The months of April and May are stressful for the cricket purist. In this time the test cricket fan, the one-day-international enthusiast and first-class fanatic, must avoid social media, the news, and most other human beings, because they’re all talking about only one thing: the Indian Premier League.
With its scandal, sensation and spectacle, all loud and garish, you feel your carefully cultivated taste in the great game would be ruined if you so much as glanced towards the scoreboard of an IPL game. You’d say that it’s like expecting a fine sommelier to pour Kingfisher Strong down your throat. Besides, someone is playing someone else every day. Wearying. Why should you care?
I’ll give you one reason: Rashid Khan.
Rashid Khan is the best bowler in the world right now. Not just the best leg spinner, not just the best bowler in T20s, but the best bowler in the world. He is only 19. He has bowled to the best batsmen in the world, in a format designed to render bowlers irrelevant (the Aussies, with their penchant for subtlety, call their tournament the Big Bash League). He has left them helpless. No one can hit him.
Here he is rendering the Ambanis’s precious Mumbai Indians strokeless on his way to taking the Sunrisers Hyderabad to victory in a man-of-the-match effort. Watch as one of cricket’s most effective hitters, Kieron Pollard, is reduced to playing out Rashid, hoping he doesn’t get out.
Here’s the entire West Indies team made to look askance by an incredible range of googlies, faster ones, sliders and what not, en route to the fourth best ever bowling figures in a ODI. Oh, did you know that Rashid has gotten to 100 wickets faster than any bowler in ODI history?
T20 was supposed to be the bowler’s graveyard. Small boundaries, heavy bats, gym-pumped batsmen remorselessly thumping bowlers into the crowd who only want more? Well, Rashid has tossed all of that thinking in the garbage bin. He’s the Christian from whom the lions run.
Is he as good as Anil Kumble or Shane Warne, you ask? Friend, he’s as good as both. Put together. He combines Kumble’s accuracy at pace with Warne’s spin and guile. His googly spins a mile and his straighter one is just as fast and dangerous as Kumble’s in his heyday. He matches consistency with the element of surprise and wizardry. The only thing that a batsman can know for sure, when facing Rashid, is that he has absolutely no idea what the ball is going to do.
But look, you say. We live in a glorious age of leg spin bowling, with India’s Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, Pakistan’s Shadab Khan and Yasir Shah, South Africa’s Imran Tahir and others. So why love Rashid more than all of them?
Well, for a start, Rashid Khan is the ultimate underdog. Sure, he wasn’t born into hard-bitten poverty -- not an unfamiliar South Asian story -- but the thought of a leg-spinner from Afghanistan setting the world of cricket on fire was, ten years ago, too far fetched to even be fantasy. Yet, here we are: Afghanistan has just qualified for the 2019 World Cup and Rashid’s bowling is a key part of it. With no “home games”, the constant threat of instability and violence back home, and little solid cricketing infrastructure, Afghanistan have done the near-impossible. There are volumes waiting to be written about their dizzying rise from the lowest rungs of international cricket to test status in less than a decade. There’s nothing quite like it in international sport, and there’s no one quite like Rashid Khan in cricket.
So, dear purist; esteemed non-fan; do scan the listings for the next Sunrisers Hyderabad (!) game. Skip the entirety of their batting innings if you’d like. Just make sure to watch their bowling. Put down that glass, and turn off the music when the ball is tossed to Rashid. Watch as he bounds up to the crease, his body contorts in that quick arm action, and try to follow, if you can, the ball’s trajectory. Watch as he sets up each batsman, unhittable ball after unhittable ball - each one landing perfectly where he wants it to, creating a Shakespearean monologue worth of doubt in a batsman’s mind over its spin, trajectory and pace.
Watch for the game played with a passion that money cannot buy. Watch someone play a high pressure professional tournament with sheer amateur joy - knowing that pressure is trying to survive a bloody civil war. Watch it for meri jaan, Rashid Khan.
Alok Prasanna Kumar is a lawyer based in Bengaluru.
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