It was strange to note the number of references to the 2012 Asia Cup final, played between Bangladesh and Pakistan, after the round-robin stage match between the same two teams on Wednesday.
Bangladesh won it this time, with Mahmudullah playing a key role in making the win a reality, stroking a full toss from Anwar Ali over midwicket to bring up the winning runs. Back in 2012, the result had gone the other way, Pakistan winning by just two runs in a close finish. Then, Mahmudullah was at the crease when the end came, but having taken three runs off the fourth ball of the final over, he could only look on helplessly as a wicket fell off the fifth ball and only one leg-bye was taken off the last.
At some level, the local media still holds Mahmudullah responsible for not winning that game for Bangladesh, almost blaming him for the reversal.
That was the starting point of a chat Wisden India had with the Bangladesh batsman and part-time offspinner ahead of the final of the latest edition of the Asia Cup, this time a Twenty20 tournament, before we moved on to other things – the twin World Cup centuries, Mashrafe Mortaza’s impact on the current team, and more. Excerpts:
Tell us about the 2012 final – people still blame you for Bangladesh’s failure to win that match. How do you look back at it?
I have never quite understood why I am blamed for the loss. I was at the non-striker’s end for the last two balls, when we needed four runs. We were chasing 237 and ended on 234 for 8. I remember the details clearly. I scored 17 from 16 balls, and I think I could have scored those runs off the last two balls. Of course I feel bad. I feel terrible. It was disappointing. If you saw the pictures after the match, many of us were crying, because we thought we would win it. But over the years, I don’t know about the media, but all of us have put it in the past. It’s changed for Bangladesh cricket. It’s a new beginning. The win against Pakistan the other day should settle things down after what happened in 2012.
All I want to say now, today, is that we are doing well; the team has improved a lot and is doing well now, and that’s the important thing. I don’t like the idea of blaming people. I am sure all of us tried as much as we could that day. We gave our 100%. Maybe even more. It didn’t happen. What more can I say?
Seeing what Bangladesh have achieved in One-Day Internationals in 2015 and at the Asia Cup now, and looking at the reaction of the people here, do you think that final was a missed opportunity for Bangladesh cricket?
It’s tough to say that. The winning habit … it had to start somewhere or the other; it did not start then, but it’s happening now. What’s happened is that we have understood the concept of work ethic more now, we train harder and we work much more professionally now. With experience, we have started reading game situations better as well. The combination we have now, with a number of experienced players and a bunch of talented youngsters, is also better than it was before. There is also healthy competition for places among the players, which is good for us; it’s helping the players perform well.
What do you mean by understanding the concept of work ethic – surely you didn’t take international cricket casually in the past?
No, we didn’t, but it’s all gone up a lot. Each and every individual is working damn hard these days. All of us want to do well enough to hold on to our places in the team. There were lapses in the past, but not for these two-three years.
“We have understood the concept of work ethic more now, we train harder and we work much more professionally now. With experience, we have started reading game situations better as well. The combination we have now, with a number of experienced players and a bunch of talented youngsters, is also better than it was before.”
How did that come about, what changed?
It’s grown over time. It actually started well before Mash (Mashrafe Mortaza) took over as our full-time captain or (Chandika) Hathurusinghe became our coach. I think it’s just something we realised collectively. Everything in cricket takes time. It’s a cultural thing. You can’t just click your fingers and improve the culture in the dressing room. We are seeing the benefits now. We lost a lot of matches in 2013-14, where we got close on many occasions, but made silly mistakes and lost matches. We have learnt. We are past that stage and we know what to do in particular situations now.
You come across as a very disciplined person, who is very calm and in control most of the time. Is that correct?
I think so. It’s something I try very hard to do, to hold my nerves when things get tough. I think I am naturally like that. Actually, I don’t know if I can answer that question myself. Maybe the people who spend time with me can answer that more accurately. But calmness is something I hold very close to my heart; I like the idea of being calm in all situations. When you are calm, it gives you the strength to make the right decisions in all situations, especially in crunch moments. So I try to keep calm at all times, think things through, make it a habit.
But can you make it a habit or is it something that you either have or don’t have?
No, it has to come naturally. Not everyone is the same. Some people are more passionate and emotional, and get excited. Some people might be passionate and calm, or emotional and calm, at the same time. Some people are hot-tempered. I am naturally calm and composed.
Looking at the players and the fans and the celebrations, there is a lot of passion around cricket in Bangladesh. You tend to stand out a bit in that milieu.
It’s true our nation is crazy about cricket. I don’t know about standing out, but it’s true that our people are crazy about cricket. But I think it gives us a great boost.
That’s good for you.
Yes, of course, that’s really good for us. It’s a major advantage for us that so many people have dreams and expectations from us. As far as I am concerned, that’s my profile. You asked me about calmness. I think I am determined, and that’s the main thing. I am very determined to succeed, to do my bit for my team, to help my team achieve something in whichever way.
Also with the ball, though you are mainly a batsman …
(Mahmudullah, after 27 Tests, 125 ODIs and 45 T20Is, still has only three centuries, two of which came in consecutive matches at the 2015 50-over World Cup. He also has a five-wicket haul in Test cricket.)
Of course. Not just bowling. I feel that if I take a brilliant catch or get a run out that helps the team win, that’s more than enough.
Tell us about the twin centuries at the 2015 World Cup – how important were those for you and for Bangladesh?
Those were huge. Let me start with the one against England, the first one, which was huge. It was a very crucial match, because we wanted to qualify for the quarterfinals. We wanted to show the world that we are an improving team; that we were ready to play at the highest level regularly. We are still proving it. Nobody thinks of us as a lesser team any more.
I think it will be immodest if I praise my own innings, but those helped the team do well, and that is very important from my point of view. If my performances, those centuries, helped grab attention about Bangladesh cricket, that is an achievement for me. Those were important milestones in my career. But there’s no point in remaining stuck there. It’s easier to get something than to hold on to it. I want to continue performing.
Those centuries were more impressive because they came against England in Adelaide and New Zealand in Hamilton, though you lost the second game. Those conditions still continue to trouble some batsmen from the subcontinent. How was it for you with such little experience of playing there?
I didn’t have any trouble at all. I am telling you with all honesty, I loved how the ball came on to the bat and how I could play through the line of the ball. I like a little bounce. It suits my game. I had toured Darwin in 2008 for a one-day series, so this was my second Australia tour. The conditions were brilliant for batting. I loved it. Actually, not just me. Soumya (Sarkar), Tamim (Iqbal), Shakib (Al Hasan) … everyone enjoyed batting there. It was a great team effort for us there. And that is proof that if Bangladesh get more chances of playing there, the better we will get.
“I was wondering about the same thing: What would happen if Mash quit? He is a strong man. A strong batsman at No. 8, a strong bowler. And completely fearless. And his leadership – the atmosphere he has created in the team, the way he boosts the team.”
Do you think that with the recent improvements, you might get a chance to tour the big countries more?
For sure. I am confident that if we get more chances like this, the better the team will get.
In the match against Pakistan the other day, you played an incredible stroke off Mohammad Irfan towards the end, when you picked up a short delivery outside off stump and hit it for six over long-off with almost a straight bat. Can you tell us a bit about that shot?
It was a high-risk stroke. The situation was also very tense. I do want to give credit to our coach (Hathurusinghe). He always gives us the freedom to play the way we want to, to back our strengths. We also train on these granite slabs, which help. All the players have that freedom. I had decided that if it was in that zone, I would play that shot. I had tried that shot and other shots like the pull and the cut in the nets for a while. That has really helped. The confidence level was there. It came off well, for sure. The timing was good.
Before wrapping up, tell us about Mashrafe, he has said that he wants to quit …
Oh, but I don’t want that, I don’t want him to leave at all. He’s been outstanding for the team, he has been a champion leader; more than a captain, he has been an outstanding leader. You can see it in our performances. It’s his decision, of course. We see every day how hard he works to just put himself on the field. He has to decide, but I want him to continue playing for as long as possible. I’d like him to rethink his decision.
How will his retirement impact the team?
To be honest, when I first heard the news – I read it on a website – I was wondering about the same thing: What would happen if Mash quit? He is a strong man. A strong batsman at No. 8, a strong bowler. And completely fearless. And his leadership – the atmosphere he has created in the team, the way he boosts the team. And me, as an individual. It will take a long time to replace him.