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Rashid, out of form? Try telling Royals that

Rashid, the master of deception, might be off his best, but his 3 for 14 on Friday showed that he is still a cut above the rest

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
R Ashwin crouched forward and took two small, tentative steps with his front foot, first planting it with his toes pointing towards cover, then towards mid-off.
After being beaten on the outside edge by consecutive legbreaks - one just outside off stump, one much wider - Ashwin played for the googly, rolling his wrists as he looked to work a single through midwicket.
He heard the clunk of ball on wood, then looked around to see his off stump lying flat, thrown back towards fine leg. Rashid Khan ran away with his brow furrowed and his tongue out, pointing towards the uprooted stump. As Rahul Tewatia caught up with him for a high-five, he broke into a familiar grin.
In his next over, Rashid had Riyan Parag in his sights. At 63 for 4, Rajasthan Royals felt as though they had no choice but to add to their batting line-up, but that meant bringing in a batter who had not played in two weeks after a lean start to the season to face T20's leading spinner.
Parag, like Ashwin, had no idea which way the ball was about to turn. And how could he? Even the world's best players will tell you how difficult it can be to pick the white ball under floodlights, let alone when facing Rashid. Parag played down the wrong line, was smashed on the pad by a googly; a reluctant review projected the ball would have taken out middle stump.
Soon after Parag's dismissal, the TV broadcast showed a split-screen of Rashid's legbreak and his googly, which illustrated just how hard they are to tell apart. Viewed from the batter's stance, his wrist position looks fundamentally the same for both deliveries. Unless you can spot the seam - under lights, from 20 yards away - then it is like guesswork.
"It's just about making sure you don't give that much of a signal to the batsmen to pick you and make it easy for them," Rashid explained at the post-match presentation. "I am just trying my best, for the last one-and-a-half, two years, to minimise that difference between the legspinner and the wrong one… I'm trying my best to hold that in the same grip."
The one possible tell is his left hand. When Rashid bowls his googly, he tends to point his left forefinger towards the direction the ball will spin, perhaps as a signal to the wicketkeeper; when he bowls his legbreak, his forefinger and middle finger are both slightly bent.
It sounds like something that batters should be watching - that is, until you remember that his left hand is at thigh height, about three feet under the ball itself, which batters are fixated on. You could study footage of Rashid for weeks and still be deceived.
"The speed with which he bowls [means that] if you don't pick it up that early, you've already missed it," Aashish Kapoor, Titans' assistant coach who has worked closely with their spinners, explained. "If you've not picked his googly, and you're going to play off the wicket, it's going to be really difficult.
"It's not like the days where we used to play, where you'd plant your leg in front, it would hit your leg, and the umpire would give you not out. These days, the moment you miss in line with the stumps, 99% [of the time] you're gone. It's hitting the stumps."
When Rashid was brought back for his final over, the 15th, Royals were just trying to bat the full 20. They were 96 for 7 with Shimron Hetmyer, their lone remaining recognised batter, on 7 off 12 balls. Hetmyer lunged forward, survival his only intention, but the hint of turn meant he was beaten on the inside edge.
Rashid threw his right arm up in the air like a goalscorer wheeling away to celebrate, and was nearly in line with the popping crease as he turned around to implore umpire Virender Sharma to give him the verdict. He did, and with no reviews left, Hetmyer had to trudge off forlornly; either way, the decision would have been upheld on umpire's call.
At 24, Rashid has already played 400 T20 matches around the world.
On Friday night, Rashid returned to his Jaipur hotel room as the joint-highest wicket-taker this IPL and his franchise three points clear at the top of the table. If this is meant to be a decline, just wait until he's back to his best
"Sometimes, if you're playing day in and day out, in every league in the world, then you're playing for your country, it becomes monotonous," Kapoor said, "and you forget that you're doing some mistakes. Some bad habits just creep in.
"What he felt was, he was running in a bit too fast, because of which, his hand was dropping and the ball was falling short. All we wanted was, the ball should pitch on the good length, and you'll see what happens after that."
Rashid said that he had studied his pitch maps from earlier this season, and responded by "spot-bowling" in training on Thursday evening. "He bowled at a single stump for one hour," Kapoor said with a smile. "I just keep it simple," Rashid said, straight after that simplicity had bamboozled the batting line-up of last season's runners-up.
Meanwhile, his compatriot and protege Noor Ahmad was doing his best to emulate Rashid at the other end. Both of Noor's dismissals - knocking out Devdutt Padikkal's off stump and pinning Dhruv Jurel lbw - were mirror images of Ashwin and Hetmyer's dismissals. No wonder Kapoor described Noor as "a left-handed Rashid".
Hardik Pandya, Titans' captain, leaves Rashid and Noor to speak to one another in Pashto when they are playing alongside one another. "He is so happy that I am there with him [Noor] and can translate those things into Pashto for him," Rashid said. Noor asks Rashid so many questions that he says he is "like Google for me".
When Trent Boult heaved Noor over midwicket in the 16th over for one of only three sixes in Royals' innings, the ball dropped on a cameraman, named Manoj, who doubled over in pain. Without a second thought, Rashid jumped over the advertising display to see if he could help. He is much more than just a bowler.
If you've been following IPL 2023 closely, you might have heard some chatter about Rashid. That he's struggling for control this season. That batters have realised they can camp on the back foot against him. That he's leaking more runs than ever before.
And there has been some truth to it. Rashid has had two expensive outings this year, conceding 46 against Royals and 54 against Kolkata Knight Riders; they rank fourth and second among his costliest IPL spells.
Imbued with extra batting depth on flat pitches, teams have attacked him more than they used to, particularly off the back foot. His highest economy rate in a full season is the 6.73 he recorded in 2017, his debut year. This year, he has gone at 8.05.
Yet, on Friday night, as Rashid returned to his Jaipur hotel room, he did so as the joint-highest wicket-taker this IPL - along with his Titans team-mate, Mohammed Shami - and his franchise three points clear at the top of the table. If this is meant to be a decline, just wait until he's back to his best.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98