Sportscene: Putting smiles on people's faces through cricket

Bengaluru: Sunrisers Hyderabad's Rashid Khan bowls against Royal Challengers Bangalore during their IPL T20 cricket match 2018 at Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru on Thursday. (PTI Photo/Shailendra Bhojak) (PTI5_17_2018_000246b)

For someone so young, Rashid Khan possesses skills that belies his age of 19. A self-taught leg-spinner, who shot to fame with his exploits for Sunrisers Hyderabad, Rashid is the biggest sporting star in the war-torn Afghanistan. With no proper coaching system, no quality infrastructure and little economic stability, Afghanistan players have shown great resilience and character, fought several odds and have emerged as the most promising cricketing nation to have graduated from Associate countries. With Afghanistan set to become the 12th nation to play Test cricket from June 14 against India in Bengaluru, Rashid is all excited about exhibiting his wares in the longer format. In this free-wheeling chat, the Afghanistan skipper discusses a range of issues –his unique style of leg-spin, the craze for cricket in his country, the terrorism and the desire to beat Pakistan. Excerpts

How do Afghanistan produce so many quality spinners?

Every team has its strengths. Everyone knows Afghanistan has the best spin bowling attack because of that we have won a lot of matches. If you see, in India you will find a lot of good batsmen. Same is the case (in England, Australia or South Africa) where you find fast bowlers. The same is happening with Afghanistan where lots of spinners are coming. It is all-natural talent just needs some polishing, motivation and encouragement to come to the international side.

Tell us about your early days, your preference for leg spin and the variations you have developed.

All my brothers are good in cricket and we all play. They love cricket. They played street cricket, not first-class. We watched cricket on TV and played it with tennis ball. Initially it was difficult to get equipment but after Afghanistan played the T20 World Cup, from there on the sport became famous and they started bringing equipment to Afghanistan. Watching big stars on television motivated me and I thought to myself that one day I want to play for my country. So, while playing at home, one of my older brothers (seven brothers, all of them can bowl leg-spin) told me I can make it big.

Are your batsmen also not coached?  

When I started cricket I was a batsman. I was opening or one-down batsman and a part-time bowler. Because I had no good control over my leg-spin at that time. I was bowling just one or two overs in a match. But when I played my first three-day match, in the first season I got 21 wickets in three matches and then they took my batting slot from opening or one-down to number 8, saying you are now a bowler. Then I said if I'm getting my place in the team be it for my batting or bowling, I just have to focus on that. Then I focused on my bowing and worked hard on it. 

Talk about your style of bowling, you don’t use your wrist.

I don’t use my wrist, I only use my fingers and that’s what makes me different. I use the top of my fingers and that’s where I get the speed. If I use my wrist I will be slower. Nobody has taught me anything, it is all natural. Back of the finger googles. I discussed with some leg-spinners as well and they were surprised too; they said they haven’t seen this kind of leg-spinner who can bowl with his fingers and back of the hand. I think it is just natural.

How many active cricketers can you find in Afghanistan? 5000 cricketers?

In Afghanistan? I think you will find more than 5000 leg-spinners alone. Last year when I went back from IPL, I was invited by one of the academies. When I went there they told me that during IPL they had got 126 leg-spinners. So, I was surprised to hear that. He said 5-10 fast bowlers became leg-spinners.

With so much violence back home, how tough is it to focus on the game?

We worry about the situation back home. In the last one month we had about 3-4 bomb blasts in Afghanistan. That makes us very sad. We are here trying to produce some good performances and put smiles on the faces of the people. But still if that does not happen and blasts are happening... It's just sad. It makes you feel... We are upset about that, whenever we see what's going on in our country. But we don't give up. We just try and put in some extra good performances so that our people can celebrate and get these negative things out of their minds. 

Does cricket help you take away from thoughts of those troubles back home?

If you perform well here, Afghanistan's name will be known for good reasons all over the world. Earlier, if someone thought about Afghanistan, they only thought negative. Now if someone asks you about Afghanistan, the next thing you will say is about cricket and about us. That makes us a little happy. The image of Afghanistan is changing. That's what you have to do. And we're trying our best, to change that image. If bad things are still happening that is not in our control. If we become upset or happy or whatever, it won't make any difference. But if we do well here and we project Afghanistan as a good country, that will bring changes in Afghanistan. That's the only thing we can do wherever we are, represent Afghanistan as a good country.

As a cricketing nation who do you aspire to beat the most?

We would like to beat all big teams (but) right now, it is Pakistan. Yeah, people back home, they want to beat Pakistan. They badly want it.

How do you look at translating your ODI and T20 success into Tests?

I am working on balls with more revs and more variations. I haven't used it in matches yet. You can't afford to bowl loose balls in shorter formats. I am planning to use it in Test matches. (Muttiah) Muralitharan told me: 'Don't change anything -- your action, speed, or anything. That's why you're taking wickets. Just be relaxed. Sometimes you won't get a wicket in 30 overs, sometimes you will get 5 wickets in 5 overs. That's all Test cricket is about. You have to be relaxed and calm.'

In Test cricket you need to bowl longer spells and batsmen don’t take as many chances as they do in T20s, how well are you prepared for this challenge?

I played against England ‘A’ in Abu Dhabi in which I bowled 35 consecutive overs. Captain kept asking me if I was tired and I said no every time. Then when he looked at the giant screen, I had bowled 35 overs. I bowl for 2-3 hours in the nets. I don't think it will be difficult for me to bowl long spells.

What does Indian Premier League mean to Afghan cricketers?

For the three of us (Mohammad Nabi, Mujib Ur Rahman and himself), IPL means a lot. Since we joined IPL, we can see the difference in our games. It has given us a lot of confidence. Before IPL, you're playing against Associate teams and performing but still you will think, how will I perform against the good teams, against good batsmen? That was what was in our minds earlier. But doing well in IPL has given us confidence that I'm good enough to bowl against anyone. How Tom Moody, VVS Laxman and Murali sir have motivated me is really special.

At 19, you are the youngest player to be ranked No 1 (bowler), youngest captain. Every time you pick up the ball, either for Afghanistan or Sunrisers, a lot is expected from you. How do you handle all these expectations?

Expectations are there, especially from back home. If I don’t perform even in a single match, they get worried about me. And they would say, ‘what happened to you’? They are expecting five wickets in every match from you, whether that’s a T20 or an ODI. They just say, ‘you have to take five wickets in every match’. I don’t think that puts extra pressure on me. I am just trying my best, trying to do as well as possible and I am trying to enjoy myself. I think the best thing is to enjoy yourself. The more you enjoy, I think the better you perform. There is the burden on me to do well because most of the matches if I don’t do well, we lose. I am trying to just focus on the basics.

Like many other countries, Afghanistan is also staring a T20 league – Afghanistan Premier League (APL). How much does it help in growth of the game in your country?

It will help, hopefully. Because APL will be a very big tournament (to be played in the UAE). We're waiting for that, to play our own league. That will bring lots of changes. Once we play this league back home in Afghanistan, once we see all the good international players coming to Afghanistan and once everything gets settled and is fine, it will bring lots of changes to Afghanistan and change the image of Afghanistan. All over the world people will see how Afghanistan is. It's not how it appears now.

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