From playing tape-ball cricket in the streets of Nangarhar with his six brothers, Rashid Khan has come a long way. Today, he is, without any doubt, the biggest name in the Afghanistan cricket. The 19-year-old legspinner has been showcasing his talent in various Twenty20 leagues around the world for the last couple of years. Be it the Indian Premier League, Big Bash League or T20 Blast, Rashid has won admirers with his ability and skills wherever he has gone.
However, in an extensive chat with Wisden India, Rashid revealed that there was a time when he had to hide from his own parents in order to play cricket. “At one time, playing cricket in Afghanistan was considered as a big crime,” says Rashid. “Parents wanted their kids to study, saying there was no future in cricket. They wanted us to get a proper job. Even I faced such problems. Whenever I was going out for a match, if I saw my father, I would hide. I will ask my nephew to go out first with the bat and then I would follow him. My mom wasn’t letting me play with the ball. She used to say it was very heavy and it might hurt you. But the families were right at that time, they felt there was no real future in cricket. ‘Study hard and becomes an engineer or a doctor’ – they would say.”
The event which changed the scene in Afghanistan was the World T20 2016. Afghanistan not only qualified for the Super 10 stage, but also defeated West Indies, the eventual champions, in one of the matches. That one victory was enough to excite the whole nation about cricket.
“After Afghanistan played in the World T20 in 2016 and won against West Indies, from there on the sport became famous and people got to know more about cricket. Soon everyone was keen to play cricket. Since then, playing at home with my brothers and watching big stars on television motivated me that one day I have to play for my country.”
But it was not always that Rashid wanted to be a legspinner. In fact, he was a top-order batsman and the switch to legspin was not by choice but by accident. “When I started cricket, I was a batsman. I was either opening the innings or coming in at one-down. At that time, I was a part-time bowler because I had no good control over my legspin. I was bowling just one or two overs in a match. But when I played my first season, I got 21 wickets in three three-day matches. Then they changed my batting slot from opening or one-down to No. 8, saying you are now a bowler. I thought if I’m getting my place in the team for my bowling, I just have to focus on that. Then I started to focus on my bowing and worked hard on it.”
Rashid, who idolises Shahid Afridi and Anil Kumble, bowls his deliveries at a brisk pace. But unlike traditional legspinners, who use their wrist a lot, Rashid bowls his deliveries with his fingers. The Afghan leggie never had a formal coaching and perhaps that’s the reason why he is so different from others.
“I don’t use my wrist a lot, I only use my fingers and that’s what makes me different. I use the top of my fingers. That’s why I get more speed. If I use my wrist, I will be slower.
“Nobody has taught me anything, it is all natural. I discussed with the other legspinners as well. They were surprised too and said they hadn’t seen such kind of legspinner who could bowl back of the hand with his fingers.”
Rashid narrates a very interesting incident from the IPL 2017 where Imran Tahir asked him how he bowled his googly, after the Rising Supergiant Pune versus Sunrisers Hyderabad game in Pune. In turn, Rashid asked Tahir to teach him how to bowl a flipper. When they met again this year, the two legspinners agreed that their bowling actions were probably not suited for each other’s variations.
“We had a discussion about the wrong ‘un. He asked me how I bowled it so quickly, how I gripped the ball. We discussed this during our last meet as well, in Pune. He told me he was working on that grip but it wasn’t working for him. I spoke to him about how he bowls the flipper and I think the way he bowls, it’s very effective. So he taught me the flipper and I told him how I bowled the wrong ‘un. But with the action he has, it’s quite difficult to bowl the (quicker) wrong ‘un and with the action I have, it’s quite difficult to bowl the flipper.”
The 2017 season of the IPL also helped Rashid and Mohammad Nabi, his compatriot and teammate at Hyderabad, cross a big mental barrier. Performing well for their franchise gave them the confidence that they can bowl well not only against the associate nations but also the best in the business.
“For us, the IPL means a lot,” Rashid held. “Since we joined the IPL, we can see the difference in our game. You find a lot of big players in the IPL. If you are performing against them, it gives a confidence that if I am performing in the IPL, I am capable, I have the talent.
“Before the IPL, even if you were performing against associate teams, you still thought how I would perform against good teams, against good batsmen. That is what was going in our mind earlier. Even if we performed well again and again against associates, still it was like we haven’t performed against good teams. But doing well in the IPL has given me the confidence that I am good enough to bowl against anyone.”
Speaking about his preparation against a particular batsman, Rashid says he just tries to mix it up depending upon the batsman’s strengths and the match situation.
“I just have one thing in my mind, that is to bowl a good length to the batsman. Whoever the batsman is, I try to bowl in the good length area to make it tough for him. I mix up the deliveries depending on depending on the batsman’s mood and where he wants to play me.
“If he is looking towards the leg side then I don’t bowl too many googlies because with the angle he can hit it easily. In that case, I bowl a lot of leg breaks so that he is forced to play across and might end up top-edging it. So, my bowling depends on the strength and the weakness of the batsman, like he is strong on the offside or the legside. With the first few balls, I try to figure out what the batsman is trying to do and then I decide how to bowl and which areas to bowl.”
But not only the opposing batsmen, even Mohammad Shahzad, Afghanistan’s wicketkeeper, at times finds it difficult to pick Rashid’s variations. Naman Ojha faced a similar problem when he kept to Rashid for Hyderabad during the IPL 2017. As per Rashid, Shahzad though can read him now. “Sometimes, we use signals, especially when it’s a turning track which it makes it difficult for him. We have some signals, like if I do this then it will be a wrong ‘un, and if I do that, it would be a leg break. Initially, it was very difficult for him (to pick me) but later on, he got used to.”
Participation in almost all the T20 leagues globally means Rashid hardly gets any time to spend with his family. In the last one year, the legspinner has spent just 15 days at his home in Afghanistan. But how big a star he is back home becomes clear from the fact that whenever he has to step out from his home, he either needs to be in disguise or have some security with him.
“We cannot go outside much because of people. If it’s very urgent, we hide our face or something like that. For restaurant and all, I can go but I have to have some security with me.
“Once we were going as guests for a match and I think we had to stop like 10 to 20 times on the way. People were coming in front of our car and saying stop, we want to take pictures. That’s how crazy they are because they haven’t seen us players. They have seen me only on the TV that this man is doing well and all that.
“When we play a game there, we have a lot of security. The crowd we get when we are playing is very good and it’s really nice to see them coming and supporting us. They are very alive, very crazy fans.”
Even after getting so much adulation, Rashid tries to remain the same humble guy from Nangarhar. “I don’t do anything special to handle these things,” Rashid says. “I’m just same as I was before. Just happy to see the love and support of fans. That’s what we need. I try my best to keep my fans happy, try to meet them and give them some good time.”
This February, Rashid became the youngest-ever to be ranked No. 1 in the ICC rankings when he clinched the top bowling spot in ODIs at the age of 19 years and 153 days. Ten days later — in the absence of Asghar Stanikzai, Afghanistan’s regular skipper — Rashid was leading the side against Scotland in the World Cup Qualifiers. Every time he picks up the ball, either for Afghanistan or for one of the T20 franchise, people expect him to deliver.
“A lot of expectations are there, especially from back home. Even when I don’t perform in one match, they get worried about me. They would say what happened to you. They are expecting five wickets in every match from you, irrespective it’s a T20 or an ODI. They just say you have to take five wickets in every match.
“But I don’t think that puts any extra pressure on me. I am just trying my best, trying to do as well as I can. The best way is to enjoy yourself. The more you enjoy, the better you perform. (But) there is a burden on me to do well because most of the matches, if I don’t do well, we lose. I am trying to just focus on the basics. If I do the basics right and don’t think a lot about what people will say, I think that will help my performance. I try to work hard in training sessions and come well-prepared for the match and just do the basics right. Regardless I take wickets or not, I just need to work hard and give my 100%.”
In the initial matches of the Qualifiers tournament, he didn’t look comfortable while leading the team. It was the return of Asghar back into the side and at the helm which revived Afghanistan’s campaign and helped them qualify for next year’s World Cup in England.
Rashid offered an interesting analogy when asked if the captaincy affected his performance during the Qualifiers. “It’s like when someone gets a job somewhere, things look very different for the first two-three days. All the people look different to you,” he says.
“So the first two games were very different for me to captain the team. To think not only about myself and my bowling but also about the other bowlers and how to use them, where to have the field placements… That was the thing going in my mind in the first couple of games. But after I played the first two games, the coach (Phil Simmons) and the regular captain (Asghar) told me, ‘This would happen to you. You will have a lot of things in your mind, like what to do now, where to have the field, who to bowl, when should you bowl. Don’t put yourself down, take your time for the first few games and you will be okay after that’. So after the first few games, I got used to it and I was just enjoying myself.”
Rashid feels that if in future he is made captain, the extra responsibility won’t have any negative effect on his performance. “I don’t think it’ll affect me. I just got to do the basics right. If I enjoy and don’t put the burden on myself, I think I will be okay.”
However, the thing which affects him is terrorism back home, and you can gauge that by the change in his tone when he talks about it. “We worry about the situation back home,” he says with a concern. “In the last one month, we had three-four bomb blasts in Afghanistan. That makes us very sad. We are here trying our best to give some good performances and put smiles on the faces of the people. But if that does not happen and still blasts are happening, it’s just sad. We get very upset whenever we see what’s going on in our country. But we don’t give up. We just try to do well on the field and get those things out of our minds. We try to give some extra good performances so that our people can celebrate and get these negative things out of their minds.
“If we perform well, Afghanistan’s name will be known for good reasons all over the world. Earlier, if someone thought about Afghanistan, they only thought negative things. Now if someone asks you about Afghanistan, the next thing you will say is about cricket and about us. That makes us a little bit happy. The image of Afghanistan is changing. And we’re trying our best, to change that image. If bad things are still happening that is not in our control. If we become upset or unhappy or whatever, it won’t make any difference. But if we do well here and we project Afghanistan as a good country, that will bring changes in Afghanistan. That’s the only thing we can do wherever we are: represent Afghanistan as a good country.”
Rashid is hopeful that Afghanistan Premier League, whose first season is scheduled to be played in the United Arab Emirates in October this year, will help a lot in changing the current image of Afghanistan.
“APL will be a very big tournament. We’re really waiting for that, to play our own league, even though outside of the country. That will bring lots of changes. Once we play this league back home in Afghanistan, and once we see all the good international players coming to Afghanistan, once everything gets settled and is fine, it will change the image of Afghanistan. All over the world people will see what Afghanistan is. It’s not what it appears now.”