No batsman has managed to quite figure out Rashid Khan. Since he joined the Sunrisers Hyderabad in IPL 2017, only Jasprit Bumrah has more wickets than Khan, who has 72 in 58 matches compared to the 76 by the Mumbai Indians' strike bowler. No one has bowled more than Khan's 230 overs in this period, in which no one has a better economy rate than his 6.23.
So far in this IPL, Khan has recorded his three best figures in the tournament: 3 for 7 and 3 for 14 against the Delhi Capitals and 3 for 12 against the Kings XI Punjab. He has 17 wickets from 12 games at the time of this story being published, at an economy rate of 5.00, from 48 overs of bowling.
So why does Khan remain such an enigma in the world of deep data and match-ups? It is not a question for the ordinary among us, so we asked two of ESPNcricinfo's experts: former India batsman Aakash Chopra and Tom Moody, who was the Sunrisers' coach till recently, to try and decode Rashid Khan.
Aakash Chopra: What is it about Rashid that is so, so special and unique?
Tom Moody: Firstly, forget about his bowling as such, (it is) his character. He is an enormously gifted character that loves the contest. He is a real fighter. And when he was selected out of the (2017) auction, that was probably something that wasn't known. What was known was what we're seeing quite regularly everytime we watch him bowl - and that is his genius with the ball, his ability to spin the ball sharply, more so into the right-hander and away from the left-hander, but also generate that great deal of pace off the wicket, which is his greatest asset.
Chopra: Let's dive deeper and dissect the craft of Rashid's legspin because that is unique. A quick bowling action, fairly flat and quick in the air, off the surface as well. But it was felt that he was figured out last season (2019 IPL) when people were just playing him out: "don't attack him, he can't get you out". This season we have seen a different side to Rashid Khan. He's picking wickets even when people are defending. How has he been able to do it?
Moody: As you said, last year, and I think around the world, a lot of people have decided against attacking Rashid Khan, "let's just preserve wickets and accept that his four overs are going to go for 24, and on a good day, we might get 30 off him". So they've taken that strategy. So they've really taken away the ability for him to take wickets with batsmen looking to be positive against him.
In the early parts of his career, batsmen were trying to dance down the wicket, hit him down the ground or sweep him or reverse sweep him or give themselves room and try to hit through the off side. And on every occasion... well, certainly more often than not, they were found unstuck because he's a very, very difficult prospect to face.
And one of the main reasons he's so difficult is because of that speed he gets off the wicket and the fact that the batsmen aren't reading which way it is turning. He doesn't turn his legbreak enormously, but he turns it enough. It is mainly that wrong 'un. And that is his main weapon.
One of the reasons he probably is having more wicket-taking success this year is that batsmen, when they've come across Sunrisers, have found that there's been a little bit more pressure at both ends. So, therefore, they can't just sit on Rashid when they are not scoring as freely as they'd like at the other end. So what they've had to do is take a little bit more risk against him. He is obviously a year older and a year smarter. He's come into this tournament, having played a full Caribbean Premier League. So he's got a lot of overs under his belt. So he's ready and prepared.
Chopra: The pitches in the UAE are a lot faster off the surface, so you can't possibly just see him out. Secondly, earlier when he used to come to play the IPL, he would have bowled 12 months of non-stop overs in T20 cricket. And over a period of time, if you have bowled a lot of overs, sometimes that fizz, that zip actually goes away. You want to be accurate, but you are not that accurate because the limbs are tired. Could that be a factor? Could just the faster nature of these pitches as compared to a lot of pitches in India in April and May could that be a factor - people who are defending now, they are not even going against him. He is now conceding like three-and-a-half runs an over in a lot of games, but he's still picking up two or three wickets.
Moody: It is a good point you make about the surfaces being a little bit quicker. And there is probably a little bit more bounce as well at a couple of the stadiums in the UAE. Spinners do relish that extra little bit of bounce. I still feel that the overs that he's had leading into this tournament in the Caribbean were important. I don't think anyone can come into the tournament cold and expect to hit the ground running. He's coming in ready to go. He's had that rest in quarantine anyway, so freshened up in quarantine.
"One of the reasons he probably is having more wicket-taking success this year is that batsmen, when they've come across Sunrisers have found that there's been a little bit more pressure at both ends. So, therefore, they can't just sit on Rashid when they are not scoring as freely as they'd like at the other end. So what they've had to do is take a little bit more risk against him" Tom Moody, former Sunrrisers' head coach
Chopra: What is his training procedure, Tom? Is he actually one of those who does sit and analyse the opposition? How does he actually prepare for a game?
Moody: Rashid is someone that is very thorough with his training. I wouldn't say he's someone that over-analyses the game. He does keep it very simple. He's got very simple plans, which in a way works to his advantage, because he knows that his strength is this, don't overcomplicate it and try to bowl three or four different (types of) balls in one over just to confuse the batsman. His good ball on a repeated loop is good enough for 24 balls in a four-over stint.
What he does do is he definitely bowls a lot of overs at training. He doesn't shirk away from the workload. He's very aware that he needs to maintain his rhythm in his bowling. Yes, he would want to bowl specifically to left- and right-handers, according to who we are playing against. So if you are playing against a side that's got a heavyweight in their top order of left-handers, for instance, he'll want to bowl the majority of his overs in training to the left-handed batsmen just so he could formulate his lines and these lengths.
He will look at some video, particularly if he hasn't seen a batsman. But in this day and age, the players know, you know each other inside out, they play against each other at various leagues or on the international stage often enough, they know each other's strengths and weaknesses.
Chopra: But that information is not always knowledge and wisdom. He does get taken for runs once in a while. I remember that one game against Kings XI Punjab in Mohali when Chris Gayle just went after him. And that was the first time I saw him getting clobbered in that fashion. How did he actually bounce back in the reverse fixture? How does he come back from fear failure, a rare one?
Moody: Yeah, that was a rare one. And it was a space that he hadn't been in. It was very interesting, actually. He was very reflective of his performance. He didn't shirk away from analysing and reflecting on that effort. I remember sitting with him for a period of time and discussing it. It was really him that, which was the important thing, came to the conclusion that really the thing that was undoing him was his length to Chris Gayle on that day, it was just probably a foot to two too full.
And the harder he tried, the harder he found it to find the right length because he was putting himself under pressure. So instead of just taking a step backwards and taking a deep breath, and just getting his rhythm and finding his right length, he was rushing himself through his overs and therefore presenting the wrong length, which proved to be the right length for Chris Gayle.
Chopra: Would it be fair to say that in terms of success formula, length is the critical component: if you pitch too full you get taken for runs, if you pitch too short you don't pick up those many wickets?
Moody: That's pretty much the formula for any spin bowler, or any bowler, period. But, particularly for Rashid, for him to be in that space where he is a nightmare to face to where he's someone that you can actually rotate strike if not hit boundaries against, and once he gives that a little bit of freedom it is welcomed by the batsman because they are sitting and waiting for options and opportunities to score. Because, unlike a lot of spinners, when he hits his right lengths, it is very hard to change that length by using your feet because of his speed through the air.
A lot of spinners you can use your feet and throw them off their length. But, with Rashid, batsmen have found it very difficult to be able to come down the wicket and put the spinner under pressure with his length. So he's got that ace up his sleeve always.
Chopra: Can people play him as an offspinner? I'm just finding ways to counter him because if you keep playing dot ball after dot ball, eventually you get dismissed trying to go for a big one?
Moody: Good luck, just playing him as an offspinner!
Chopra In terms of scoring areas, Tom - instead of off side, you are looking to score, say, long-on, midwicket. Robin Uthappa got the better of him one season where he decided he was going downtown and nowhere else?
Moody: I remember that clearly too. Robin Uthappa was playing (Rashid) nearly like a straight sweep slog over sort of straight midwicket to midwicket, and he did it did very effectively, as you said. So he was just banking on the ball turning in, but you are talking about a player that is an established and very good player of spin.
A lot of batsmen have talked about trying to cover their stumps and play Rashid Khan through mid-on, midwicket, go with the tide of what they think the spin is. And if Rashid does see batsmen look to do that, what he will look to do to counter that is just change his release position at the crease. So he'll just change the angle of the balls coming down. He may not necessarily change the delivery, but he'll change the arrival of the delivery. So it may come six inches or a foot wider over the crease than it would have done in the previous six balls.