Bangladesh captain Mushfiqur Rahim and his deputy Mahmudullah have taken the long overdue steps from being occasional match-winners to players who can regularly do so. Their performance in the 3-2 victory in the ODI series against West Indies has been the biggest gain for Bangladesh in the last four weeks of international cricket.
In the deciding match in Mirpur, Bangladesh had stumbled to 30 for 3 in pursuit of 217, when Mushfiqur and Mahmudullah counterattacked and put on 91 runs. They only made 40s, but their contributions prevented a susceptible line-up from collapsing.
What made their contributions in this series stand out was the absence of Shakib Al Hasan, who was injured for the ODIs. Normally, Shakib does it all, and that has been the case in Bangladesh's few series wins in the last few years. When they beat a second-string West Indies in 2009, Shakib played the lead with Tamim Iqbal and Mahmudullah in supporting roles. Against New Zealand in 2010, Shakib did it by himself, scoring hundreds, taking wickets and leading the side as Bangladesh won 4-0.
Shakib was also a significant contributor to Bangladesh's Asia Cup victory in March, but over the last two years Mushfiqur and Mahmudullah have also been match-winners, mostly finishing tense chases. They had the leadership roles on paper but hadn't been performing them on the field. Now Mushfiqur, the more talkative of the two, has asserted himself as a captain by leading from the front in difficult times. Mahmudullah's reticent nature, however, was taken as reclusive, even soft at times.
In the last four weeks he has been anything but soft. After making 62 in the first innings of the Dhaka Test, Mahmudullah had gathered enough confidence to take on Tino Best. He was bruised but remained at the crease for 83 minutes in the second innings, taking hits on the body, fighting bouncers by hooking for six, a rarity for Bangladesh batsmen. He was dismissed by Best in both innings but his career had advanced. Just before West Indies arrived, there had been calls for Mahmudullah to be dropped after he had been in poor form in the World Twenty20s as well as in first-class cricket.
"I know that if you're not performing, you are not worth your place in the team," Mahmudullah said. "It was an extra responsibility to perform consistently. I was under pressure but all I thought of was to contribute to the team, and perform consistently.
"I didn't have a good time in the last few matches but since I batted at No. 7 my role is of the contributor, not the one who makes the big runs. It doesn't always catch people's attention as a result."
Mahmudullah credited Mushfiqur for giving him enough space, a factor that was vital in him regaining confidence. But more importantly it was taking up responsibility that pushed him to do more for the team. "Without Shakib, who is our best player, I felt I had to stand up in the team," he said. "My role as the vice-captain is to help the team's leader. Mushfiqur is an intelligent guy and we talk a lot among ourselves about what needs to be done for the team to do better."
Mahmudullah's promotion to No. 5 was not likely because of the lack of experience in the line-up, but Mushfiqur thought it would be best to give his form player more opportunity to bat. It was a positive move, one that the captain needed time to make, but he did change things around to give the team a positive outlook.
Mushfiqur's captaincy was also heavily tested in this series, and he will be pleased with his progress after taking over from Shakib in controversial circumstances last year. After the early exit from the World Twenty20s and the Test series loss to West Indies, Mushfiqur put himself under immense pressure. He came good with a Man-of-the-Series performance in the ODIs against West Indies, and will have a clearer idea of how fortunes fluctuate in cricket.
Bangladesh need more players in their team to take the step up that Mushfiqur and Mahmudullah have, if they are to build on their success in 2013.