Rashid Khan
Afghanistan’s Rashid Khan bowls during the 2023 ICC Men's Cricket World Cup one-day international match against India at the Arun Jaitley Stadium in New Delhi on October 11, 2023. The leg-spinner’s late introduction into the attack raised eyebrows. Image Credit: AFP

Rashid Khan is Afghanistan’s trump card. So it was baffling to see the leg-spinner bowl only from the 15th over of the Cricket World Cup game against India? That was late. Very late. By then the horse had bolted. India were well on the way to victory on Wednesday.

Chasing Afghanistan’s 272, India shot off the blocks with Rohit Sharma plundering boundaries of pacemen and the mystery spinner Mujeeb ur Rahman. Five bowlers, including offspinner Mohammad Nabi, were deployed, yet there was no sign of Rashid Khan. And the carnage continued.

How can that happen? When all the bowlers were bleeding runs, why didn’t Afghan captain Hashmatullah Shahidi turn to his best bowler? Was the leggie reluctant to bowl in the powerplay?

What happens during the Powerplay

The first 10 overs constitute Powerplay One when only two fielders are allowed beyond the 30-yard circle. That’s tough on the bowlers as batters look to hit over the infield to make full use of the reduced boundary cover.

So spinners are generally held back until the end of 10 overs to ensure more fielders in catching positions in the deep. That’s not always the norm since New Zealand captain Martin Crowe opted to open with offspinner Dipak Patel in the 1992 World Cup. A spinner with the new ball has become a tactical weapon. Sri Lanka continue to start with offie Maheesh Theekshana at the 2023 World Cup.

Back to Rashid Khan’s delayed appearance in the Afghan bowling attack. Was he afraid of bowling in the Powerplay? Especially when India captain Rohit Sharma was in full cry. ESPN Cricinfo reports that only two of Rashid Khan’s 81 overs in ODIs this year had come in the Powerplay before the Delhi match. So Rashid Khan could have been keen to avoid a battering.

Rashid Khan
Afghanistan’s Rashid Khan celebrates the dismissal of India’s Ishan Kishan during the 2023 ICC Men's Cricket World Cup one-day international match at the Arun Jaitley Stadium in New Delhi on October 11, 2023. The leg-spinner claimed both the wickets that fell in the Indian innings.

Seriously? He’s a professional cricketer who has faced such situations on a cricket field. After all Khan’s is a sought-after leggie in the T20 franchise tournaments worldwide. Which also means he has a reputation to protect. Shying away from the attack is no way to protect it. Reputations are forged in the fire of intense competition.

Rashid Khan has leaked runs in the past. In the 2019 World Cup England captain Eoin Morgan pulverised his bowling, taking at least 11 boundaries, including seven sixes, off Rashid Khan. The Afghan spearhead conceded 74 in his last four overs, and his nine over cost him 110 runs — Rashid Khan’s worst figures in international cricket.

To his credit, it didn’t demoralise Rashid Khan. He continued to work on his bowling, adding more variations. That hammering did nothing to diminish the aura around the leggie as he continued to ply his trade around the world.

Why Rashid Khan is feared

Rashid Khan remains a feared bowler in white-ball cricket. Powerplay or not, batters usually don’t take risks against his blend of fast legbreaks and googlies.

In the Indian Premier League, where the world’s best T20 players turn up, the 25-year-old has held his own. Teams are prepared to see him off and target other bowlers. In the recent past, only Rajasthan Royals’ captain Sanju Samson could get the measure of Rashid Khan.

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Gujarat Titans’ captain Hardik Pandya uses Rashid Khan in short spells as a wicket-taker. He has bowled the Afghan leggie even in the powerplay with plenty of success. So Rashid Khan is unafraid to bowl in the powerplay.

Then why didn’t he bowl when the Afghan bowling was under fire. Maybe he was held back by captain Shahidi to shield him from Sharma’s blitzkrieg. True, Sharma slammed 4, 4, 6 off the first three deliveries in Rashid Khan’s fifth over, but the Afghan had the last laugh, dismissing the Indian captain.

If Shahidi deliberately kept Rashid Khan away from the attack, that’s a tactical blunder. Even if the leg-spinner conceded runs, he would taken a wicket or two to slow the Indian scoring. Rashid Khan claimed both the wickets that fell in the Indian innings. If that had happened earlier, Afghanistan could put pressure on India.

If the Afghan captain Shahidi erred, Rashid Khan, a former skipper, should have insisted on coming into the attack early on. That’s if he’s keen to bowl against a rampaging Rohit Sharma in the powerplay.