in, he played with preservation in mind.
They made a fetching pair, of similar height and build, but the combination was broken 43 minutes into the morning of the third day. It would have been easy for Ashraful to play a rash stroke, but this is where he caught many off guard.
When Mahmudullah ran down the wicket to be stumped, Ashraful could have settled for an impressive half-century and a place in the team secured. However, as he said later on, he wanted to make sure Bangladesh were not going to subside.
With Mushfiqur Rahim, Ashraful found a rhythm that he failed to produce with Mominul. The pair remained unbroken till lunch, Ashraful having reached his first century in over four years. Immediately afterwards, he let the captain settle, feeding Mushfiqur the strike.
The surprise of Ashraful's watchfulness stopped at that point, because as soon as Sri Lanka took the new ball, the shots began to flow. The square drive and the cover drive followed by some chips, clips and nudges against the spinners. Occasionally he would hang back and let the game flow around him. This was not Ashraful's territory, but he was still there.
Some of Ashraful's comfort was due to Mushfiqur's presence at the other end. The Bangladesh captain has completely come into his own after taking over from Shakib Al Hasan. He bats at a higher tempo and average, and often looks like a batsman in command of a partnership. He dominated this stand too, scoring 152 out of the 261 runs for the fifth wicket. Mushfiqur has been in form since the 2011 World Cup, scoring 15 points higher than his career average.
After this season's National Cricket League, it was easy to see why Ashraful was falling so far behind in the pecking order. There were promising players like Anamul Haque and Mominul Haque vying for spots, while his Dhaka Metropolis' team-mates Mehrab Hossain jnr and Marshall Ayub staked claims with domestic runs.
You half expected Ashraful to get out at some point during the day. But this was an entirely different batsman, one who batted an entire day for the first time in his Test career.
Since he last scored a hundred in 2008, Ashraful had made just one half-century. When he was dropped in December 2011, there was hardly any hope of a comeback because Bangladesh cricket rarely does comebacks. Ashraful, with three centuries in different formats at different levels, found his way back, crawling out of the country's ever-growing scrap heap of talented batsmen.
There was a part of his innings that said a lot about his confidence. Ashraful made Angelo Mathews, the new Sri Lanka captain, employ a deep point, and invariably change that fielder's position several times. He used width well, but he was also carving with the face of the bat so that the ball travelled downwards past regulation backward point, and he often hit it hard enough to beat deep point.
His skill wasn't a surprise, but it is how Ashraful lived to tell the tale that made everyone take notice.
Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent