Rashid Khan is truly remarkable. When asked if I’d do a luncheon chat with him I was hesitant for two reasons: Entrance to the hotel would be a problem as it was awash with 1000s of supporters of a particular political party deeply enmeshed in the turmoil that gripped the City post-Karnataka elections and if I could engage with the Afghan cricketer without a language translator.
But Rashid Khan proved to be a revelation. He not only spoke good English, but pointed out that he was so keen on learning the language that after pursuing it for over a year he became proficient enough to make a living as an English teacher.
The second thing that stood out during the interaction was that he did not have formal cricket coaching. "We’d watch cricket on television and pick up the nuances en route. So nobody coached me," he said.
He also revealed a good sense of humour. When asked if there were 5000 cricketers in all back home in Afghanistan, he cheekily remarked that their “leg spinners alone numbered 5000 or more.”
So how did he get to become a leg spinner?
"I was an opening batsman. In the first three matches I played I got 21 wickets. In the fourth match, my captain put me to bat at number nine and told me I was a bowler, not a batsman.
“I had to therefore improve my bowling to stay in the team. I bowled 1000s of hours after that.”
Youngest among seven brothers, Rashid revealed that it was his “middle brother” who encouraged him to bowl leg spinners. “All my brothers play cricket. So the game was already familiar to me. But my father did not like us to play the game. He said it was a waste of time and wanted us to study hard to become engineers or doctors.
“I would often sneak my kit out of the house through a cousin or friend and later join them to play cricket. I was fortunate I had no coach. This made me keep on experimenting with various grips, flight, pace and even different types of deliveries.
“Even then batsmen could not pick my googly from leg spin. When we saw Tests and other top class cricket on television I would wonder if I could ever fool such great batsmen.
“It was only when I came to IPL I found from other leg spinners that my bowling was different. They would try to bowl like me and could not. I too could not bowl some of the deliveries that they could.”
So what was the secret of his googlies that even some of the world’s best batsmen cannot pick it?
He explained and demonstrated it without a ball in hand. “I bowl different types of googlies. But the one that is most effective is when I use my fingers, rather than the wrist to make the ball go the other way.”
He pointed out that he got the ball to flip and go from behind his fingers. "The leg spin is from the front of my fingers. But for the special googly I tweak it hard and the ball goes over the back of the fingers. I adjust the wrist in a manner that it cannot be easily spotted. It is my arm speed and the pace with which I deliver this ball that makes it possible.
"When I showed this to a couple of IPL leg spinners they were surprised. But when they tried it the ball fell at their feet!”
So how come you are telling me and the other spinners about this unique delivery? Won’t Indian batsmen be prepared for it in the inaugural Test?
"I’m practising five different types of deliveries in the nets. I’m yet to use them. I will mix them with the other deliveries in the Test," he said confidently.
Rashid was also confident that Afghanistan would throw up more top class spinners in the future. "Every country has it strength. India produce good batsmen while England, Australia and New Zealand have excellent fast bowlers. Afghanistan’s speciality is spinners. In fact even our fast bowlers want to bowl spin!
“We have 40 to 50 of our best cricketers practising in Noida for the Test. There are many good young spinners among them. The world will see their brilliance at the inaugural Afghan Premier League in Dubai in October this year. That event will showcase Afghanistan’s talent and make everybody sit up and take notice. Actually, with polishing, motivation and encouragement some of the Afghan players could become international stars."
Asked if he would be as successful if batsmen did not go after his bowling, like they had to in T20 cricket, Rashid said he was used to bowling long spells and could wait for them to make mistakes.
"I like to bowl in good areas. I study the batsman. If he likes to play on the on-side I don’t bowl too many googlies. I try to make him play against the spin."
Did he think there would be many television viewers in Afghanistan for his IPL matches and the Test to follow in June?
"I don’t think there will be anybody who is not watching," he countered.
"It is a big honour to be accepted as a Test nation. We have achieved this in just 13 to 14 years. There is a lot of pride in that achievement. Every Afghan is looking forward to it," he added.
"Basically if we do well in cricket then people all over the world will talk good things about Afghanistan. Now all the talk is about bombs and death. That makes us very sad. We want to make our countrymen to be proud of our achievements and the world to talk about our cricket. So the game means a lot to us. It is not just a sport," he concluded.
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