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Match Analysis

Rashid Khan and inverting conventional wisdom

Chasing has been a successful trend recently in T20s but on Friday night the legspinner bucked that and helped Adelaide Strikers become the first BBL side to win after opting to bat first since 2015-16

At 9:24pm local time, Rashid Khan marks out his run at the Adelaide Oval. He is about to deliver his first ball in the Big Bash League: another landmark moment for Rashid in a year full of them.
A day earlier, Mohammad Nabi pipped Rashid to become the first ever Afghanistan cricketer to play in the Big Bash League. That they have made it this far is a remarkable testament to their own talents and the power of sport to create opportunity.
Yet for the Adelaide Strikers and other T20 sides, all of this backstory is just that. These sides deal in the hard currency of wins, not sentiment.
In February, some guffawed when Rashid cost Sunrisers Hyderabad $600,000. They saw only an 18-year-old Afghan. But coach Tom Moody and Sunrisers recognised a legspinner of wonderful verve and versatility - one who could be a strike bowler or bowl frugal spells, and could beat an opponent in the air or off the wicket, with prodigious turn or with chicanery. He was signed specifically to bowl in the middle overs, but is almost equally adept bowling in all three phases of a T20 game. "He had the goods," Moody recalls. "It was a just case of did he have the character?"
The first year of the IPL gave Moody the answer: "he had that in spades." Empowered by his captain David Warner, Rashid was beguiling. In a tournament famed for leaving superstars marooned on the bench, Rashid instantly became undroppable, and the fulcrum of Sunrisers' attack. In the Caribbean and Bangladesh, he was as good.
For the Adelaide Strikers, Rashid is not just a brilliant cricketer; he is a cricketer who gives them the flexibility to take advantage of the most fundamental tactical shift in T20 in recent years - the growing preference for batting second. In 2011-12, only three out of 31 teams who won the toss in the BBL decided to chase. Last year, 28 out of 35 teams who won the toss opted to bat second - and all seven of the sides who chose to bat first lost. In the first three games of this season, all teams who won the toss chose to bowl first too.
So when Travis Head won the toss and chose to bat it seemed curious at best, bewildering at worst. It was altogether less so considering Rashid's record bowling second in T20s. He averages 17.81, with an economy rate of 6.08, when bowling first - astounding numbers, yet bettered by those defending a score: an average of 13.49 with an economy rate of 5.56. While T20 teams have long loved to set matches up for their batting finishers, with Rashid they can set games up for him. This has an extra benefit, too: given that other teams prefer to chase, it means that the Strikers, should they continue their preference for batting first, can expect to do what they want every game. Rashid in T20 is a cricketer teams can recalibrate their entire strategies around.
Phil Simmons, who has worked with Rashid for Afghanistan, says he is like Anil Kumble - only, Rashid turns the ball more. He is unusually quick for a legspinner, and so hard for batsmen to set themselves up for. He turns the ball, and sharply, both ways. He conceals his googly like a brilliant poker player hides a royal flush. In the Caribbean Premier League, Rashid got a hat-trick with his googly alone.
Yet all of these qualities would be of little use without Rashid's chutzpah under pressure. "T20 is a very short format, and you have to think really quickly and really smartly what to do," he says. During an over he is "just trying my best to mix up with the batsman, to put something in his mind - 'what he's going to deliver next?'" To see Rashid at work is to see affirmation that, even in T20 cricket, it is still possible for bowlers to construct a spell to work over and tease out batsmen. They just have to do it much faster.
With any sporting prodigy it is always tempting to describe their success as a triumph for instinct. Yet in modern T20, instinct alone - even when it is as brilliant as Rashid's - is not enough. He is a student of his sport too, and a cunning one. "Before every match you are discussing with the video analyst, and with the coach, to which batsmen you will bowl tomorrow, and what is the strategy, and what is the plan for him," he explained recently. "We were just discussing their weakness and strengths, working on that, and applying that in the nets."
Rashid has also benefited from novelty. Associate cricket is seldom televised and its players rarely scrutinised. Even the Desert T20 competition last year, a tournament for the top-eight Associate sides, had no live streaming, and it was impossible to watch footage of every ball. The upshot was that, when Rashid went to the IPL, most his opponents had only seen footage of him in the World Twenty20 in 2016.
Americans call it the "sophomore slump": professional athletes floundering in their second season. As soon as Rashid got to the IPL, the best analytical minds in cricket were charged with trying to demystify him. That has forced Rashid to continue improving, even if not all have noticed - when he was handed the ball for the Strikers, the BBL commentators proclaimed to having never seen him before.
As is customary, Rashid was brought on in the seventh over. He was entrusted with a slip, with the Strikers in pursuit of wickets, but his first delivery was cut for four and 11 runs came in the over. Four singles and a wide followed in his second.
Rare are the T20 bowling spells that are longer than two overs. Not only does it mean that a captain has fewer options for later in an innings, but, the theory is, batsmen can size a bowler up, making them easier to hit. The genius of Rashid in T20 is that he inverts conventional wisdom: as he gets deeper into a spell, it is not the batsmen who size him up but he who sizes them up. Head recognised as much when he allowed Rashid to carry on for a third over.
The first ball was tossed up and a little quicker. Ryan Gibson's rushed drive was edged behind and, for the first time in Australia, Rashid was running in joy, extending his arms like an airplane in his trademark celebration. Two balls later, Rashid unveiled his googly to left-hander Ben Rohrer; the stumps were dishevelled and Rashid was running again. These two brilliant deliveries ensured that Adelade became the first Big Bash side to win after choosing to bat first since 2015-16. That's the value of Rashid.
He began 2017 as an Associate cricketer - a marvellous bowler, yet one who remained the sport's best-kept secret. He ends it having played - and excelled - in the IPL, the CPL and, now the BBL too. And next year, he will become a Test cricketer too.
Rashid is already the most acclaimed cricketer that Afghanistan have produced, and an emblem of what it is possible for Afghanistan to achieve in the game through talent and insatiable desire. While he is from a well-to-do family near Kabul, Rashid grew up playing tape-ball cricket in the street, and did not play with a hard ball until he was 14 or 15.
"Sports is the only thing that brings peace to the country," he said recently. "It feels wonderful to see the youngsters coming and playing their cricket. Last time when I went to Afghanistan after the IPL, I visited an academy. When I see the boys, and how they're all working, and how keen they were to play cricket for their country, it was just amazing, and I really love to watch."
In Afghanistan, India, the West Indies and now Australia, they love to watch him too. So far in 2017, Rashid has taken 76 wickets in T20s at an average of 14.98 and economy rate of 5.55.
With his final ball of the night in Adelaide, Rashid tries his signature delivery once again in pursuit of wicket 77. His googly deceives the batsman, but the bat jabs down on the ball, more through luck than judgement. Rashid smiles. He will have to be content with two wickets tonight, and the promise of many more soon.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts