Rashid Khan, Afghanistan's jewel in the crown

As was evident against Bangladesh on Monday & Tuesday, the all-rounder has been instrumental in taking the team to another level.
Afghanistan players celebrating their win in the T20 World Cup match against Bangladesh at Arnos Vale Ground, Kingstown, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Monday, June 24, 2024.
Afghanistan players celebrating their win in the T20 World Cup match against Bangladesh at Arnos Vale Ground, Kingstown, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Monday, June 24, 2024.

CHENNAI: By the time Afghanistan finished playing their first official fixtures in an Asian Cricket Council Trophy in Malaysia in 2004, there was already a buzz back home. The side, some of whom were refugees from Pakistan, gave a good account of themselves as they finished sixth in that tournament (refugees coming from Pakistan and cricket go back a long way; in 1995, Allah Dad Noori, a refugee from the country, had set up the Afghan Cricket Federation).

While the details of that competition are sketchy, Kabul was already alive with possibilities.

A report in Wisden's 2004 edition said (since quoted in the book Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts): "Allah Dad Noori was playing one day in Kabul when a young man walked by carrying an AK47, watched for a while before being invited to join in," the report stated. "Afterwards, he asked if he could play next time. When he returned he was without the rifle. "Where's your AK47?" asked Noori. "Oh, I don't need that," the youth replied. "I'm playing cricket."

If Noori was one of the founding fathers of the side, there can be no doubt about the team's current rockstar. Rashid Khan. He's their icon cricketer, the lodestar writing a script that's never before written in the history of this century-old sport.

On Monday and Tuesday, he conjured magic on a wet Kingstown night in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. For his first act, he lifted the side's total to a modicum of respectability; his 19 off 10 (three sixes) gave the side something — anything — to bowl at.

Even during his little cameo, you could see how much he wanted history; not only for himself but for his side and, indeed, his war-torn country. He had just launched Tanzim Hasan Sakib for a six in front of square on the off side. With four balls left in the innings, Khan sensed an opening. Off the next ball, his snake shot (that's what he calls it) didn't come off. A leading edge went beyond the ring on the off side. Wanting to be on strike, Khan turned around but Karim Janat sent him back.

Aghast, Khan, who was mid pitch, threw his bat in the general direction of Janat before retreating to the safety of the non-striker's end. On air, Ian Smith summed up the mood. "I have never seen that ever," the Kiwi commentator said. "In any level of cricket." Yep.

Off the next ball, Janat took the single. Two balls later, Khan essayed his now famous whiplash-like bat swing to heave the ball over cow corner. 98m. 115/5 in 20 overs.  Not the total they wanted but a total.

That was Rashid's final decisive contribution late on Monday night.

His final devastating blow came early on Tuesday morning, when all hope had seemingly left the building. Bangladesh themselves were heading out — they had quite bizarrely opted to not try and chase the total down inside 12 overs but preferred to take it deep — but they were taking Rashid & Co out with them.

That's when the wrist-spinner brought himself on. Four balls later, lift-off. The ball had pitched in line before skidding through Soumya Sarkar's defences. Usually, he doesn't prefer to bowl out in one go. He likes to have at least one over up his sleeve. On the day, it had to go out the window. 63/4 is not the time for convention when the target is 116. Especially not when the opposition has two of their best batters, Towhid Hridoy and Litton Das, in.

In a dazzling spell, he nipped this blossoming partnership (Hridoy was caught in the deep while slogging) before he removed Mahmudullah (caught behind off a quicker one) and Rishad Hossain (bowled by a googly) off consecutive deliveries. 80/5 had become 80/7. History was about to be penned by the country's greatest-ever cricketer.

Being a wrist-spinner is hard work. Being a wrist-spinner and trying to master a wet ball is harder. Being a wrist-spinner while attempting to master a wet ball and targetting the stumps as well as keeping a lid on the scoring rate is a bit like using your phone on 5% battery for a few days. It's bloody hard.

But then, the 25-year-old is no ordinary cricketer. He, like Jasprit Bumrah, is already an all-terrain great in this format. The minefields of Bangladesh? The IPL 2024 pitches? West Indies' low and slow turners? Durham in the T20 Blast? Canterbury in the Super Smash? When and where doesn't matter. Europe, Asia, Oceania, Africa had already been conquered. It was now time for the Americas to feel the Khan effect.

For years, there was a running joke about footballers not being good enough to do it 'on a rainy Tuesday night' (the jokey insinuation began after some of the top Premier League clubs started tripping up while playing away at Stoke). Khan is so good he can actually do it on a rainy night anywhere in the world and graveyard hour on Tuesday was proof.  

Brief scores: Afghanistan 115/5 in 20 overs (Gurbaz 43; Rishad 3/26) bt Bangladesh 105 in 17.5 overs (Litton 54 n.o; Naveen 4/26, Rashid 4/23). 

Afghanistan players celebrating their win in the T20 World Cup match against Bangladesh at Arnos Vale Ground, Kingstown, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Monday, June 24, 2024.
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