In the ninth season of Indian Premier League (IPL) in 2016, the eventual winners Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) looked at their spin bowling as an afterthought, and their strategy was heavily reliant on their pacers to set the game up or to restrict the opponents. The line up of Ashish Nehra, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, Barinder Sran and the magic of Mustafizur Rahman meant that David Warner did not have to look to his spinners to bail the side out, even on Indian pitches. It was a unique and unusual way to go about the game especially on tracks that were helpful to spinners, but it worked.
At the 2017 auction, SRH made a concerted push for the 18-year old leg-spinner from Afghanistan, in an indication to build a rounded bowling side. When the bidding war ended, Rashid Khan became the first Afghan to be picked in the IPL, and was a holder of a Rs 4 crore contract.
In his first two IPL matches in this tenth season, Rashid has taken more wickets (5) than any spinner for SRH managed all of last season, and is just one shy of the six wickets that SRH spinners led by Karn Sharma could winkle out in their 40+ overs in 2016.
After a so-so performance in the high-scoring opening game of the season against Royal Challengers Bangalore (2/36 in 4 overs), Rashid was in his elements against the Gujarat Lions (GL). Brought in to bowl in the powerplay, he unleashed his wares and put on a display of high-quality leg spin, and showed why batsmen around the world have had trouble facing him.
A quick arm action, very similar to his self-professed idol Shahid Afridi, and a googly that is delivered with not-so-dissimilar release from the traditional leg break, Rashid ran circles around the hapless GL top order. Brendon McCullum tried to hit across the line to put pressure on the young leg-spinner, missed the ball and was struck in front. Rashid should have had two in two balls, but the expansive drive off a googly by GL captain Suresh Raina was grassed by his counterpart at slip. The Rashid show was on.
In his second over, Australian Aaron Finch was dismissed LBW. The dismissal was terrific evidence of how little the batsmen have been able to pick Rashid's variations from the hand: Finch played down the wrong line and the bat was so far away from the pad. Rashid's pace through the air also means that the batsmen have very little time to adjust to the variation once they have not picked it as it is delivered.
Raina, who was reprieved earlier, was undone by a leg break in Rashid's next over. Once again, the bat was nowhere near the line of the delivery. That a very good player of spin was made to look so helpless is further proof of the Afghan's value. Raina's shot indicated he was expecting the googly but the leg break turned in towards and he was done all ends up. With that wicket of Raina, Rashid became the first bowler in the 10-year history of IPL to dismiss three batters LBW in a match, and was tied with Sunil Narine for the most wickets in T20s in 2017 (23).
After being held back for an over, Rashid was reintroduced with a change of ends. A searing leg break was edged by the Bajan Dwayne Smith but the appeal was turned down by Umpire Nigel Llong. If you were keeping count, Rashid should have had a five-wicket haul by now. Warner, for some strange reason, even with his side on top and GL's last recognised batting pair at the crease, did not have a slip for his ace leg-spinner. Dinesh Karthik was lured on to the front foot by a looping leg break and duly edged through the vacant slip area. That was the first and only boundary off Rashid in his four overs, and followed it with another classical leg break that sped past the outside edge of the in-form Karthik.
The analysis read: 4-0-19-3 but the numbers hide more than they tell us. No batsman was comfortable facing Rashid and the consistency of length, and the turn — which batsmen could not read — meant the Lions who led the table in 2016 were knock down flat on the mat by the 12th over of their innings.
According to CricViz, Rashid had a pretty good mix of his variations and had terrific control of them: 11 googlies, 7 runs, 5 dots, 2 wickets; 13 leg-spinners, 12 runs, 6 dots 1 wicket. To add an exclamation point to his splendid evening, Rashid, prowling at short midwicket, threw down the stumps in the 17th over with a direct hit, catching Dhawal Kulkarni short.
With Mustafizur missing the early games of the season due to his national commitments, and a possibility that he could miss more as he seeks to rest and recuperate for the national season ahead, Rashid Khan has ensured that SRH do not miss the services of the Bangladeshi pacer. It has also meant that SRH have reshaped their bowling strategy in 2017, from 2016, for the better. With a capable pace attack now complemented by an ace spinner, SRH look set to continue on their winning ways.