Mahmudullah on T20 World Cup: 'Playing well but losing doesn't quite have the same effect as actually winning'

Mahmudullah walks out for a hit in the nets AFP/Getty Images

Bangladesh T20I captain Mahmudullah is at the front and centre of his team's build-up to the T20 World Cup. He has led them to three series wins in a row - away in Zimbabwe, and at home against Australia and New Zealand - since mid-July. His impressive recent performances with the bat, coupled with his captaincy of a side comprising a mix of young and experienced players bodes well for Bangladesh's immediate future. In this chat with ESPNcricinfo, he explains how he has helped transform the side.

What will be your biggest challenge going into the T20 World Cup?
I am expecting the pitches in Dubai and Abu Dhabi to be a bit more batting-friendly and sporting that the ones we have played on. I think there, the batsmen have to take a bit more responsibility. To that end, there can't be any fear of failure. We have to set ourselves free. We have to be aggressive in whatever we do.

We might need to chase 160-180 regularly against top teams. To beat the best teams, we must think positively and play with freedom - I think that is very important as a batsman in T20s. Sometimes we will get bowled out for 120, but if we don't have an aggressive approach, we can't achieve the main goal. There will be a risk factor chasing 170-plus, but if you can get over it and reach the challenge, we can become a good team.

You took over the T20I captaincy permanently in late 2019 - do you feel that you are going to the T20 World Cup with a settled team?
The World Cup got postponed because of Covid-19. We were frustrated staying away from cricket for so long. But now we are back on track. We are playing all formats regularly. I think it was very important to play these three series before the World Cup. I must thank the BCB for organising them despite the speculations and restrictions [around hosting matches].

It is an encouraging sign that we are heading to the World Cup with a number of wins under our belt. Winning regularly always boosts confidence. Playing well but losing doesn't quite have the same effect as actually winning.

I believe you back a bowler to the point where you tell him that if he gets hit after setting an aggressive field, the runs will be on you, and not him. Tell us about that, the sense of responsibility?
I enjoy being responsible. I like this challenge. I think it brings the best out in me. Sometimes the bowler knows exactly what they are going to bowl. But when they are confused about it, I tell them to leave it to me. "I will set the field; you just bowl," I say to them. It gives them the confidence to just bowl according to the field, and not worry too much.

Even when I am doing this, I do it with the understanding of each bowler's strengths. Someone like Mustafiz [Mustafizur Rahman] is experienced but Shoriful [Islam] may be thinking about one or two options. You shouldn't do anything in T20s - whether batting or bowling - with the slightest doubt in mind. So, when a bowler is confused, I feel it is my responsibility to step in, so that he feels comfortable.

Most of the time when the camera moves to you in a pressure situation, you don't have much of an expression. Is that because you try to suppress your emotions or is that natural to you?
(Laughs) I try to be as calm as possible in every situation. I think it helps in better decision-making, especially in pressure situation. I am sure I get emotional. I also get angry. But I try to be calm. As the leader, I can't be confused, it will affect the other players. There should always be a calm atmosphere in the team.

"When the bowling unit is helping us win, why is their credit being taken away? I really didn't appreciate it"

Does having a sense of humour help?
Definitely, for yourself and for the team.

What made the most difference in Bangladesh's T20I series wins against Australia and New Zealand?
Two things stood out for me. There's healthy competition in the team, and there's a lot of hunger to win. I think our body language since the Zimbabwe tour, right through the series against Australia and New Zealand, gives that message. I think our desire to improve ourselves and maintain our home dominance has made a huge difference.

The Dhaka pitches have thrown up a lot of challenges to batters lately. You seemed to have adapted better than the others against Australia and New Zealand?
It is Allah's rahmat (blessing). Those were difficult conditions for both sets of batsmen. It wasn't just difficult for our opponents. We saw two bowling-dominated series because of the conditions. I think our batsmen applied themselves slightly better. It was especially difficult to bat against the new ball. Openers and Nos. 3 and 4 struggled on both sides. But as the seam of the ball gets older, it gets easier.

It was still challenging, but I thought the softer ball was better to play against. We lost early wickets in some of the matches but we overcame that by following up with good partnerships. I had one with Shakib [Al Hasan] against Australia, another with Mushfiq [Mushfiqur Rahim] against New Zealand. [Nurul Hasan] Sohan and Afif [Hossain] had a match-winning stand against Australia. They should take the credit.

How do you rate yourself as a T20 batter now?
I have always given equal importance to all three formats. I previously told you about the training camp in Khulna back in 2016, ahead of that year's T20 World Cup - it was under [coach Chandika] Hathurusingha. It shifted my training and playing method. It had a positive impact on my batting.

At the time I was preparing to bat at No. 6 and 7, after spending time batting at No. 4 and 5. I had to learn how to maximise the 10-15 balls I was going to face at No. 6 or 7. Regardless of batting first or second, the strike rate has to be 150 to 170. I worked with Hathu on shifting from a regular batsman to one who bats in such a role.

I still think I can bat at a better strike rate. I want to push it up to 130-135, from the 120 strike rate. I have the scope to improve, which would make me a better batsman.

How important is a captain's performance in helping the team achieve the right result, in a match or in a series?
It is crucial that the captain leads his side by example. It is important for the captain to set the standard for the team and his team-mates. At the same time, the captain has to appreciate small contributions by everyone, on the field and off it. A captain must acknowledge it so that everyone feels they have the same value as other players.

In the third T20I against Australia, you made 52 out of the team's 127, and later restricted them to 117 for 4. Would you rate that as one of your best outings as captain? It was probably one of my best games. We faced difficult batting conditions. The situation wasn't easy when I went out to bat. In the first two games, we bowled more slower balls than the Australian bowlers. We realised that the faster you bowl on this pitch, the better it comes on to the bat.

In that game, they bowled two or three deliveries that were fast. The rest were all change-ups. I was targeting something between 130 and 135, which I felt we could defend with our bowling. I give credit to the bowlers for getting us that win. They took an early wicket and although Australia had a big partnership, our guys didn't give up.

In Bangladesh's context, managing the team off the field is also important.
During the pandemic, we can only be at three or four places together, so we spend most of the time in the dining room or at the gym. We speak to each other. Like, when I am at the gym, I talk to Mustafiz, Taskin [Ahmed] or Shoriful. We discuss about certain points from the game, about bowling in certain situations. All of us give our views, and then we take the appropriate step next time we are in the field, in a pressure situation. I think this is the only positive side to living in a bio-bubble, which is otherwise quite tough.

"Sometimes the bowler knows exactly what they are going to bowl. But when they are confused about it, I tell them to leave it to me. 'I will set the field; you just bowl,' I say to them. It gives them the confidence to just bowl according to the field"

Are biobubbles sustainable in the long run?
Certainly not. Being a family man, I miss my family a lot. I have often toured with my family. There's little scope of that these days. Everyone misses their family. It is necessary that we appreciate each other's work and their views. It keeps everyone motivated.

How different is it to deal with young players and experienced players?
I don't see any difference. Everyone is very helpful and cooperative. We appreciate each other. There's no worry about these things. I think the youngsters are more responsible these days, regarding their fitness, preparation and practice. It is good to see.

Shakib and Mushfiqur are involved in this T20 build-up, going into the World Cup. How do they help you?
They are two of the most experienced players in Bangladesh. They are always helping out. For a team to do well, these things are important. For example, [if] I am making a bowling change, Shakib might suggest that I bring him on from the other end. Mushfiq also offers advice. They come up on their own. They feel comfortable doing it. I really appreciate it.

When you are in the middle during a chase, how different is it to bat with someone like Shakib and Mushfiq, or a new guy like Afif?
When I am batting with Shakib and Mushfiq, they know how I operate, and I know which bowlers they will attack. It comes from playing with each other for a long time. My communication with them is less verbal. It is more about knowing how each other feel and what we want to do. But when I am batting with Afif, [Mohammad] Naim or Sohan, I might need to talk to them. I may have to remind them when to charge the bowlers in a certain situation. Maybe I will mention to them that we may need to delay our charge, or take risks against a particular bowler.

There's been a criticism of the bowlers despite them bowling out Australia and New Zealand for 60, 62 and 93 in the space of five games - that it was because of the pitches and not the bowlers.
I agree that the pitches and conditions were bowling-friendly. It was difficult for the batsmen. But it was difficult for our batsmen, too. It wasn't as if the pitch became a batting paradise when we went out to bat. When the bowling unit is helping us win, why is their credit being taken away? I really didn't appreciate it.

Our bowlers bowled well, which forced the opposition batsmen into making mistakes. All the bowlers should get credit. They gave a lot of effort to be successful, so the criticism is unwarranted.

We have played good cricket to win the last three series. We chased some big scores against Zimbabwe. In the third game, we successfully chased 194 in 19.2 overs. I understand it was against Zimbabwe, but we were playing in their conditions. It is not easy to chase 190-plus in T20s, against any team. That successful 194-run chase was a confidence-booster for the team.