T20 World Cup 2024 – Can Najmul Hossain Shanto pilot a successful World Cup campaign for Bangladesh?

Delhi, November 6, 2023. Sri Lanka are 135 for 4 against Bangladesh when Angelo Mathews saunters in looking at his helmet strap. Najmul Hossain Shanto notices something that will change cricketing relations between the two sides forever. He tells his captain, Shakib Al Hasan, that if he were to appeal, Mathews could be dismissed timed-out. Shakib does a double take but then goes to umpire Marais Erasmus. The rest is history.

It takes courage to stand up in the hierarchical inner world of Bangladesh cricket, and it was perhaps a sign of Shanto’s burgeoning confidence and his leadership qualities that Shakib was open to taking inputs from him. Shanto improved significantly in 2023, emerging from a five-year slump in which he was barely hanging on to his place in the team. He also grew in stature in the side, first by becoming a reliable No. 3, and by the time the Delhi game came around, ascendinging to the vice-captaincy.

Appointing a captain outside of Bangladesh’s big five – Shakib, Tamim, Mashrafe Mortaza, Mahmudullah and Mushfiqur Rahim – has been problematic over the years. Mominul Haque led them to the miraculous Mt Maunganui Test win against New Zealand but within six months he was out, unable to handle the pressure. Litton Das captained Bangladesh to the ODI series win against India in 2022, but he then admitted to the BCB that he was not looking forward to leading long-term.

His leadership credentials were tested hard just a week before the T20 World Cup, when Bangladesh played USA for the first time and lost the T20I series 2-1. Shanto’s batting form had taken a dip, and coupled with the loss, the pressure is well and truly on him to turn things around, and fast, for the team.

We meet on a relatively mild morning in Dhaka, the day after Bangladesh beat Zimbabwe in the fourth T20I in Mirpur earlier this month. I mention to Shanto his save on the boundary in the 19th over that ultimately made the difference for his side. He couldn’t hold on to Blessing Muzarabani’s lofted shot towards wide long-off, but his boundary-line juggling saved at least four runs. Bangladesh won by five.

Shanto doesn’t quite agree with me and quickly changes the topic, a subtle reinforcement of his “team first” mantra.

“The team culture is better now,” he says when I ask how his team-mates have reacted to his captaincy. “I think it is important for everyone to know that when we lose a match these days, we don’t go down emotionally. In the same way, when we win these days, we don’t jump high into the sky. We try to evaluate how we can play better even after we win the game. We also try to pick the positives when we lose.

“This is how we are trying to grow the team culture in the last six or seven months. I think every player tries to help each other. For example, you will always see Taskin [Ahmed] helping the other bowlers. Even someone as young as Rishad [Hossain] tries to help the senior team-mates in the field.”

Shanto looks up to Shakib and MS Dhoni, two very different captains, as his leadership role models.

“I like Shakib bhai‘s captaincy. He is very attacking, taking brave decisions. I think it has helped me as a captain so far. I have been successful emulating him in many ways.

“I also admire MS Dhoni’s captaincy. From what I could see on TV, he is very calm in tough moments. I don’t know what goes on inside him. He makes clear decisions. They could be right or wrong, but he makes them calmly.”

Shanto learned the value of having a calm head on one’s shoulders in the World Cup last year. Apart from leading the side for a couple of games due to an injury to Shakib, Shanto’s form took a hit as the team management shuffled him and everyone else around in the batting order in a madcap strategy.

“I think a captain has to remain calm at these big events. People will have huge expectations, so without focusing on those things, I want to focus on motivating my team. I also have to look to contribute as a batter. It will take the team to a better position if I can execute the plans without thinking too much,” he says.

He is also trying to keep his batting and captaincy separate, which is easier said than done, especially in a high-pressure environment like Bangladesh cricket.

“When I am batting out there, I think like a batter. I don’t think that I have to score all the runs just because I am the captain. I feel like a captain when I am fielding: who to bowl at what time. I also have to handle a lot of things off the field. I am enjoying those responsibilities,” he says.

Challenges came early in Shanto’s life. Khaled Mashud, the former Bangladesh captain, first saw Shanto as a 12-year-old in the nets at his cricket academy in Rajshahi.

“He had a tough time travelling every day,” Mashud says. “He lived far away. He used to cycle for two or three kilometres from his home to reach the main road, where he left the cycle in a shop. From there he would take the bus to come to Rajshahi city. And then he needed an auto-rickshaw ride to get to the academy.

“He never missed a day of practice, come rain or shine. He was very hardworking and talented from a very young age.

“I have loved watching Shanto grow into such a good cricketer. He has made lots of sacrifices. He has given his all to come to this stage. I want to see him become a top-level performer who has a long career. I think he has it in him. He is aware of the arithmetic of scoring runs.”

After his time under Mashud’s tutelage, Shanto spent the last eight years working with Khaled Mahmud, another former Bangladesh captain and the coach of Abahani Limited, for whom Shanto has been playing in the Dhaka Premier League since 2016.

Mahmud thinks Shanto is a once-in-a-generation cricketer in the mould of Michael Hussey.

“I call him a full-time cricketer,” he says. “He doesn’t think about anything other than cricket. He always wants to improve. He is a calm, sensible person. He keeps things under control. He is captaincy material.”

Shanto spends hours in the nets under the watchful eyes of Mahmud at the Shere Bangla National Stadium and listens to his advice keenly. During his lean years from 2018 to 2021, Mahmud championed him to the BCB and to Bangladesh’s team management.

“He has to work much harder to express himself fully. Captaining Bangladesh is not easy. I always tell him that he has to make his own decisions,” Mahmud says. “The coach will only play a supporting role. At the end of the day, it will be your decision that counts. If you make a wrong decision, you can reconcile it with yourself. If the coach or someone else is heavily involved, you won’t be able to.

“He is a confident guy, but consistency is becoming a hurdle for him. I spoke to him recently. I told him that it looks like you are in a lot of hurry in the middle. It is not written anywhere that you have to hit a six every ball in T20s.”

When Shanto’s form dipped between 2018 and 2022, Mahmud was impressed by how he kept hitting the nets and sharpening his fielding.

“It was such a tough time for him, the way he was trolled on social media. I used to tell him that you have to prove it in the middle. He vowed to come back strongly. He trained hard on his skills and fitness. He is a gun fielder and a fast mover on the ground. I think those tough times really made him the cricketer he is today,” says Mahmud.

Shanto knows exactly when the tide turned for him – at the 2022 T20 World Cup, where he struck two fifties. No one else saw it as a major achievement at the time, but for Shanto it meant the world. His training methods were finally yielding results.

“I wasn’t that confident before the T20 World Cup. I worked very hard on my skills and they improved a lot. Once I realised that, it gave me confidence. I changed my thought process, which helped me do well in that tournament.

“When I was playing in the World Cup, I got positive results. If it hadn’t been that way, it would have been difficult. The most important thing is to keep improving my skills. It gives a better mentality. I can believe in myself,” he says.

Shanto’s opposite number during the Zimbabwe series, Sikandar Raza, a keen observer of Bangladesh cricket, says Shanto needs support to build himself into his captaincy. Interestingly the Bangladesh captain is the player Raza has bowled to the most in T20Is.

“Every captain has their ideology and philosophy,” says Raza “If I have the wellbeing of everyone in my team at heart, then my captaincy will become easier. If I am only thinking about myself, captaincy is hard.

“I hope Bangladesh give him time. Allow him to make mistakes. He has won some series, he has lost some series. That’s how a captain is formed. His personal performance will play a huge role in him making the right decisions.”

Mashud, who led Bangladesh during some of their worst times, famously the 2003 World Cup, believes Shanto will be best served if he enjoys the upcoming challenge of the T20 World Cup.

“Bangladesh captaincy, or captaincy in any team for that matter, is tough when you don’t have the right soldiers,” Mashud says. “It is not like Shanto is leading a team like India. He has to lead like he has nothing to lose but also enjoy his time in the middle. The likes of [Towhid] Hridoy, Tanzid [Hasan] and Rishad can suddenly become match-winners. Shanto should look to best utilise them. He shouldn’t worry too much about what people are saying or what’s happening outside.”

Ahead of his biggest assignment, Shanto reflects on his early days in Rajshahi. He believes that getting out of his neighbourhood to become a cricketer was an achievement in itself, but as he rose rapidly through the age-group ranks and into the world of international cricket, his goals got bigger.

“I wouldn’t have reached where I have without Allah’s blessings. Where I grew up, nobody had any idea that cricket could be taken up as a profession. You have to love the game and then you have to do hard work with honesty. I faced a lot of noise from people around me in my early days. They didn’t trust me, or believe in me. I had to practise correctly and work hard every day. I believed in myself strongly. If a cricketer does these things, they can do even better than me,” he says.

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo’s Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84

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