Crafty Shakib Al Hasan conjures a bit of old magic and inspiration
He has been dropping hints of not being able to play all formats, but days like these might just give him the motivation to go on
Shakib Al Hasan tossed the ball up above the batter's eyeline. Dimuth Karunaratne liked the look of it. He was unbeaten on 80. He had been at the crease for more than four hours. He was in the zone. So he pressed forward to meet it, thinking there were easy runs on offer. And then it happened.
Karunaratne is not a man who is easily fooled. In Test cricket, and especially in the last couple of years, he has been one of the highest run-getters in the world. Normally, Shakib would be an even match for him. But this time the Bangladesh allrounder was coming into the series cold. He tested Covid positive a week before the Chattogram game. He ended up playing the game after testing negative two days before, and delivered a routine performance.
Shakib was going to be a crucial factor in the Dhaka Test, but would he be game ready? With him, this is usually a moot point. These days he often plays fighting jet lag, having to commute between Dhaka and Wisconsin, where his family lives. He mostly plays white-ball cricket too, including a lot of T20s. For red-ball preparedness, he would have to rely heavily on his experience. Muscle memory becomes vital for such cricketers.
Karunaratne had a bit of back spasm on the first evening, but the second morning was slightly cooler. Comfort wasn't going to be the issue. He was steadily pushing Sri Lanka out of the red zone. But, in the tenth over of the day, all of Karunaratne's hard work came undone. Shakib tossed up a gentle offbreak from around the wicket, which pitched on off and turned in to go through the gap between bat and pad.
Karunaratne was deceived. Completely deceived. If you looked at a photograph of his final position, you would be left thinking that this was not Karunaratne, but a newbie who got done by Shakib's craft.
The dismissal lit up the dull morning. A Test match that had started to meander on the third day suddenly had talking points. It brought back the topic of the pitch, whether the ball was finally going to spin at the Shere Bangla National Stadium, a ground that had become famous (or infamous) for enabling fingerspin.
The first thought after such a dismissal is to find out whether the bowler was setting the batter up for it. Looking at the field and the deliveries leading up to the dismissal, there isn't much evidence of that. The only sign that Shakib was in the mood to do something special was a wicket from the previous evening. He got one ball to rip back into the right-handed Kusal Mendis, trapping him lbw.
He bowled 12 deliveries to Karunaratne on the third day, some from around the wicket, which was an interesting move. Shakib doesn't use the usual left-arm spinner's tactic of bowling at the left-hander's leg stump to prevent scoring. Even when he was coming around the wicket, he bowled from close to the stumps, which suggests this was far from a defensive tactic. Just like that, one of the premier allrounders of his generation had rehabilitated an age-old Test-match custom.
The Bangladesh bowling coach, Allan Donald, was certainly blown away. "What more can you teach a bloke like that, is my question. Like Shane Warne, the guy is so experienced. He is well traveled. He lands them on a string. I know him and Herath have been quite close whenever they need a chat or two. It is nice to hear Shakib talk about spin bowling in his own world. I have been a great admirer of Shakib. When AB [de Villiers] says it is tough to get down to Shakib, then it must be tough. He is a smart operator. He changes his pace really subtly. He showed again, chipped away. Hopefully he walks away with a five wicket haul tomorrow. It is awesome to have him in the team. His experience and leadership is priceless."
"I have been a great admirer of Shakib. When AB [de Villiers] says it is tough to get down to Shakib, then it must be tough. He is a smart operator"Allan Donald
This was also not Shakib's first great delivery. Think back to Jacques Kallis or to Mahela Jayawardene in 2008, to Ian Bell in 2010 or his amazing spells against England in 2016 and Australia in 2017.
Notice the timeline, and the Karunaratne dismissal has context and significance in addition to its beauty. Shakib started to become irregular in Tests after the Australia series at home, especially after he returned from the ICC ban in 2021, Shakib's Test career all but stalled. This is his fifth Test out of Bangladesh's 13. For the fans, the Karunaratne dismissal was a pleasurable reminder of a time when Shakib used to befuddle great batters, when he used to be the only Bangladesh bowler to routinely threaten opposition line-ups.
What may sound a little strange was whether the dismissal and the enjoyment he got from it would entice him into returning to Test cricket as a more regular player. Performers like Shakib sometimes need that bit of motivation to keep going. Shakib has never really said that he wants to quit Tests, but he has dropped enough hints to indicate that he won't be able to play all three formats at this stage of his career. But maybe bowling a great delivery or playing a big innings would get his juices flowing. Bangladesh obviously need him quite badly, but Shakib, too, needs to feel that he has the love remaining for long, hot, and grinding days of Test cricket.
Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84