After a Big Bash League season that contains a few more games than last summer but won’t run nearly as long, we’ve finally reached the finals stage.
It hardly needs saying that Rashid Khan is a handy bowler to have in your T20 side.
Little more than three years have passed since the Afghan’s debut in the format and he is already its undisputed king. He has taken a mind-boggling 217 wickets in 144 games, he concedes only a fraction more than a run a ball and he has proven himself in every franchise league going. He is nothing short of a phenomenon.
Not only does Rashid offer a threat of a different kind to almost any bowler, with his quick, flat leg spin, a googly that is harder to read than the complete works of James Joyce and a tenacity reflected in a wicked grin and sharp glare, but he also allows teams to strategise differently.
In the 2016-17 Big Bash League 28 of the 35 teams that won the toss chose to field first, and the seven that decided to bat first lost. Chasing was the latest trend, the captain’s go-to. Then came Rashid.
Last year, the Afghan’s first in Australia, the Adelaide Strikers inverted conventional wisdom and skipper Travis Head’s stock call was to bat. The fashion had been for teams to set-up games for their finishers to win with the bat, but for the Strikers that finisher was their leg spinner.
And yet six games into the 2018-19 season the Strikers can be accused of failing to extract every last drop of value from their most prized asset. Of course with the ball Rashid has excelled – he has conceded runs at just 4.91 an over and has played his usual role as the linchpin – but the potential of his second string, his unorthodox lower-order batting, is not being realised.
Since the start of last year’s tournament Rashid has batted 35 times in T20 cricket across the world, typically in the lower order. Conventional statistics do little justice to his performance – he has made 340 runs at an average of 15.5, boosted by several not-outs.
But his strike rate in that period is a mind-blowing 177.1. Even considering that he comes in with licence to free his arms, that is ludicrously high for a man typically batting at No.8.
And that is why the Strikers’ use of him must be called into question.
In their recent loss against the Sixers, Adelaide lost their fifth wicket with 28 balls left in their innings. With Rashid padded up, Cameron Valente strode out to bat at No.7. Valente, a young all-rounder of some promise but with little top-level pedigree, made a 13-ball 17. The Strikers crept up to 150 and the visitors chased it down with ten balls to spare.
Even in victory the Strikers have failed to realise Rashid’s potential with the bat. Against the Thunder they lost a wicket with 20 balls to spare and Jake Lehmann, the man who came in ahead of him, made a nine-ball eight not-out.
Against the Renegades he came in with two overs left and batting as low as No.8 and hit 21 not-out off seven balls. Had Michael Neser’s LBW call been given not out, he could have been left unused yet again.
Perhaps equally important in making this case is that when Rashid fails with the bat he doesn’t waste balls doing so – in fact over that time period he has been dismissed every nine deliveries.
By standard cricketing metrics an average innings of 16 off nine may sound underwhelming, but consider this: the average score batting first in the BBL this season is 150. A team of 11 Rashid Khans would score 170, even if they would be bowled out with four overs to spare.
It is not as though the bowlers he takes down are short on pedigree either. While his record is boosted by some cameos in the Afghanistan Premier League, he’s still hit DJ Bravo, AJ Tye and Nathan Coulter-Nile for six in the past year. His strike rate is significantly lower against spin, but how many Big Bash teams would be willing to hold back a spinner for the last few overs just for Rashid?
The Strikers’ batting approach could hardly fit Rashid’s skill set better. They look to their top three – Alex Carey, Jake Weatherald, and Colin Ingram – to score the bulk of their runs and hope for contributions late in the innings from the rest of their batting line-up. But when a wicket falls with four or five overs to go, they have to promote their best hitter – that Rashid has faced just 19 balls in six games should be a source of embarrassment.
Of course what counts against Rashid is that he is as unorthodox a batsman as you can imagine. There are times when he might as well be batting with a Toblerone, so random are the angles that the ball comes off his bat. He clubs most of his sixes agriculturally through midwicket; he ramps, scoops, tumbles in his crease and plays forehands that would make Nick Kyrgios proud. The illusion, therefore, is that he is nothing more than a tailender having some fun.
In fact the Strikers ought to consider his batting their secret weapon. They remain in a strong position to reach the play-offs, but with some fine-tuning of their strategy they can be even better.
World-class finishers are few and far between, but in Rashid they might just have one with both bat and ball.