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Feature

The Rashid phenom: everything, everywhere, all at once

On the occasion of Afghanistan's qualification for the T20 World cup semi-final, their captain was the heart and soul of their victory

"I've never seen that ever. In any level of cricket."
Ian Smith has developed such a reputation for being on the mic during cricket's most incredible moments, he should probably publish his commentary schedule so traveling fans can also find themselves witnessing unforgettable sporting history. His is one of those rare voices that reaches into the ether and gathers such perfect descriptions of high cricketing drama that those moments themselves later feel incomplete without. What is England's 2019 boundary-countback World Cup victory minus Smith's "by the barest of margins" ringing in your ears?
Even he's at a bit of a loss here, though. But then he's commentating on Afghanistan. And there's never been a cricket team like this.
Right now, we are 19.3 overs into Afghanistan's innings, and things are going poorly for them against Bangladesh. Rashid Khan had banged a six over backward point previous ball, but still, they are only at 107 for 5 with four balls left. There is history waiting to be grabbed. It doesn't feel like Afghanistan will quite reach it.
On ball 19.3, Rashid tried to snake-hit a six over the legside, but had only managed a leading edge that went deep into the offside instead. He had turned for a second and come sprinting back to keep the strike. But his partner, Karim Janat, sent him back.
So right now, he is mid-pitch, and furious. The ball is only now being gathered, and there are only three deliveries left, and Rashid wants this extra run, and he also wants the strike as he has just smashed a six, and wow why the hell would you turn down this run?
Rashid thrashes his bat so angrily that he loses grip and it goes spinning towards Janat, its own little vortex of rage. When Janat returns Rashid's bat, after Rashid has comfortably regained his ground at the non-striker's end, he has a sheepish expression. Rashid can't stand to look at his team-mate.
When he gets the strike back later that over, Rashid smokes a six over square leg so perfect it soars over the stand. It is possible no ball has been so cleanly struck all tournament. He finishes with a strike rate no one else in his team has come close to. He stomps off the field, full of intent, and ambition.

****

Rashid is an outlier in a cricketing country that itself is an outlier. He is a legspin bowler in a nation which, going from neighbouring Pakistan's experience at least, you would expect would be known for its fast bowling. When Afghanistan first burst into the global cricket consciousness in the 2015 ODI World Cup, they played to this type - the strapping Shapoor Zadran leading the attack, and Hamid Hassan - Afghan colours worn like warpaint on his cheeks - hurrying the world's best batters.
But if Afghanistan's cricketing story is one of confounding expectations, and rising spectacularly fast, no one has confounded more, or risen as spectacularly as Rashid. Since making his debut in late 2015, he has been on the frontlines of T20 cricket's wristspin revolution. He's grown an entire batting section to his game, like a secondary crop in a spare field, which many other wristspinners, who dominate that one discipline, have not found cause to do.
And there can be no resident Afghan quite like him in the world - as prized in Melbourne as Mumbai, as feared in London as Lahore, almost as admired in Cape Town as Kabul. Unusually for legspinners who excel at T20s, Rashid has also rocked Test cricket, taking 34 wickets at an average of 22.35 in the matches he's played. There is almost no story of Afghan triumph that you can tell to which he has not been central, or at the very least, central-adjacent.
As with any Afghan story in the last several decades there are "what ifs" for Rashid, the most obvious of which is "what if he'd just decided to play franchise cricket forever without worrying about national duties". It's a good question. It would have freed Rashid up to make more money. Additionally, he would not have to deal with the political realities of Afghan cricket, which have been prescribed by the Taliban since 2021.
But he is here instead, in St. Vincent on a rainy night, mid-pitch, screaming at a team-mate, as irate as anyone has been on a cricket field through this World Cup.

****

If you want to know the story of Afghan cricket in the last 10 years, look at Rashid Khan's statistics. If you want to know the story of this match against Bangladesh, look at his returns. With the bat he hit 19 not out off 10, with three sixes. With the ball, 4 for 23 off four overs. As if to underline his centrality to Afghanistan's success, Rashid took out the entire middle of the Bangladesh innings, batters four, five, six and seven all dismissed by him.
They were classic Rashid wickets. Soumya Sarkar played around a fast one that Rashid turned more than the batter expected, Towhid Hridoy tried to hit against the wind and the turn and was predictably caught at deep midwicket, Mahmudullah gave a thin under-edge to the wicketkeeper (another fast one), and next ball, Rashid bowls Rishad Hossain with a quick googly. There are few bowlers who read the shots batters are looking to play against them better than Rashid. In this Super Eight stage, no bowler has taken more than his eight wickets.
But this is only when he is himself bowling. Because even if you had never followed Rashid's career, even if you didn't know that he is one of the most naturally-gifted cricketers of his generation, even if you hadn't clocked the bleak political reality that this team might not be allowed to play if they hadn't captured their nation's attention by being so good, you could still turn up to Kingstown on this rainy night, watch ten minutes of the action, and figure who was at the heart of this team's success.
Rashid is sometimes fielding at the straight boundary, because that's where the Afghanistan dugout is and he wants to hear what the coach has to say, but he's charging into the infield any time there's an lbw shout. When there's a misfield or a dropped catch - he's on the scene chiding those players too. Yes, the ground is slippery. Yes, the ball is wet. But the captain has 4 for 23 bowling wristspin. What's your excuse? He is at times outraged, often intense, frequently animated, almost always in his team-mates' faces.
Late in the match, sometime between the many rain breaks, Smith says of this match: "Whoever has written this script, they have done a fantastic job".
He's right. It is as absorbing a cricket story as you could encounter. Jonathan Trott, the English coach of the Afghanistan team is barking orders from the dugout. Dwayne Bravo, the Trinidadian fast-bowling coach is prowling the edge of the field. Gulbadin Naib, whose hamstring had apparently exploded in agony as Trott asked for the game to be slowed down, and just-as-suddenly come right, is ranging the infield.
Afghanistan are throwing everything at this match. But no one is throwing more at it than their captain, who knows that although he himself is franchise T20 royalty, his national team will always have to fight for every scrap they get. He knows that he and his team-mates will never play an international at home, and that there will forever be battles to fight that most international cricketers on the planet could never even conceive of.
When he watches that last wicket go down, Rashid sinks into the wet turf and says a prayer. Naveen-ul-Haq, who has just got two wickets in two balls, is racing towards the dugout, most of his team-mates in pursuit. Bravo has erupted into exultation. So has Trott.
And whoever you are in the world, whatever has driven you to follow this sport, you can find a kindred spirit in this euphoric melee.
You might relate best to Trott, once a pretty dour England player (let's be honest), now head coach of Afghanistan, who can't help but be caught up in the moment. You could love Bravo, one of the greatest to ever play this format, erupting outside the boundary he'd been nervously pacing for hours. You could find yourself enraptured in Mohammad Nabi's exultations - he's been part of every Afghanistan team you can remember, but is only now about to play the biggest game of his life. You could be Rahmanullah Gurbaz, the highest run-getter of this tournament, and Afghanistan's top-scorer of the evening, weeping helplessly in the dressing room. You could even be Gulbadin Naib, the fall-guy who doesn't mind looking foolish to wangle an advantage for his team.
Rashid, though, is alone, somewhere near the straight boundary, still on his knees.
The first teammate to rush to him and envelope him in an almighty bear-hug is Janat, whom Rashid had thrown a bat at two hours earlier. Who else could have known so viscerally how much Rashid wanted this?
But Janat is not the only one who understands that none of this is possible without the man he has wrapped in his arms. He is not the only one who knows how much of this improbable run to the semi-finals rested on Rashid. Or how heroically Rashid has shouldered an entire phase of Afghanistan's cricket.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is a senior writer at ESPNcricinfo. @afidelf