With a picture-perfect cover drive, Najmul Hossain Shanto reaches his maiden Test century. It's the Pallekele Test against Sri Lanka. He looks quite relieved, his partner - Mominul Haque, the Bangladesh captain - wears a broad smile and has a chat with Shanto. Then Shanto takes off his helmet and bows towards the Bangladesh dressing room. Players and support staff applaud. The bow, it turns out, was not just a random gesture. It had a deeper meaning, especially for Shanto, who then went on to score 163.
"It was meant for everyone in the dressing room - the senior players, the coaching staff and the captain - they all supported me in the last 18 months," Shanto told ESPNcricinfo. "I didn't have the best of times in my last four or five innings, but they all kept supporting me. Everyone tried to give me confidence."
The home series against West Indies in February this year, which Bangladesh lost 2-0, hadn't gone well for Shanto, as his scores read 25, 0, 4 and 11. A young batter who has shown potential, Shanto wasn't scoring runs, and the team needed results. He was, therefore, half-expecting to be dropped for the two-Test series in Sri Lanka.
"Self-doubt dents one's confidence," he said. "When I wasn't playing well, hesitation crept in, and at times I was left wondering if I'd be picked in the next match. But everyone kept supporting me, saying that I would keep playing. Things become easier for a player when the captain and coaching staff gives more opportunities. This environment helped me focus on the match."
After being picked in the XI for Pallekele, he had to score. Shanto walked out in the second over. Tamim Iqbal had settled in quickly, and that helped, Shanto said. "Tamim bhai was batting quite easily at the other end, that too at a rapid pace. The pressure was off me. So I could bat normally. We were trying to put together a big partnership after the early wicket (of Saif Hassan).
"I think what was different about this innings was how I didn't hurry. My process was in place for some time. I was mentally relaxed. I didn't put pressure on myself."
He ended the day unbeaten on 126, with Bangladesh at 302 for 2. It's only after he returned to the hotel that he realised what he had done. "I was focused on just scoring runs during the innings - I didn't feel anything special when I got the century," Shanto said. "I spent a little time thinking about the match itself. I was enjoying batting. Only when I returned to my hotel room I started thinking about the innings."
After the hundred, his next three scores in the series were 0, 0 and 26. This inconsistency might make many undermine his progress but there is a reason to believe the glass is half-full, though.
His 163, an innings in which he looked every bit a Test No. 3, was a mini victory from a selection point of view - consistency in selection, with the hope that the players would repay their faith.
"I break my innings down into small parts but whenever I get set, I try to make it big. This is how I have played since I was very young, and now I am trying to do the same in international cricket."
Najimul Hossain Shanto
And when a team doesn't win often - Bangladesh are without a victory in ten matches (across formats) since February this year, with just one drawn match - the team management might not be expected to give a long rope for a player. But they did. Shanto's century vindicated the patience shown by those who backed him. But when he didn't score against West Indies, or those two ducks against Sri Lanka, that same support could be seen as a privilege.
In Bangladesh, when it comes to backing a player for a long time, the first name that comes to mind is that of Mohammad Ashraful. It was a different time in Bangladesh cricket in 2001 at the start of his career when a debutant centurion just had to be persisted with. Mushfiqur Rahim and Iqbal had ordinary numbers at the start of their careers too, but they had played match-winning knocks in the 2007 World Cup and then announced their arrivals on the international stage.
More recently, Soumya Sarkar started brightly with match-winning knocks against Pakistan and South Africa in his first 30 innings, but around that period, he also suffered a dip in form that has never really gone away. Liton Das was dropped after scoring one half-century in his first 15 innings, and it was only his 121 in the Asia Cup final against India three years ago and the unbeaten 94 against West Indies in the 2019 World Cup that brought him back.
Like all of them, Shanto started off as a prodigy, having scored heavily in school and age-group cricket in Rajshahi, one of the breeding grounds for talent in Bangladesh. He rose quickly to the Under-19s, and played the 2014 and 2016 World Cups at that level.
"I come from a village called Ranhat in Rajshahi where there aren't many established cricketers. I used to cycle and walk about 20 kilometres to the Clemon Rajshahi Cricket Academy. I came through the district and divisional age-group tournaments, having played the Under-14s, Under-17s and Under-19s. My first brush with pressure was at the 2016 Under-19 World Cup. The tournament was held at home. I had the anchor role, so I had to play team-specific knocks. I couldn't just play like I wanted to. I had to stick to whatever the team needed."
It was that Under-19 World Cup that grabbed the selectors' attention. Shanto ended with 259 runs at an average of 64.75. He was fast-tracked to the senior level like many before him, and Shanto made his Test debut within 12 months of playing his last Under-19 game.
"A player is introduced to fitness and technique, and begins to understand a team's perspective at the Under-19 level," he explained. "He can organise himself at this level, but this is the pipeline. It is very different from the senior level. I think what matters more are the high-performance teams, the 'A' team, and Under-23s, where a player starts to get prepared for the highest level."
Shanto's reputation grew, and he was in the fringes of the national team. He made his Test debut too, but that was when Bangladesh were hit by injuries. He was brought back into the side a couple of times in 2018 and 2019 with little by way of returns. After his debut in Christchurch in 20217 against New Zealand, he played just a match the following year, against Zimbabwe. After that, he got an opportunity to play only in February 2020, against Pakistan in an away series.
It was only during last year's Rawalpindi Test that he looked comfortable in his role - driving, cutting and pulling the ball at this level for the first time. But the pandemic disrupted the calendar and he had to wait for a year to get back on the field. The break, though, seemed to have not affected his game. And the Pallekele century in April suggests he could turn the corner soon.
"I have always tried to play the long innings," he said. "I break it down into small parts but whenever I get set, I try to make it big. This is how I have played since I was very young, and now I am trying to do the same in international cricket. I have only had one (century) so far, so I am looking forward to scoring more.
"I want to contribute in every win for Bangladesh, going forward. This is my main target. It can be two good catches, it can be a century or it can just be ten runs."
As far as his next target is concerned, Shanto wants to be consistent to be a part of Bangladesh's future plans.
At a time when there are three World Cups in as many years, there is every opportunity for him to establish as a reliable player. He can certainly look at batters like Rahim and Iqbal, who showed early signs of their longevity, for inspiration and also learn from the likes of Mohammad Ashraful and Aftab Ahmed about not being too complacent.
With the selectors showing signs to give him a long rope, it is now about repaying their faith for Shanto, and that bow to the dressing room in Pallekele could be the start of that.