Leaning into a full-length Shannon Gabriel delivery, Liton Das just brush-stroked it over long-off. A stroke that was all hands and timing, arguably the most graceful of the 17 hits that landed on the other side of the fence in the heavy-scoring match that saw Bangladesh cause a upset of sorts, beating West Indies by 7 wickets at Taunton. Liton’s 94 not out and his 189 runs stand with Shakib-al-Hasan resulted in Bangladesh becoming the first team in this World Cup to chase down a 300 plus target.
But his childhood coach, Montu Dutta was wowed by the two sixes that bookended it—two bludgeoning pulls he can’t stop swooning over. “Look at his balance, his footwork, the eyes that are right on top of the ball, the follow through. I will take a picture and frame this. He might be a great driver but it’s his pulls that make me the happiest,” gushes Dutta, head coach of the Bangladesh Krira Shikka Protishtan, the equivalent of National Cricket Academy, which has produced most of Bangladesh’s top players in the two decades, from Shakib-al-Hasan to Mushfiqur Rahim and Abdur Razzakk to Soumya Sarkar.
The most telling facet of his pull was how early he switched to the back-foot and waited for the pull. He hardly shuffled across, but still had the time to fetch it from a yard outside the off-stump. “No one plays the pull shot as beautifully as Liton in Bangladesh. Look at the time he has at his disposal,” asserts Dutta. Not Tamim Iqbal. Not Shakib-al-Hasan. Not even Mohammad Ashraful, the most talented yet self-destructive batsman the country has produced.
It, though, wasn’t the case a few years ago. Dutta narrates his transformation tale with a tinge of personal triumph. “A few years ago, he would have run away from a bouncer. I have lost count of the number of times he had been hit on the helmet or the body. There had been times when even we even feared for his safety while batting. Maybe, he was very short that fast bowlers targetted him with short-balls. It also didn’t help him that he never looked to duck or sway from bouncers. He was so feisty that he wanted to take them on,” he says, chuckling. Some of the coaches didn’t bother about his batting, as he was chiefly in the team for his keeping skills. The well-woven trope: Short, sticky, chatty, you fit the ‘keeper’s bill’
But one evening after practice, Liton barged into Dutta’s room and broke down. “Sir, why can’t I play the pull shot like others. I want to be a better puller than all of them. Please help me sir or I will quit.” Moved, Dutta began sparing more time for him. After all, he had made a lot of sacrifices to be at the academy. His mother wanted him to get into government service and was reluctant to let her eldest son leave her and the family behind at Dinajpur, some eight hours from Dhaka. Liton himself had troubles adjusting to the congestion and traffic snarls of the capital city.
So after the regular sessions were over, he used to take him to nets and feed him with chest-high full tosses from 15 yards. “The same old trick, wet tennis balls at his body. The number of balls he faced went up from 100 in the first week to 300 by the third. After a while, every day I used to wake up with a shoulder strain,” he says, giggling.
The initial focus was building a sturdy defence, drilling into him Bangla equivalent of learn-to-crawl-before-you-walk proverb. “I advised him not to hurry into learning a new stroke, but learn it gradually. The routine continued for the best part of a year. I don’t think we have worked harder on any stroke. He had all the other strokes but he knew how important it was to develop the pull shot, especially with his ambition to play for the country,” he says.
Then one day, just like that, his pulling prowess grabbed the attention of the entire country, when he tore into Rubel Hossain, arguably the fastest bowler Bangladesh has produced. The 50 over premier division match he recalled happened in the summer of 2012, when Liton was just 17. “We needed 46 runs in the last three overs, and he just came and belted Hossain for five successive boundaries,” he recollects. All around the park, he specifies. Three of them pulls. “After the first pull, the opposition captain statioined three fielders in the leg. But it didn’t matter, he kept playing the pulls, beat them all and we won the match with 2-3 balls to spare,” he remembers.
Among those awe-struck by his batting was the bowler Hossain himself. “He gave him a signed cricket kit and told me to take good care of him. Later, I came to know that he had told about Liton to Bangladesh’s national team selectors. A couple of them, in fact, came to watch our next match,” he says.
Just three years later, he was in the national team. Though his stint with the national team has been largely start-stop, there’s no dearth of support back home. “He’s a precious talent and should be nurtured carefully. He might take time to blossom but has to be persisted with. The World Cup could be the big turning point of his career, like that knock against Rubel’s team (Chittagong Division).” It was the same vibes Dutta got when watching his ward, or Litu as he calls him, tore into Gabriel. The pull he still can’t stop swooning over.