In January this year, on the sidelines of a Big Bash league match, Adam Zampa asked Rashid Khan for a masterclass. The young Aussie leggie wanted to pick the Afghan star’s brain on the finer aspect of spin bowling. After close to two hours, Zampa figured out that he could never bowl like Khan. Before the start of the World Cup, the Aussie spoke about the time he spent with Khan. “I’m glad I did that because now I know that I can never bowl like him. He is once-in-a-lifetime bowler,” he told cricket.com.au. And then he added a cheeky line which hinted that the Aussie’s mind games had begun. “The good thing is that having this information about him means that I can hand it over to my batsmen.”
That might be wishful thinking since decoding a bowler of Khan’s calibre is not as easy as Zampa wants the world to believe. In fact, most of the players from the current Australian squad have either played with or against him at Big Bash and the IPL. Nevertheless, the intrigue surrounding him does not cease. Australia’s wicket-keeper Alex Carey, someone who has kept to him for two seasons for the Adelaide Strikers, admitted picking his variations was an arduous task.
In their opening World Cup game, Australia will have their hands full since Afghanistan will not be just banking on their talismanic leggie alone. They are bolstered by the presence of Mohammad Nabi and Mujeeb-ur-Rahman, two spinners who are vastly contrasting to Khan, but are equally proficient in their own right. Mujeeb with his clever variations is adept at opening with the new ball, while the experienced Nabi has shown propensity to be quite a handful with his parsimonious off-spin in the middle overs. This, in essence will set the stage for Khan to unleash himself at the death. Together, this troika will serve a stern test to the bevy of heavy-duty arsenal of stroke-makers that Australia have at their disposal, when they clash in the tournament opener at Bristol on Saturday.
“He is one of the most difficult bowlers I have faced.” Glenn Maxwell is arguably the best player of spin in the current Australian squad. But his comments on Khan sum up the kind of aura the Afghan has managed to create in Australia. Maxwell believed the best way to approach him is by exercising caution. “At times I think I can pick him. For me, I feel like I don’t think I’m going to get out to him, while at the same time I don’t feel like I’m going to score much off him,” Maxwell said of Khan, who enjoyed a dreamy average of 16.02 at the Big Bash. Despite heaping praise on him, Maxwell was one of the few batsmen to have successfully neutralised him.
According to numbers provided by Opta, a sports data company, Maxwell scored 19 runs from 16 deliveries without getting dismissed to him. Shaun Marsh, too, has had a fairly decent run against the leg-spinner, accruing 17 runs in 15 deliveries. The duo prospered because they shed their belligerence and managed to exercise a fair degree of caution. Khan was more successful against Marcus Stoinis, whom he dismissed twice in 13 deliveries. Stoinis perished in a bid to take Khan to the cleaners. On the contrary, Australian captain Aaron Finch has enjoyed a fair degree of success against him outside the Big Bash, by adopting a similar no-holds-barred approach. It yielded him 38 runs off 13 deliveries in 2018.
It would be interesting to see how the Aussies approach Khan at Bristol. If restraint is indeed their watchword, then they will know that the prospect of possibly facing another 20 stifling overs from Nabi and Mujeeb combined could be quite a daunting prospect. For the defending world champions, therein lies the dilemma.
“I think I was physically very talented to bowl leg-spin. My big, rough hands have helped me in gripping the ball better. While growing up, I would spend a lot of time in the fields with my father. I didn’t think about it back then. But now, I think it has helped me in my cricket.” In an interview with the Indian Express, Khan would spell out unequivocally, how his big hands and thick fingers have been instrumental in his metamorphosis into a world-class spinner. It’s something that Zampa also attests to.
“The reason why he is so successful is because he runs in so fast and he’s got really thick fingers and holds the ball right at the end of his fingers,” Zampa said in a chat with cricket.com.au.
It’s this unusual style that batsmen find difficult to pick. Following his discussion with Khan, Zampa even tried to emulate Khan’s action at the nets. But the exercise proved to be futile.” I usually keep the ball right in my palm. But after meeting him, I tried to copy his action, but the ball kept slipping out,” he quipped. Zampa’s comments only adds heft to Khan’s growing cult status.
At 20, he is the world’s best T20 bowler with top franchises making a beeline to avail his services. In ODIs, he is placed third in the rankings, and has broken Mitchell Starc’s record to become the fastest bowler to go past 100 wickets in this format. His meteoric rise has coincided with Afghanistan’s irresistible run in the shorter formats. In recent times, they have consistently punched above their weight in international cricket, to become the 10th and final team to qualify for this ongoing showpiece cricketing extravaganza in England.
For Khan, the journey from his hometown in Nangarhar province overlooking the imposing Hindu Kush Mountains, has been even more stellar. It’s a region known more for saffron than cricketers. But Khan has done his bit to perceptibly break the mould.
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