Groomed on dusty pitches as a refugee, record-breaking Rashid Khan will face his toughest examination yet at the World Cup, with former coaches confident the Afghan can “dismantle” top batting line-ups.
The world’s top-rated Twenty20 bowler from the war-torn nation last year made history as the fastest to reach 100 one-day international wickets.
Aged just 20, and after a remarkable cricket upbringing shaped by years of conflict and displacement, Khan will on Saturday make his World Cup debut against defending champions Australia.
“I am sure he will dismantle the best in the World Cup,” said his former school coach Ali Hoti of his former charge, who is also third in the International Cricket Council ODI rankings. “He is the bowler to watch in the event.”
Afghanistan cricket is a rare source of pride in the conflict-riven country, where murals of Khan and teammates adorn the maze of concrete blast walls criss-crossing the capital Kabul.
Born in the restive Nangarhar province in 1998, Khan’s family joined the waves of refugees flooding across the Pakistani border, fleeing the bloody battles that followed the US invasion in 2001 and the war with the Taliban.
It was in Pakistan’s bustling frontier city of Peshawar that Khan began playing cricket and he grew up to idolise fellow Pashtun slugger and great Pakistan all-rounder Shahid Afridi.
Coaches in the area took notice of the raw talent of the developing athlete, who had plenty of skill but was lacking focus.
“He was God-gifted but he was not very hard-working,” remembered Lala Ali Shafiq, who coached Rashid at the city’s Islamia academy.
Unique bowling action
“There was no doubt that he was a very talented bowler and a better batsman.”
Islamia College assistant director of sports Hoti described how a young Khan caught the eye of senior Afghanistan players including the captain at the time, Mohammad Nabi, and Nawroz Mangal.
“In 2013/14, he went to play a tournament in Islamabad and impressed with his bowling,” said Hoti. “Nabi was there so I told him that since you are looking for an all-rounder, you won’t find a better all-rounder than him,” he added. “Initially they did not agree.”
But Khan went on to prove them wrong, making his Afghanistan debut on the tour of Zimbabwe in 2015 as he developed his wicket-taking armoury, which relies less on prodigious spin but more on his unusual bowling action, with disguised googlies, subtle variation and changes of pace to keep batsmen guessing.
He reached 100 wickets in his 44th ODI, shattering Australia seamer Mitchell Starc’s previous record, achieved in 52 matches.
“Rashid’s action is unique,” said Shafiq, whose academy has also helped develop Pakistan players such Usman Shinwari, Mohammad Rizwan and Shaheen Shah Afridi. “It’s different, so it’s hard to judge and he also has a good googly and has worked on his leg-break. He works hard and is getting better.”