By Tim Wigmore
Sometimes, T20 is derided as a lottery, a game played for entertainment and driven by plain old chance. Look at Rashid Khan’s bowling figures this Big Bash League season, and the notion looks utterly absurd.
In his first five games, Rashid recorded figures of 2-22, 2-22, 2-19, 2-18 and then 2-21: absurdly consistent, and absurdly good. So, in every innings, he has bowled his full allocation of four overs, conceded under six runs an over and taken two wickets. That’s remarkable – and even more so when you consider Rashid’s versatility. He has bowled in the Powerplay – including when he dismissed Chris Lynn in the second over of the innings – in the middle overs and at the death. No wonder that he is ranked the third best T20 bowler in the world.
Rashid is much more than a brilliant bowler. He is a cricketer who teams can recalibrate their entire strategies around.
In T20 cricket, winning the toss and chasing has become increasingly popular: a recognition that it tends to be easier to chase. How, after all, can a side batting first gauge whether a wicket is a 190 wicket or a 175 wicket, say? In the 2016/17 Big Bash, only seven teams in 35 games chose to bat first after winning the toss – and they lost every time.
Rashid is so good that he allows teams to take a different approach, and embrace batting first, because of his brilliance when defending scores. This effectively means that teams with Rashid can always do what they want: should they win the toss, they will be able to bat; lose it, and, as other sides prefer chasing, they will probably be able to bat too.
In the first 20 games of this year’s Big Bash, teams chose to bat first on only five occasions. Three of those were by the Adelaide Strikers, Rashid’s BBL side – and they won every game.
One of the greatest stories in T20 history is about the rise of the legspin. When T20 began 15 years ago, conventional wisdom dictated that, with shorter boundaries and batsmen able to attack relentlessly, legspinners would be toast.
So much for that. Instead, they have proved to be the most valuable bowlers of all. So far this BBL, they have the lowest economy rate and highest strike rate of any type of bowlers. Fawad Ahmed, Shadab Khan, Yasir Shah and left-arm legspinner Brad Hogg have all bowled superbly, marrying control and venom.
And yet Rashid has been the very best of the lot. No one should be surprised: wherever he goes, the story is the same.
His T20 numbers are absurd: 122 wickets at 15.21 apiece, with a frugal economy rate of 5.80 an over. On the basis of these numbers, Rashid is indisputably the world’s best T20 bowler.
The natural tendency within cricket is to belittle these numbers because Rashid is from Afghanistan, and much of his international cricket has been against Associate nations. Yet the argument really doesn’t stand up at all.
Wherever Rashid has gone, the story has been the same. He was brilliant in the World Twenty20 two years ago, including taking 2-26 in Afghanistan’s seminal victory over the West Indies. He provoked a bidding war in last year’s Indian Premier League auction, and justified his $600,000 tag with a wonderful tournament. In the Caribbean Premier League last year, he took a hat-trick with three consecutive googlies.
Why is he so good? As with many legspinners in T20, Rashid’s googly is his most potent delivery; because it is beautifully disguised and turns sharply, many batsmen are left marooned in their crease, because charging down the wicket is so fraught with danger. Like Shadab, Rashid is unusually quick for a legspinner and capable of bowling at 65mph: Phil Simmons says he is like Anil Kumble – only, Rashid turns the ball more. He is a bowler of copious variations and brilliant control.
And Rashid also has an exemplary cricket brain and a temperament that relishes any contest. That much is evident, too, in the chutzpah of his batting, where he consistently delivers ideal contributions for a late innings T20 batsman, embracing risk and six-hitting above all else. Against the Sydney Thunder on January 7, for instance, Rashid harrumphed two sixes from the final three balls of the innings in his six-ball 16no. It is possible to imagine that, one day, he could even be used as a top order aggressor, in the manner of Sunil Narine.
Rashid has accomplished all this before his 20th birthday. And so, in the annals of T20 cricket, he has every chance of being the format’s Muttiah Muralitharan, setting records which will never be surpassed. Watching him evolve promises to be quite a ride.