A much improved T20I batsman. A middle-order stalwart in ODIs. A calming influence and an all-round nice guy. Mahmudullah is all these things, but is he someone Bangladesh can bank on in Test cricket?
The answer or solution probably lies in something the BCB has been pondering for a while now: separating the core groups for the three formats. Since 2015, Mahmudullah has been a more reliable ODI batsman than before, averaging 35.98 - including all his three centuries in the format - as against an average of 32.16 prior to that. And ever since Chandika Hathurusingha drilled into him his importance as a T20I finisher, he's been a match-winner.
The problem is with Tests.
With Shakib Al Hasan and Tamim Iqbal missing, Mahmudullah and Mushfiqur Rahim are the two senior batsmen in the side. In the Indore Test, which Bangladesh lost inside three days, Mushfiqur top-scored in both innings for his team with 43 and 64. That's in team totals of 150 and 213. As for Mahmudullah, in the first innings, he left all three stumps exposed as he attempted a sweep off R Ashwin, missed altogether, and was bowled. In the second, he went after a Mohammed Shami length ball outside off and poked it to the slips. Not what you'd expect.
"As Domingo has said, Bangladesh are prepared to struggle with new faces in the side. It would be like taking a clean break from the era of picking players on reputation and form from other formats."
Mahmudullah played important hands in Test wins last year against Zimbabwe and West Indies, and even scored a classy century against New Zealand in Hamilton, though in a losing cause, earlier this year. Three of his four Test centuries have come in the last 12 months. Around this time last year was the first time in many years that Mahmudullah truly batted like a proper Test batsman, gritting it out against Zimbabwe to make an unbeaten 101 to set up a big fourth-innings target for the visitors.
But, after 47 Tests, that average still reads 32.07. He scored 7 and 7 in the two innings in the Chattogram Test loss to Afghanistan in September, and now just 25 runs in Indore. Mahmudullah's trend of going for several innings without making a substantial contribution is another reason why his Test career has never quite taken off: since his debut in July 2009, there have been six occasions when he has not crossed fifty in five or more innings in a row.
When coach Russell Domingo said during the Indore Test that the team management was looking to restructure the Test side, one wondered if Mahmudullah was in those discussions. Yes, there might be some backlash if that happens, but as Domingo said, they are prepared to struggle with new faces in the side. It would be like taking a clean break from the era of picking players on reputation and form from other formats.
This, at a time when it is clear that the BCB is thinking about three teams for the three formats. Naming Mominul Haque as the Test captain is a step in that direction, and if a few more Test specialists start performing consistently, Bangladesh's World Test Championship campaign, which runs till mid-2021, will have the stability and focus it needs.
Even if Mahmudullah doesn't figure there, if he is handed the reins of the T20I side - given his improvement there as a batsman and the fact that he is a natural leader in the format - Bangladesh will have a proper roadmap towards next year's T20 World Cup too. There should be a separate, grander plan for the ODI side as well, where Mahmudullah will be central to the overall strategy for the 2023 World Cup.
So, in many ways, Mahmudullah stepping away from the Test side wouldn't be the worst thing for him or the team. Can Bangladesh afford to walk that route right now, though, with Shakib and Tamim out and, more immediately, a Test series on the line?