Why does Mohammad Nabi never get collared? He even releases the question paper before the exams to the studious batsmen: ‘This is what I am going to bowl. It will be usually around a length, usually the stock ball with the one not turning as much as variation, some little changes in pace — now hit me if you can. Thank you very much, come again.’
In an interview to a Dehradun FM channel, Nabi once talked about the difference between the Indian version of “Afghani chicken” and the real Afghani chicken. “No masalas back home. I don’t like masalas.” Just like his bowling. No masala, no tadka, just pure cricketing skills.
It’s easier to define what he doesn’t do than what he does. Here is a list of the former: No great flight, no alluring drift, not many floaters, no vicious turn, even, no mystery stuff, no exotic snaps of fingers, no oriental elbow twists. It’s plain old off-spin. The batsmen know all this, but they still fluff their lines. Almost always cautious, just looking for little singles and twos to get off strike if they can. Seen in this context, he is mind-bogglingly good.
A traditional off-spinner has rarely been treated with such respect in limited-overs cricket. As it is, it’s such a derided art form. The condescension captured perfectly in a quote from the late Martin Crowe. In an interview where he went into great details about how he prepared for every type of bowler, he almost scoffed when asked about offies. “Oh, they are just in my hitting zone. I swing them to the leg.”
Over the years, it has come to be accepted that off-spinners who don’t have that x-factor in wrists, elbows, or fingers aren’t going to do well in limited-overs. Even someone as good Graeme Swann wasn’t this good in this format. Nathan Lyon, Australia’s premier off-spinner, doesn’t find a place in the ODI side.
So, what does Nabi do differently then? For starters, the arcs he cuts in the air rarely allow the batsmen to get down the track. To achieve that effect, your everyday off-spinner would fire the ball across. Not Nabi. He might not toss them up as old-timers might have but he doesn’t push them through in any cheap panic. He isn’t insecure about his own art. Heck, he doesn’t even do the pause routine that became mainstream in the last decade — that pause just before release, to sense batsmen’s intent. That would be too much trickery for Nabi.
He does something with his delivery stride that not many do. Almost counter-intuitive in some respects. At times, he almost stretches that front foot well ahead, and usually, when the spinners do that, it results in the ball dropping short. But somehow, Nabi manages to get a smooth body swivel into his action, the hips rotating fully, turning his body trunk, and pivoting well on release. Consequently, the ball can travel a touch slower without visibly altering the trajectory or grip. He doesn’t have to float it from his palm or flight it really high to do the job: he can do it with the way he rips and tweaks the ball at release.
And so most batsmen just wait at the crease, looking for pushes and nudges to get off strike. They wait for the loose ball, a mistake in length, or a nervy push through. Not happening with Nabi. Forget this match — the sluggish pitch had made the Indians cautious — even on flat tracks in the IPL, not many mess with Nabi.
His wickets, as a result, don’t come in spectacular fashion. The couple he took against India were no different. KL Rahul opted for a reverse-sweep to try something different to throw Nabi off his strangling line but ended up chopping it to backward point. Kohli went for a cut shot — the ball was short enough, but this pitch sucked it up, making the ball come off slowly, and Kohli couldn’t control his shot.
Here is his “secret” in his own words. “When I get to bowl after 10 overs, I look for dot balls because it creates pressure and then Rashid and Mujeeb can get wickets from the other end,” he said. “If you run after wickets, you will get hit more.” No secret, really. But so many off-spinners (the traditional) have tried that approach and failed. With the other offspinners, you can sense the panic in them. All that Nabi exudes is serenity. With the ball and with the bat. The coolest Afghan out there.