He’s 19 and from a country at war for decades, but Rashid Khan of Afghanistan is the toast of the cricket world with his leg-spin wizardry.
From Thursday, the world’s top-ranked Twenty20 bowler will be in action as Afghanistan play their first ever Test match, the gruelling five-day format beloved of purists, against the mighty India in Bangalore.
Khan started playing with a tennis ball in the remote and poor eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar as one of 12 children, and says he learned the tricks of the trade by himself.
“Nobody taught me… leg-spin and wrong ones,” he told the Times of India recently. “I just observed Shahid Afridi and Anil Kumble,” he said, greats of Pakistan and India respectively.
Khan began his professional career in Afghanistan’s domestic league where he caught the eye of national selectors.
At 17, he made his international debut against Zimbabwe.
Since then he has gone from strength to strength, becoming the fastest to reach 100 one-day international wickets during the World Cup qualifiers in March with his darting leg-spinners and vicious googlies.
This year he was the star of the Indian Premier League, the cash-rich extravaganza in short-format Twenty20 cricket, helping the Sunrisers Hyderabad reach the final and more than justifying his $1.41-million price tag.
Khan’s well-disguised “doosra” ball did for stars from Virat Kohli, the India captain, to batting maestro Mahendra Singh Dhoni, helping to propel the youngster to the top of the International Cricket Council’s T20 bowling rankings.
“I wouldn’t hesitate in saying he is the best spinner in the world in this format… (and) he’s got some batting skills as well,” Indian cricket superstar Sachin Tendulkar said on Twitter.
Australian spin legend Shane Warne said Khan got him “excited”, while Kumble was also full of praise for the 19-year-old and his 17-year-old teammate Mujeeb ur Rahman.
“It’s fantastic to see two young Afghanistan spinners bamboozle world batsmen,” Kumble, the third-highest wicket-taker of all time and now a commentator, told AFP.
“Both Rashid and Mujeeb are extremely talented and if they get it right they are certainly capable of testing… Indian or any batsmen,” the former leg-spinner added.
– New challenge –
The duo have become a potent weapon for Afghanistan, with Mohammad Nabi adding edge to a spin-heavy squad picked for their historic Test against India this week.
Last week, they completed an impressive 3-0 ODI whitewash over Bangladesh.
However, Kumble said switching from T20s to the five-day format would be a challenge for the teenagers.
“It will be interesting to see how they go, because bowling four overs and bowling to get wickets in a Test match is totally different,” the former India captain said.
Khan, who is also an agile fielder and a useful lower-order batsman, said that fitness has always been key since he made his ODI debut.
“In the last one year, I have tried to stay fit, and improve upon my fitness, which has changed everything,” he said.
“I have managed to contribute in the field, with ball and bat.”