They may not be in the league of Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav without completing at least a dozen Tests. But Afghanistan's spin arsenal led by Rashid Khan and ably supported by Mujeeb ur Rahman and Mohammad Nabi seem to be the trio to watch out for at least in T20Is for now. Led by the new ball bowler, Mujeeb, and the mystery strike force in the middle and death, Rashid, Afghanistan put one past Bangladesh in the first match of the three match T20I series at Dehradun.
The spinners took six wickets between them, conceding 54 runs in 11 overs at an economy rate less than five. The extra momentum that Shafiqullah Shafiq injected into the innings in the final over was carried forward by Mujeeb when he struck off the first ball of the innings, trapping Tamim Iqbal in front.
It was the kickstart to a handful of overs of tight bowling. The strength of the three lies in their varied approach and mutually exclusive skill sets. If Nabi is more of a conventional off-spinner who relies on flight, dip and turn, Mujeeb is a slick customer with his wily off-breaks, leg-breaks and sliders.
Rashid, completely different from the aforementioned two, relies on a quick arm action, leg-spinners, googlies and a deadly arm ball. The ability of the 19-year-old Sunrisers Hyderabad leg-spinner to bowl according to the match situation makes him an intelligent bowler and the leader of this pack.
Mujeeb hit the scenes with a 4/24 performance on debut against Ireland and hasn't looked back. A spinner who bowls off-spinners, leg-breaks and a slew of other variations, Mujeeb is a difficult customer to deal with. His masters have been YouTube videos of Sunil Narine, Ashwin and Ajanta Mendis.
“I watched YouTube videos of [Sunil] Narine, [Ravichandran] Ashwin and [Ajantha] Mendis on how they grip the ball and flick it. When I first started to bowl it, I would just flight it and not put power behind it. But slowly I practised for countless hours, and eventually I started to have power in my fingers, then I started to flick it with more power behind it,” Mujeeb had said in an interview.
Rashid's story is probably a folklore in war-torn Afghanistan. If you could name just one player responsible for rise of cricket in Afghanistan, Rashid's name would invariably pop up.
He was pivotal in Sunrisers Hyderabad's run to the finals in the IPL this year but his match-winning capability came to the limelight the moment he dismissed Brendon McCullum, Suresh Raina and Aaron Finch in just his second IPL match (in 2017 against Gujarat Lions).
Nabi, on the contrary, prefers to remain conventional. What puts him in the difficult-to-get-away category is his penchant for keeping things immaculately tight. T20s are no longer considered haven for off-spinners but even then Nabi has managed to not let his game be affected by that. His T20I economy of 7.25 proves that despite not being a Rashid or Mujeeb, Nabi is no walkover. At 33, he has a wealth of experience to guide these young players.
On Sunday at Dehradun, after Mujeeb dismissed Iqbal, Nabi led the way for Afghanistan's spinners, dismissing Shakib-al-Hasan and well set Liton Das to derail Bangladesh. Shakib miscued a slog sweep straight up into the air, a shot derived from the pressure to up the ante after some tight overs. Das was undone by a reverse sweep that he missed only to be trapped in front.
What Nabi began, Rashid took forward in style. Off the very first ball he bowled, the leg-spinner had Mushfiqur Rahim cleaned up, the batsman once again going for an ill-advised reverse sweep against the deceitful leg-spinner. The extra zip on the ball from Rashid meant that it beat the bat in no time to crash-land onto the stumps.
Rashid followed it up with the wicket of Sabbir Rahman next ball, trapping him in front with a well-disguised googly. He returned in the 17th over to break the back of Bangladesh's run chase once and for all, dismissing Mosaddek Hossain with a googly. His three overs – all bowled at a time teams look to accelerate in this format – cost just 13 runs at the expense of three crucial wickets.
The biggest threat for Bangladesh as they return to play Afghanistan on Tuesday in a bid to salvage the series would be to get past these 12 overs. 12 out of 20 overs is a big majority to play out defensively. They would have to take on at least six to eight of these overs from the spinners but on Sunday they chose the wrong shots. Reverse sweeps and miscalculated slog sweeps led to their downfall. Shakib and Co have very little time to turn things around but tackling the spinners would be the number one agenda in their team meeting and net sessions.
Afghanistan, on the other hand, would know that to keep things as tight, they would need their spinners to put in yet another performance like this. On Sunday, the seamers went for 67 in their eight overs, taking four wickets, three of which were the last few to fall.
Led by Rashid Khan, Afghanistan's strong suit is their spin bowling and they will need the three to spin a web yet again at Dehradun. That said, a bigger challenge also lurks around the corner – facing India in a Test match at Bengaluru on 14 June.
The kind of form these three have displayed means they would be Afghanistan's primary weapons heading into the one-off Test. Indians are known for their crafty wrist work and ability to play the spinners around with ease. But they would also know that their performances against the spinners at home in recent times haven't be convincing. Nathan Lyon ripped them apart with eight wickets in the last Test played at Bengaluru, the venue for the Test against Afghanistan. In India's sole loss at home since December 2012, Steven O’Keefe led the charge at Pune in 2017 to help Australia win a Test in India.
The Rashid-Mujeeb-Nabi threat looms large as the teams face-off later this month. Afghanistan may not have the batting to threaten India’s own spinners but Ajinkya Rahane and Co will head to Bengaluru knowing that they will have to bat against high quality spinners.