Is Mahmudullah being wasted?

Mahmudullah scored a half-century AFP

Mahmudullah had never walked into a collapse like the one he faced against West Indies on Friday evening. Bangladesh were 13 for 5 in the sixth over and were staring at quite a number of undesirables: the all-time lowest innings total, the lowest total in Bangladesh and also the team's lowest total. Though he prevented all of these scenarios, he will remain restricted to the role of steering the innings to respectability and safety until the top and middle-order are experienced enough to handle the pressure.

Bangladesh were still bowled out for 136, 75 short of West Indies' modest 211 for 9, with Mahmudullah unbeaten on 56 off 78 balls as he found very few batsmen at the other end to put together a decent partnership. He led the initial recovery, a 74-run sixth wicket stand with captain Mushfiqur Rahim, who later said Mahmudullah would have to shore up the batting line-up from his the No.7 position.

"[Mahmudullah] Riyad bhai has been batting there for most of his career," Mushfiqur said. "But we have some young batsmen so if I, Riyad or Nasir bat up the order, our late order becomes too young or inexperienced. At the same time, if the top order does well, he doesn't have to bat at all.

"Nasir [Hossain] had three good scores in the Tests so it would be difficult to demote him to No. 7. I think our batting order is still fine. We wanted to give the newcomers their regular batting places so that they can bat from within their comfort zones. If there's a collapse, we need one batsman down the order to anchor the innings."

Mushfiqur is correct in thinking that having an experience-light lower order wouldn't help the team or the youngsters, but it also shows the backward step Bangladesh have had to take despite having a year in which they had some ODI success. The Asia Cup performance, for instance, was enough to set up a steady batting line-up but instead, the absence of a regular opening batsman to partner Tamim Iqbal and the injury of Shakib Al Hasan has thrown open too many empty slots. It also shows how inflexible Bangladesh are when under the pressure of winning a game.

They would speak of playing their natural game but none of the aggressive batsmen attacked Kemar Roach and Darren Sammy and neither did the steady hands bat with patience and authority. It is too early to judge Anamul Haque and Mominul Haque, but they should have watched how Mahmudullah, Bangladesh's most successful No.7, dug deep and remained unbeaten on 56. He is the highest run-scorer at that position in world cricket since his ODI debut, but even his form, attitude or ability will not earn him a promotion.

Mushfiqur has asked the top and middle order to show Mahmudullah's tenacity under pressure, particularly in the deciding game of the five-match series on Saturday. Mahmudullah had fought hard for more than two hours, often getting beaten outside off stump and yet continuing to find the gaps whenever the loose ball was available. His seven boundaries broke a spell of dot balls that West Indies were building up and pushing the fielders back.

The batsmen before him did exactly the opposite as their own wastefulness helped West Indies. Anamul, Mominul and Naeem Islam were all caught trying to force the pace while Tamim and Hossain was comprehensively beaten by Roach's pace. The top-order collapse was reminiscent of the careless performance that shut them out for 58 runs in the infamous World Cup match last year. Mohammad Ashraful was the No. 7 then, but this time they had a Mahmudullah to cushion the fall.

"Credit goes to him for the way he played," Mushfiqur said. "I would hope that our top order bats exactly like he did today. We knew they would attack us with pace. The wicket wasn't too bad, and it was only natural that the two new balls, under lights, would swing.

"They bowled well but our top-order batsman should have been more serious, take a bit more of the challenge, it wouldn't have been 13 for 5. Chasing 212 runs became very difficult from there."

In Mahmudullah, Bangladesh have a batsman who is willing to lose the ego of getting beaten time and again, and still have the fortitude to bat the way he likes. He has had success, too, remaining unbeaten on 12 occasions when the team won, which includes his famous last-ditch effort against England in the World Cup. The Dhaka Test last month gave him the confidence, particularly the testing period he survived in the second innings.

He is happy batting at No. 7 because the team management prefers him there but a time will come next year when Bangladesh would need him early in a chase before the top order collapses, rather than at a point when the collapse has already happened.