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Life in the time of Mashrafe Mortaza, by Tamim Iqbal and Mahmudullah

A look at the former captain's plans, instincts, vision, charisma and philosophy

Mohammad Isam
Mohammad Isam
Mashrafe Mortaza played a key role in reviving the careers of Tamim Iqbal and Mahmudullah  •  AFP via Getty Images

Mashrafe Mortaza played a key role in reviving the careers of Tamim Iqbal and Mahmudullah  •  AFP via Getty Images

The end of Mashrafe Mortaza's captaincy stint is a defining moment in Bangladesh's cricket history. His team-mates have been lavish with their tributes and here, we take a closer look at his leadership qualities, through the eyes of two of his closest lieutenants; Tamim Iqbal and Mahmudullah.
Forming a core group
After Bangladesh had slipped in ODIs and T20Is in 2014, the BCB decided to split the captaincy for the first time. Mushfiqur Rahim had the Test job, while Mortaza, who had just recovered from an injury, was given white-ball duties. This was going to be a test case for the BCB, particularly because of Mortaza's injury history which cut short his two previous captaincy stints.
Very early in his third stint, Mortaza wanted to do away with Bangladesh's culture of relying on individuals and wasn't afraid of rebuking his team when he saw a lack of seriousness. At the same time, Mortaza slowly began to form a core group of senior cricketers from the 2015 World Cup squad, who would be the pillars around whom his team would be built.
He had four senior players in the squad already - Shakib Al Hasan, Iqbal, Rahim and Mahmudullah - but two of them were low on confidence. Mahmudullah's form had been iffy for the preceding two years, but he found some form when he was asked to bat higher up the order in a couple of matches leading up to the World Cup. Mortaza and coach Chandika Hathurusingha sensed that Mahmudullah could do with a bit of freedom for which he needed to be promoted, as he was a stroke-maker suited to playing on-the-rise shots, particularly on occasions when field restrictions were still in effect. Mahmudullah had a good tournament and his 103 from No. 4 against England in Adelaide helped Bangladesh progress to the knockouts for the first time.
Mahmudullah believes that Mortaza's fight for the cause of every cricketer in his team set him apart from all the other captains. "You must have seen how we spend time together," Mahmudullah told ESPNcricinfo. "We have a special bond. He fought for every individual player. I am a big example. I was in deep trouble at one point. He was right next to me. He gave me extraordinary support not only as my captain, but as my brother and friend. I will forever be thankful to him. We spent a lot of time together."
Mortaza also helped Iqbal out of a similar rut during the 2015 World Cup. It was an ordinary campaign for the batsman, who was accused by social media trolls of being in the team due to the influence his uncle Akram Khan - former Bangladesh captain, chief selector and later board director - wielded.
Mortaza took Iqbal under his wing and gave him all the confidence he could. The result: Iqbal turned things around quickly, slamming two ODI hundreds and a Test double-hundred against Pakistan soon after the World Cup.
Building a team
The encouraging performance from Rubel Hossain and Taskin Ahmed in the 2015 World Cup, and the emergence of Mustafizur Rahman prompted Mortaza to ask the then BCB administration to prepare pace-friendly pitches for the ODIs against India. In the first ODI, he went in with a four-man pace attack.
It was a wild idea coming from a Bangladesh captain but Mortaza sensed that the best way to counter India's batsmen would be pace. His four-card trick reaped instant rewards, with Mustafizur leading the way as Bangladesh won the series 2-1.
Iqbal said that Mortaza's insistence that they could beat India rubbed off on the rest of the group, and the team started to believe.
"I think one of his greatest quality was how he kept on saying 'we can win, we can win', all the time," Iqbal told ESPNcricinfo. "When he said we can beat India in the ODI series in 2015, it seemed impossible. They were the No. 1 side in the world [ranked No. 2 in ODIs at the time]. But he kept saying it, and that positivity spread around the team. Slowly we also started to believe that we can win."
Mortaza kept this belief in pace at home for much of his captaincy, but Ahmed's form quickly declined while Rahman lost confidence in his cutters - his main weapon - after his shoulder surgery in 2016. Mortaza himself took the new ball from time to time when the other pacers struggled for form. But for five years, he fought for his belief in the idea that pace works against certain teams even at home, and tried to instill that in his team.
An instinctive captain
His winning mentality spurred many progressive ideas for the Bangladesh team management, and one of them was to establish the need for four frontline bowlers. He was keen to cash in on allrounders like Shakib and Rahim (as keeper-batsman), who provided balance to the side with their dual roles. He often said that replacing Shakib meant bringing in two players, so when Shakib was around, and when Rahim kept wickets, it freed up two places for Mortaza, and more often than not, Mortaza picked bowlers.
Mortaza was also an instinctive captain who didn't shy away from deciding to take himself off in the middle of a spell. He once said: "I don't wait for two or three overs like many captains. If I see that it isn't happening for a bowler, I will change him after an over. It doesn't happen with planning, sometimes you just have to make those changes."
A captain with a vision
Mortaza wanted a long-term vision for his team, so he was constantly looking for missing pieces of the puzzle. One of his biggest challenges was to find a suitable opening partner for Iqbal. For example, in 2018, he publicly gave Anamul Haque the assurance to make the opening slot his own. Haque ultimately failed to do so, but more recently, Mortaza revealed that Liton Das had told him that he only wanted to play as an opener. Mortaza kept that request in mind, and towards the end of his captaincy tried to help Das settle down as an opener too.
Mortaza didn't shy away from backing erratic players either. He famously backed Hossain when his career was derailed by a criminal charge before the 2015 World Cup. Time after time, Sabbir Rahman failed to maintain discipline but Mortaza's belief in his hitting abilities hardly wavered. Mortaza also backed players with more limited ability like Arafat Sunny, a domestic veteran who came good for a brief period at the highest level. He was also lucky to find Mohammad Saifuddin towards the latter part of his stint.
His X-factor, his charisma
Mortaza's life story, particularly his comebacks from crippling injuries, have often been enough to inspire team-mates, but on occasion, he has had to dig deep. Shane Jurgensen, the former Bangladesh coach, and Iqbal have described two separate incidents where Mortaza's mere presence changed the mood of the entire team.
Incidentally, both those moments came after a Test series drubbing, heading into an ODI series, and both against West Indies, although six years apart. In 2012, after Bangladesh went down 2-0 to West Indies at home, Mortaza took the entire team from Khulna to his hometown Narail for a day out. Jurgensen claimed that the team got into a different mood after that.
A similar thing happened in the West Indies in 2018, after Bangladesh were hammered in the Test series. Mortaza wasn't supposed to head to the West Indies as he hadn't fully recovered from an injury. He arrived a couple of days before the first ODI, and Iqbal says that one look at him, and the dressing-room atmosphere changed.
"I have played a lot of matches with Mortaza bhai so sometimes it takes a bit of time to realise certain aspects of a particular individual," Iqbal said. "I understood why this guy is so special during our 2018 West Indies tour. We were really down after the Test series. You can imagine the team atmosphere, but then when Mortaza arrived for the ODI series, the whole mood of the team changed. Something just clicked within the team seeing Mortaza."
On both occasions, Bangladesh went on to win the ODI series.
His philosophy, a lasting legacy
Mortaza was once asked whether an upcoming match against South Africa, with the series tied at 1-1, was going to be his greatest challenge.
"Every challenge is different but there is no bigger challenge for me than to raise my son and daughter."
It wasn't a jaw-dropping reply but the coming years would reveal that it summed up the person he was, and the philosophy he often tried inculcate. While Mortaza wanted his team to give their 100%, he never wanted them to lose sight of the fact that there was more to life than just cricket, and their careers. He spent countless hours chatting with many of his team-mates in his room, sipping cups of tea, and sharing stories.
Iqbal said that Mortaza brought a very Bangladeshi quality to the team setting. "How he treated every player isn't something common for professional sports teams. You won't find it anywhere else in the world. But due to our culture, you needed a captain who would really take care of a player who is in poor form," he said.
Mahmudullah said that Mortaza's focus on the small contributions really made a big difference within the team environment.
"A captain is also a player. A lot of times, you need to perform. Even during his crunch time, he kept building the team. He was always worried about the team. He stood tall," Mahmudullah said. "He always wanted us to perform for each other, enjoy another's performance. He never overlooked small achievements and contributions. He always addressed those small things, and praised whoever had done it. I think it was a great quality."

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84