There's been something slightly disorienting about watching Rashid Khan
, Afghan superstar, in the Pakistan Super League, although that feeling is also entirely appropriate. Though this is a debut in the league for him in body, in spirit it feels like a homecoming. This is a league run by the country he grew up in, possibly spent his formative cricket years in; where his cricket hero
is from; where a large segment of the population are kindred to him in soul, mind and spirit - a tie that can never be erased or confined by material irrelevances like passports or borders.
Said league, as it happens, is being played in a country Khan now resides in for convenience, because it allows him to travel easily. Said country is also the birthplace of said league, so Rashid Khan, a 24x7 on-the-road athlete, is, in many roundabout ways, home.
He has been a life-affirming figure at this PSL, not least because it plays out at a time when that dreaded, wholly inadequate, hyphenated term "Af-Pak" is (with capital I) Important again. The TL;DR is that the US is pulling the last of its troops out of Afghanistan, 20 years after 9/11 and that has (capital I again) Implications for neighbouring Pakistan because there have been implications forever since the British drew a line in the sand in 1893 and divided one people into two.
In a tiny but undeniable way Khan's participation is significant in this connection - to say that yes, there is some very real life to sort out, but in the meantime here's a slice of life that is also real and infinitely less exhausting. What is being played out here, an Afghan icon starring in Pakistan's biggest event, is both a refuge from all that geopolitical context but also a reminder that the context need not be something to always take refuge from.
And at some level, to Pakistanis specifically, it should be challenging. Millions of Afghans fled Afghanistan to seek refuge in Pakistan after the Soviet invasion of their country in 1979. But in a metropolis like Karachi, far from being seen as fellow sufferers - let alone citizens, because a majority have not been allowed to become citizens - they are seen by Pakistanis as troublesome, and worse, deleterious to society at large.
Imagine, though, the power of him bowling as he did last Thursday against Peshawar Zalmi
but doing it in front of a full house at Gaddafi Stadium, the home of his team? Better yet, at some point, imagine him playing in Peshawar, once - maybe forever - a home, in front of thousands of his people? There's not enough wattage in the world to measure the electricity of such an occasion.
In a way, prolonged participation in the PSL should also complete the uniqueness of his stature. Here is a player whose home is Afghanistan, who has grown up in Pakistan, who is not only a star in India but plays his "home" internationals there. He plays those for a country that is central to a geo-strategic proxy war - bragging rights, in plainer words - between the other two.
He is at home right across these three countries. He is freely able to play in front of their crowds. He is freely able to play alongside their best players and against them. To varying degrees, each of the three can claim a bit of him, and Pakistan more once he has played more of the PSL. To that end, speaking publicly in Urdu post-match has been a nice touch. It may appear a small touch but, given that until as recently as the 2019 World Cup, Afghanistan's team was reportedly under instructions by its board to not speak Urdu publicly, it is not that small.
Imagine him playing in Peshawar, once - maybe forever - a home, in front of thousands of his people? There's not enough wattage in the world to measure the electricity of such an occasion
That could make him potentially the first true pan-subcontinent star. Nobody, not Hanif, not Mankad, not Gavaskar, not Kapil, not Imran, not Javed, not Wasim, not Sachin, not Kohli, not Babar - none can claim to have cut through the jingoism and blind hatred that blights cricket fandom in these countries. In the adulation and respect he inspires in these countries Khan might have quietly accrued a status that sets him apart from nationalities. He's a country of one, and equally one of all countries. It seems unnecessary to state that how big he is in Australia too.
There's so much going on here, and after it all there is still his cricket. Of which, it's safe to say that he has equalled his hero in some respects. "He is one player who has fans all over the world," Khan told the Cricket Monthly a couple of years ago
. "You don't get such players every day. Check his record, he doesn't have many centuries, but whenever he arrived, he would hit four-five-six sixes, entertain and leave. That is why he had fans. You had
to become his fan."
Aside from the detail of the batting, this could be about Khan himself. He, of course, was talking about Shahid Afridi, whose gravitational force he himself now comfortably channels, and which demands you're pinned down for every single ball he's involved in. Plus, he creates these moments, it seems, far more consistently. The other night, against Islamabad United
, he stole a win with the bat in all of five balls, which in totality was a very Afridi thing to do but in its execution was far more ruthless. Although, just as Afridi would tell himself walking to the crease, Khan told himself to not play big shots. But when it came to the crunch, like Afridi again, he couldn't hold himself back.
By now everyone knows everything about the genius in his bowling, not that this knowledge helps batsmen any. Each ball is delivered as an expression of the same superiority and certainty as has been done by the true masters - the Marshalls or McGraths or Akrams.
A special word for the googly, though. Fittingly for the nature of the delivery, Khan's googly works in the opposite way to most others. The more he bowls it the less it is understood, like the best magic, or undoubtedly for some people, maths.
This is a great league for showing off googlies in. For a long while, it was a Pakistani delivery and in Imran Tahir at the Multan Sultans, there is a direct descendent of the Abdul Qadir lineage. At the same franchise there is also Qadir's blood
, and perhaps the beginnings of a theory that the googly can be inherited genetically. Khan's googly though stands apart from all of them. And in doing so, it still feels right at home.
Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo