Sunrisers Hyderabad will take on Kolkata Knight Riders at their home ground for the second qualifier tonight. Both teams will rely on their spinners to give them the advantage on a pitch that is expected to assist them. Kolkata have the upper hand of having the trio of Sunil Narine, Kuldeep Yadav and Piyush Chawla and playing at home, but Sunrisers Hyderabad will be equal to the task as they have in their ranks the best limited-over spinner in the world, Rashid Khan.
The 19-year old leg-spinner from Afghanistan has been nothing short of sensational this year. With 18 wickets and three man of the match awards, he has been one of the main reasons for Sunrisers earning the reputation of the best bowling side in the tournament that can defend any total.
After a great start to the tournament, Rashid Khan had a two-game slump in the fourth and fifth matches where he conceded 55 and 49 runs respectively off his four overs. But he came back strongly in the next match at Wankhede taking 2 for 11 as his team dismissed Mumbai for a paltry 89 to stage an unlikely win.
In a recent interview, Rashid lamented the nature of the pitches in this year's IPL where spinners aren't getting as much assistance as they were getting last year. He reckoned that even the wickets laid out in Big Bash weren't so cruel towards spinners.
Despite the nature of the pitches, Rashid quickly adjusted his style to suit the conditions. In this year's tournament itself, Rashid has clean bowled AB de Villiers, Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni, three of the best players of spin going around at the moment. Even when there is little help from the pitch, Rashid relies on his speed and accuracy to restrict the batsmen. When there is some assistance on the pitch, like in the last game at Wankhede against Chennai Super Kings, Rashid is unplayable.
Rashid's greatest strength while bowling leg spin is his quick arm action. That action is the reason for the incredible zip he imparts on his lethal googlies. It's also the reason why batsmen struggle to pick him as there is very little time to read him from the hands. To compound batsmen's problem, Rashid has five or six different grips on the ball. You have to go through a whole catalogue in your head if you are looking at his grip and wrists and trying to figure out what he is going to bowl next. At the kind of speed Rashid bowls, there is simply no time to do it.
Another impressive aspect of Rashid's bowling this year is the fact that he gets top order batsmen out defending, something that puts him in good stead for Test matches. We have seen limited over bowlers like Narine struggling in Test cricket where batsmen are happy to play him defensively. Rashid, apart from being a successful T20 bowler, shows promise for the longest form of the game as well. A self-taught cricketer, Rashid has the ability to evolve and teach him yet more skills to continue to be a handful for the batsmen at any level.
The 19-year old is a trailblazer for his country. His exploits on the field will reflect the progress made by Afghanistan. While his national team hasn't played much international cricket, Rashid has already been gone around the world and made a name for himself. He has held top ranks in both ICC ODI and T20I rankings, has taken a hattrick in the Caribbean Premier League, and had teams in a frenzy to bid for him in the IPL. His stellar performances at international level and in leagues around the world were part of the reason for Afghanistan getting fast-tracked to Test status, barely a decade after getting ODI status.
When asked in an interview about which Indian batsman he finds the hardest to bowl to, he reckoned there is no one he has struggled against yet. That kind of confidence in a 19-year-old cricketer from a country with no cricketing history is as much a tribute to the type of exposure provided by the IPL as his bowling skills.
Rashid has already tasted league success at Adelaide Strikers in Big Bash where he was voted as the team's Most Valuable Player in their title win. On pitches that aren't considered spin friendly, Rashid took 18 wickets in 11 games at an unbelievable economy rate of 5.66. An IPL title will top off a brilliant season for the Afghan leg-spinner.
Rashid will be holding all the keys when his team Sunrisers Hyderabad goes face-to-face against Kolkata Knight Riders in a must-win battle. But a bigger Test for his country still awaits him. In barely three weeks from now, Rashid will play the inaugural Test for his country at a ground that is located half a kilometre from Anil Kumble Circle in Bengaluru. Coincidence? I say destiny.