Tamim Iqbal seeks balance between caution and aggression
It is not only a matter of doing the difficult job, but often how the opener chooses to do it
Tamim Iqbal gave confidence to the Bangladesh dressing room at the start of the Pallekele Test against Sri Lanka, and then calmed nerves again with his counter-attacking half-century when there was a jitter and a stutter on the last day. When Iqbal is in such situations and in charge, it is not only a matter of doing the difficult job, but often how he chooses to do it. On the fifth afternoon, he blazed Dhananjaya de Silva's offspin straight down the ground for three sixes. The art was how he met the ball while charging towards it and then finding the right moment to lift the ball. The third of those sixes, he went inside-out, hitting the ball over long-off. Iqbal also drove and pulled Vishwa Fernando freely, hitting him for three fours in an over to bring up his quickfire fifty. Sri Lanka had left Bangladesh 68 overs to bat in the last two sessions with a 107-run lead. Over four days, when both sets of players have fielded for 170-odd overs in searing heat and humidity, it was hard to tell which side would blink first. Bangladesh lost two early wickets including Najmul Hossain Shanto, who made 163 in the first innings. Doubts are bound to creep in to a team that has lost their eight previous international matches. This was also a side that had lost two Tests even after scoring 500-plus runs. Iqbal saw the situation at hand differently. He played attacking shots, particularly going after de Silva, who was brought on early to disturb the batters' rhythm. He didn't let Vishwa Fernando settle too, but was mostly quiet against Suranga Lakmal and Wanindu Hasaranga. Mominul Haque had begun stonewalling at the other end.
Iqbal's opening act too had a resounding effect on Bangladesh. His 90 was the ideal response that captain Haque and coach Russell Domingo would have wished for, after deciding to bat first with five specialist bowlers. However, Bangladesh, who have won only four overseas Tests in their history, often prepare for the worst scenario.
Instead of being on a defensive side, Iqbal went after Sri Lanka's bowling on what could possible be the first green pitch in the visitors' backyard. He didn't let any of their fast bowlers settle down, hitting them for 15 fours, before getting carried away against Fernando.
Tamim bhai set the tone for us with his 90 in the first innings. He likes to play shots. He bats with a specific plan.
Mominul Haque on Tamim Iqbal
Haque acknowledged Iqbal's twin fifties, particularly the first innings score of 90 which laid the foundation for their total of 541 for 7.
"Tamim bhai set the tone for us with his 90 in the first innings," Haque said. "Since the start of his career, this is how he has batted. I bat in a different way. Everyone has their own style. He likes to play shots. He bats with a specific plan. If I try to play like him, I might have scored five more centuries instead of eleven."
It was the eighth instance of Iqbal making 50-plus scores in both innings. But this time, he has done it slightly differently. Lack of a senior player in the top order has often meant he has to cut down on his attacking shots and make sure he stays at the crease for long. In the limited-overs format, Iqbal's role is more refined. As a Test opener, it is not often that he gets the license to play freely, while also looking to provide stability at the top.
However, Shanto - who hit his maiden Test hundred in this match - said that Iqbal's presence made it easier for him, and it allowed him to bat in his own way.
Maybe this Test is the start of a new role for Iqbal, particularly in a team that has many unsettled batting spots. Haque and Mushfiqur Rahim are in charge of the middle order. But at the top, Iqbal is expected to provide a good start irrespective of who his partner is. It is a tough balancing act. But it isn't something new for him, having thrived in various roles for Bangladesh over the years.
Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84