For Bangladesh cricket captain Khaled Mahmud (?Sujon?), the ongoing Pakistan series was billed as "make-or-break". Two days into the series, many believe he is heading for an unceremonious exit from the captaincy. The question is when, and, equally important, who replaces him?
Unexpectedly given a job he likely did not ask for when the previous captain, Khaled Mashud, stepped down at the end of Bangladesh's World Cup debacle, Mahmud has struggled to come to terms with test cricket. Once a useful one day utility player, Mahmud is fondly remembered by fans for his "fighting spirit" and gritty resistance in the face of a seemingly endless string of defeats. His greatest glory came in a match-winning role in Bangladesh's historic World Cup win over Pakistan in 1999, a single result that had enormous influence on his country gaining test status. And for that Mahmud will have a place in the record books and in the heart of Bangladeshi fans.
In more recent times, however, Mahmud is setting a more ominous record and one that seemingly gets worse with every game he plays. Having captured a grand total of one test wicket from his 8 test matches, Mahmud owns the record for the highest test match average for a bowler in the history of test cricket - a whopping 472 at the conclusion of the second day of the ongoing Karachi test. His strike rate is 774. Both numbers are climbing with every gentle medium pace ball he sends down. Now, many test bowlers have taken one wicket. But Mahmud isn?t any part-time bowler, he is Bangladesh?s first change bowler and often decides to bowl as many overs, if not more, as his regular striker bowlers.
His occupation of the 3rd pace bowler?s slot means Bangladesh can only field 3 front line bowlers in their lineup ? 2 pacers and a specialist spinner ? not counting Mahmud. No wonder their bowling at times appears toothless. Better bowlers such as pacer Manjurul Islam cannot get into the playing XI. In pace-friendly environments such as Australia, Bangladesh has been forced to play without their specialist spinner, Mohammad Rafique.
Mahmud?s role on the team is an "all-rounder". Looking at his test batting record so far, one realizes this is a very generous label. Including the first innings in Karachi, he has scored a total of 149 career test runs at an average of 11.46, at the low end of averages even by Bangladesh?s meager standards. His knocks nowadays typically resemble the 12-ball 14 runs he scored during a 16-minute stay at the crease in the first innings. Rarely has he been able to graft the kind of late-order resistance that his predecessor, Mashud, was regularly able to do as skipper. No doubt Mahmud?s aggressive style is better suited to the one-day game, but even there his confidence and productivity are not what they used to be before he became captain.
To give him credit, Mahmud has bucked the trend of many of his predecessors by publicly owning up to his performance failures. Both he and his coach, Dave Whatmore, know the clock is ticking. While frankly acknowledging the issue, Whatmore has given Mahmud a vote of confidence so far, pointing out, and rightly so, the Bangladesh captaincy is no easy job and the skipper needs some time. The coach points to some of Mahmud?s other qualities ? his relationships on the team, the respect he commands and his ability to forge team unity.
No doubt these are all good qualities for a captain to possess. But performances aside, are Mahmud?s on-field decisions beginning to become a liability as well? All captains go through a learning process, but some of Mahmud?s decisions relative to when he brings himself on are hurting the team. Case in point is the end of the second day in Karachi. Having taken the second new ball, Bangladesh?s primary strike bowler, Mashrafee Mortaza, had just removed the biggest thorn in Bangladeshi side, debutant Yasir Hameed, in the 87th over. Hameed had amassed a spectacular, chanceless 170, the highest century on debut for his country. On a day when Bangladeshi bowlers did reasonably well against the other Pakistani batsman, including sending Inzimam back for a duck, Mashrafee?s dismissal of Hameed with the score at 270/5 presented a wonderful opportunity for the visitors to make further inroads and prevent a massive Pakistan total. Instead of allowing his strike bowlers to continue attacking the newly arrived and not-yet-proven Misbah-ul-Haq, Mahmud brought himself back on from Mashrafee?s end. Eventually switching to a dual spin attack, Mahmud allowed Pakistan to see off the new ball and escape the remaining 7 overs comfortably poised at 301/5. By the end of the day, Mahmud had bowled more overs and given away more runs than either Mashrafee or the other strike bowler, Tapash Baisya. For the captain, another day at the office.
While Bangladesh may yet collapse in their second innings and hand Pakistan the obligatory innings victory within 4 days, there is a good chance this test will remain competitive through the end. Mahmud?s bowling rotation at the end of the second day, however, may very well prove to be critical in the final outcome of the match.
The Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) made a huge elementary mistake in selecting Mahmud as captain. Prior to his selection, Mahmud was not able to hold down a regular test team position. Thus he finds himself on the team as captain when he could likely not make the team as a player. Without the benefit of systematically nurturing and promoting captain-caliber players from the first class domestic teams to the national squad, the BCB seems to have limited options. The BCB tends to groom its captains in the hot seat, rarely preparing anyone for the job beforehand. To Mahmud?s defense, some of the current controversy is not his fault; he was set up to fail.
One would hope Bangladesh does not make the same mistake again when choosing Mahmud?s eventual successor. Not only should the next captain be someone who can command a regular position on the team, have the pre-requisite experience and leadership, but also have enough years left in his cricket to serve a longer-term purpose. Bangladesh can ill afford the constant rotation of the captaincy in this critical stage of its cricket development. With an eye to the future, and after watching the success of South Africa?s young Graeme Smith, many feel it is time to hand over the reins to youngsters such as Alok Kapali. But there is perhaps only one man who currently meets all the criteria above. He happens to be the Vice Captain of the team ? Habibul Bashar. Bashar may be destined to be Bangladesh?s captain, but one would hope he has been an astute observer both on and off the field.
When will Mahmud be replaced? More than anyone else, that is in Dave Whatmore?s hands. Whatmore has a track record of making fair decisions, and chances are it will come after the Pakistan tour.
Before the happens, one desperately hopes Khaled Mahmud Sujon grabs another wicket or two, and goes out with some of the respect he deserves for his long service to the game in his country.