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Feature

Rahmat Shah, the odd one out in Afghanistan's band of T20 stars

Amid the T20 bashers, Afghanistan have finally found someone who can absorb pressure, bat time, and grind attacks

Deivarayan Muthu
06-Nov-2023
Rahmat Shah has remained unfazed even in the face of pressure  •  AFP/Getty Images

Rahmat Shah has remained unfazed even in the face of pressure  •  AFP/Getty Images

In recent times, Afghanistan has become the hotbed for T20 talents. Noor Ahmad was only 14 when he made it to the IPL auction shortlist in 2019. Last year, a 15-year-old mystery spinner was in the IPL auction shortlist. Afghanistan's white-ball side drips with so much T20 experience and class that there's no room for Qais Ahmad and Waqar Salamkheil who are T20 globetrotters in their own right.
Azmatullah Omarzai and Ibrahim Zadran haven't been in the big-league spotlight yet, but they've had a taste of the Bangladesh Premier League (BPL).
Rahmat Shah is the odd one out in Afghanistan's team. He is the least experienced T20 player in the side and has never featured in a T20 league outside of Afghanistan. His ODI strike rate of 71.28, for a minimum of 100 innings, is among the lowest in the history of the format.
Former Afghanistan coach Phil Simmons had called Rahmat the most technically correct batter in the side before they made their Test debut against India in 2018. In 2019, he backed that claim by becoming Afghanistan's first-ever Test centurion. In the same year, he faced 390 balls in the ODI World Cup in England, scoring 254 runs.
No other Afghanistan batter scored more runs than him at that tournament. But more importantly, no other Afghanistan batter faced more balls. Afghanistan had finally found someone who could absorb pressure, bat time, and grind attacks. The ODI cricket landscape has changed vastly since, but Rahmat hasn't changed his game too much, though he has added more shots to his repertoire like the reverse-sweep.
His batting is still based around defence and stickability. Against Netherlands in Lucknow, he walked into bat in the sixth over after the early dismissal of Rahmanullah Gurbaz and defended stoutly. He then got off the mark with an extension of the defence - showing the full face of the bat and push-driving it straight down the ground for four. It was played with the stillest of heads and straightest of bats.
You can understand why Simmons was so impressed with him. The new coach Jonathan Trott is also impressed with Rahmat's approach, which has had a calming effect on the entire batting line-up. Afghanistan had scored 31 boundaries overall during their famous takedown of Pakistan at Chepauk, but it was Rahmat's lofted straight drive, laced with technical precision and finesse under pressure, that was singled out for special praise by Trott at the post-match press conference.
"I thought the players in the middle, their emotions were outstanding," Trott had said in Chennai. "I think to have a historic win like this as well for the players, you could easily get a little bit ahead of yourself or get a bit nervous or panicky. I thought the way that Rahmat Shah, the way that he played, there's still a few things, a few singles he could have maybe taken to take the pressure off himself, but the shot that he played there to hit a straight six sort of broke the back of the game and the way that the captain [Hashmatullah Shahidi] played as well, you know, took the pressure off the changing room. So, [it is] a great feeling."
Starting from the match against Pakistan, Rahmat has made three successive half-centuries in chases, with all of those resulting in wins. All told, he has been in control of 278 of 329 balls he has faced in this World Cup, according to ESPNcricinfo's logs. He doesn't have the power to launch the big hits, but his ability to control one end enables the rest of the batting line-up to go for those hits. The emergence of Ibrahim - and the coming of age of Shahidi - has added greater stability to Afghanistan's line-up. This is no longer the side that was prone to irreparable collapses.
"As you see, 50-over cricket is a long time and you have to be able to, I think, ride the sort of ebbs, and flows of a game. The thing that I'm really happy about from the last game is we lost a wicket in the first over and you know Rahmat Shah was able to go into No. 3 and soak up that pressure but still keep scoring at a good tempo," Trott had said, alluding to the chase against Sri Lanka. "So that shows the ability to soak up pressure at times, what you have to do in 50-over cricket, but also then accelerate at certain times.
"So, wanting and trying to enable batters and give them the game and help them grow the game so they can have both facets of the game. Pressure, soaking it up, rotation of strike, and obviously accelerating and boundary-hitting."
Rahmat then did the same against Netherlands and kept his team alive at the World Cup. Can he do more of the same on Tuesday when Afghanistan meet heavyweights Australia at Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium?

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo