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How will Ireland cope with Rashid Khan's threat?

No bowler has more international wickets against one team at a better average than Khan against Ireland

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Rashid Khan will be a major threat against Ireland  •  ICC/Getty Images

Rashid Khan will be a major threat against Ireland  •  ICC/Getty Images

In the storied history of international cricket, no player has taken more wickets against a single team at a better average than Rashid Khan against Ireland. Not Muttiah Muralitharan against Bangladesh; not Cathryn Fitzpatrick against New Zealand; not even Sydney Barnes against South Africa. None of them can match Khan's record against the Irish: 89 wickets across all three formats, at an average of 13.34.
At one stage, across a period spanning nearly two years, Khan took at least two wickets in 14 consecutive matches against Ireland - comprising nine ODIs and five T20Is - returning 42 wickets at 10.11 during that stretch. Despite his youth, he has often resembled a grown man playing in a children's game.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, Ireland will approach their ODIs against their most regular opponents this week with some trepidation. Their preparation for the three-match series - which forms part of the World Cup Super League - has been far from ideal: they arrived in Abu Dhabi in late December targeting a 4-0 win against the UAE, but had two fixtures cancelled due to Covid cases in the hosts' squad and needed an inspired comeback to level the series 1-1.
But in recent times - even if the bar is at a record-breaking low - they have improved against the man who will again provide Afghanistan's main threat this week. Across his last 10 innings against Ireland, Khan has taken more than two wickets only twice: 5 for 82 in the second innings of a Test, and 3 for 22 in a T20I.
In his last six ODI innings against them, he has taken only seven wickets, albeit at a miserly 3.87 runs per over, suggesting a more restrained, defensive approach. The irony of the fact that the worst figures of Khan's ODI career came at the hands of an Irishman will not be lost on them.
"In T20, having to take someone like that down is really difficult," said Paul Stirling, Ireland's vice-captain, who has made two hundreds in his last three ODI innings. "We've got a chance to play him in 50-over cricket, and give ourselves a chance to see the ball. Defence comes into the game: if he goes for 30 or 40, not taking many wickets, then we can maybe try and target someone else.
"I generally try to read the ball in the air. His action is so quick. It looks really easy when people slow it down. I usually pick it in the air and off the pitch and play from there. The world's best might be able to pick it from earlier in his run-up but certainly not me. Given the speed he bowls at, if he gets a little bit of turn both ways, it's hard work."
"Whenever I've had trouble against any of those spinners, I've been caught in two minds about what to do. But whenever I've had some sort of success, I've backed my game completely and gone with that."
Andy Balbirnie on facing Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Mohammad Nabi
"Some days you can pick him, some days you can't," explained Andy Balbirnie, Ireland's captain, who successfully negotiated 31 balls against Khan while making his highest ODI score two years ago. "He's always thinking, always looking to change it up. It's really enjoyable to play against him because it's a real competition and from ball one, you're under the pump.
"It's a great place to be because if you can get beyond that, the message that sends to the rest of the guys is great. We're aware that when he fires, by and large, they have a good day, but if he doesn't, sometimes we get up on them. It'll be a great contest - it always is."
And while Khan presents a particular threat, Ireland will not take the rest of Afghanistan's attack lightly. Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Mohammad Nabi have been regular wicket-takers against them over the years, while Naveen-ul-Haq looks set for a bigger role in this series and left-armer Sayed Shirzad took 3 for 28 in a warm-up game on Saturday.
"You can't take their seamers for granted," Stirling said. "But without getting too caught up on them only, it's Nabi, Mujeeb and Rashid who are their big three. We've got to combat that in such important games. We've done it before, it's just about doing it again and again. It's quite a hard one to practise for: there's only a certain amount that our net bowlers can try and replicate those three, so you've got to get your skills bang in order and make sure everything is working."
Balbirnie said: "I think it's pretty simple: [it's about] having a really clear gameplan against them and backing that. Whenever I've had trouble against any of those spinners, I've been caught in two minds about what to do. But whenever I've had some sort of success, I've backed my game completely and gone with that.
"The great thing about having such a young squad is that they're so enthusiastic to learn. Not many of them have played specifically 50-over cricket against Afghanistan, so they've been asking questions since we got to the airport. They've all got the confidence to back their game against them.
"That's what I learned from the senior guys in the squad when I first came in: no matter who you're playing, just back yourself. If you get out doing what you're good at, so be it. Always have the mind to back your skills and your gameplan 100%."
It is a mindset that Ireland's batsmen will hope serves them well when they come up against their chief tormentor this week.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @mroller98