Sometime during the last IPL, Rashid Khan jested with a disarming smile: “There are times I feel much older. I’m just 20, but sometimes I feel like I am 30.” Maybe, it was the unsparing burden on his shoulders talking. The first superstar cricketer from his country, a global T20 icon, fans and franchises queuing up for his signature, hefty cheques being rolled out to him as fast as the googlies he dispenses, brand representatives ceaselessly buzzing his mobile phone, the intimidating gaze of the spotlight has at times suffocated the 20-year-old from Jalalabad. “I’m proud of what I have achieved, but sometimes I feel the attention on me is too much,” he recently confided to The Telegraph.
In England, this World Cup, he must be feeling terribly old, his mood grim like the English summer. Nothing has gone right for him — concussed by New Zealand tearaway Lockie Ferguson, battered by Eoin Morgan, ridiculed by ruthless Twitter handles, alleged of feuding with skipper Gulbadin Naib, Rashid has been severely knackered. Rashid, with characteristic candour, swished the scorn and scandal aside and sprung to self-defence: “People who talk about those nine overs don’t remember what Rashid did on the previous 10 days.”
These words betrayed hurt. He later dwelled on his ODI numbers — 64 games, 128 wickets, an otherworldly average of 16.72, a thrifty economy rate of 4.09. In the still-nascent stage of his career, his average is the best ever in the world, he’s not only the fastest to 100 wickets but also the youngest ever, besides the fourth-best figures in this format. To strike a comparison, Shane Warne at this age was still battling with his action and authorities, Muttiah Muralitharan was just configuring his own untapped genius, Rashid’s favourite bowler, Shahid Afridi, was tranced in his big-hitting prowess, a motley part-timer who bowled everything from loopy seam-up to leg-spin. In this vein, Rashid is perhaps too mature for his age, his numbers already at a more elevated level than some of the game’s greatest.
But there is a caveat to his glittering numbers. Only 32 off them have come against those teams playing this World Cup; distill the numbers further, 26 off them have been purchased against ICC’s lowest-ranked teams barring Rashid’s own Afghanistan — West Indies, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. It’s no fault of his that he has got a game apiece against Pakistan, India, New Zealand, England, South Africa and Australia. But against them, his average leaps to 49, the economy rate jumps to 6.70. Not that his numbers — it could be a small sample size but nonetheless revealing — had been rendered hideous by Eoin Morgan, but even against South Africa and Australia he has leaked runs at 6.42 and 6.50 respectively.
Little doubt that exposure would sharpen his skills and make him mentally tougher, but at this juncture, he’s still uncut, even a bit naive in this format against the elites of the cricketing world. His googlies can ruffle the implosive Caribbeans — he once orchestrated a stupendous collapse, from 68/0 to 70/6 at Gros Islet — his throttling lines can limit batsmen, but against merry, explosive players of spin he could blink. The England match was a case in point.
For Morgan, it was as simple as disturbing his lengths. Rashid doesn’t go as full as most wrist-spinners, as he doesn’t rely on flight and drift. So batsmen generally hang back, in the fear of being beaten for pace and length, but Morgan abandonedly stepped out to him, smearing over midwicket. It disheveled him as much it dismayed him. He probed a fuller length, he was merely playing to Morgan’s hands. He joyfully kept sweeping slogging him. The fuller length also neutered the fizz and whoosh of his googlies, his nuclear-tipped weapon. He wasn’t not only demystified but devastated.
It was less of a graver technical snap than it was a temperamental snag. Several bowlers, both seamers and spinners, fed heavily on T20 diet have endured similar travails, in adjusting to the tenor of the 50-over game, where batsmen aren’t as hasty or preposterous as they’re in the T20s. When there’s no run-riot, when bowlers had to devise shrewd plans and exercise patience, he flickered. Sunil Narine is a classic case in point, the Trinidadian has seldom reprised his T20 feats in other versions. Rashid himself would agree, rendered sterile as he was by the Indian batsmen on his Test debut, where he conceded 154 runs in 34.5 overs, picking only two wickets.
Dissection of that game would reveal his impatience rather than ineffectiveness — it though shouldn’t be forgotten that he had come with limited first-class experience (just four). He was as impatient as he was impetuous, fretful and fidgety as the wickets kept eluding him, impatient with his field settings and naive in the act of setting-up batsmen. ODIs might not warrant elaborate entrapments, but the format does require diligent planning and execution.
Intriguing then could be the encounter against India, especially the battles against Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli. Both have looked in sublime touch — though not invulnerable — but both have had their share of torment against wrist spinners in the IPL this season. However, they are experts in draining the spinners down initially before ripping them apart. In fact, in three games this World Cup, they’re yet to concede a wicket to a spinner, at the same time plundering 340 runs in 53 overs. Familiar as they are with Rashid, they might not even need to watch Morgan’s dismantling of him.
Thus Rashid, his morale already in shambles, is tasked with his toughest job yet in the World Cup. But if he manages to walk away with something credible, he would have not just his reputation restored but wouldn’t feel older than he is.