In the middle of April last year, there was a strange sequence: Rashid Khan was hit for 55 in his four overs by Kings XI Punjab, and in the next game, Chennai Super Kings picked up 49 off his bowling. So accustomed to his guile rattling teams we all were - and still so enamoured by his incredible life arc - that it seemed almost implausible that these spells had occurred. After all, he hadn't averaged greater than 16 in any format around that time last year. Since then, only one anomalic performance in Afghanistan's maiden Test has changed that reality - he's now at 17.79 in first-class cricket. The horror.
He alleviated the collective anxiety eventually, finishing as Sunrisers Hyderabad's joint highest wicket-taker with 21, an excellent season capped with an absolute blockbuster performance in the second qualifier against Kolkata Knight Riders. He made 34 off 10, took 3 for 19, and ran out Nitish Rana in one of the greatest all-round T20 performances ever. It took Sunrisers into the final.
On Wednesday, Sunrisers aren't favourites going into the eliminator. It follows another odd April for Rashid. Once again, though, it might be coming from a place of exaggerated worry. Rashid's taken 15 wickets in 14 matches so far, and he averages a shade over 24. He went for 44 in Sunrisers' last game but his economy for the season is still 6.56. They are top-class stats by any measure but once again, because of how much he's spoilt the cricketing world over the last two years or so, they appear pale in comparison to his overall brilliance. And when you think of how important his regular wickets have been for the last two seasons.
They also show that while Rashid hasn't really been found out or deciphered, teams have become comfortable playing him out at run-a-ball and going after the other bowlers. Purely on reputation, such a plan against the Sunrisers strong bowling attack wasn't a prudent option till recently; but teams have taken a chance and made it work this year. Siddarth Kaul, Sandeep Sharma and Shakib Al Hasan, all of whom had solid seasons alongside Rashid last year, have not been as influential this year. Kaul and Sandeep, in fact, have both lost their places ahead of the playoffs. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, like Rashid, has been economical but with a strike rate on the lower side. In essence, Khaleel Ahmed's 17 wickets in eight games are something of a saving grace for Sunrisers, who are normally used to two or three bowlers carrying their season alongside the top order. Their 12 points in 14 games are reflective of this.
But, according to Rashid, he is doing exactly what he has set out to do.
"Taking wickets or not, it doesn't make any difference to me," Rashid had said after Sunrisers' win against Chennai Super Kings on April 17. This was in response to whether he felt the batsmen were being cautious against him.
"I always try my best to bowl economically for the team. That's what I'm targeting. If you see from the first game, I think batsmen played more carefully than last year. Wickets are a bit different as well compared to last year. It doesn't turn that much, it's quite difficult to get them out until they make a mistake. But I think I'm quite happy with the way I've bowled on such wickets. Just trying my best to do well and bowl as economically as possible."
Only on one occasion has that not worked out for him this season and Shimron Hetmyer was majorly responsible for the 44 Rashid conceded against Royal Challengers Bangalore on Saturday - a fearless left-hander, hacking through the line against one of the best bowlers in the format. It might have been a prelude to what Rishabh Pant will likely try to do against Rashid in Visakhapatnam. He is only one of five left-handers in that line-up.
Is this the chance then - on a slower wicket in a bigger ground - to turn it around against batsmen who will be predisposed, in theory, to attack the incoming ball? Rashid loves taking it away or zipping it past left-handers, but is there an opportunity here to go more traditional? To present his supposed five variants of legbreaks, to get them hitting across the line, and to make them vulnerable before slipping in the one that pitches middle and hits off?
We've already established the unreal standards we place for the man, so let's face it - none for 25 in four overs would feel like a letdown. He will take it, and so will his team. But it's time, just like in that qualifier against Knight Riders last year, for some serious Rashid magic. Sunrisers are in the playoffs, but they are a team that has lost more games than they've won this season. A lot of things not in their control have gone right for them to be here in a tight table. They don't have David Warner, and they don't have Jonny Bairstow, their top players this season. But it only takes two good performances from here to be in the final for the second year in a row - and thrice in four seasons. It's their own mini-series from here on and it is time for Rashid be the man of that series.