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Rashid & Mujeeb: The mean teens of the IPL

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Rashid_Khan_Mujeeb_ur_Rahman_Afghanistan_IPL_CricketAfghanistan’s astonishing rise as a cricketing force to be reckoned with is being amply reflected in the performances of two of their brightest young stars at the ongoing Indian Premier League. Leg-spinner Rashid Khan, 19, and off-spinner Mujeeb Ur Rahman, 17, have not only held their own amid the galaxy of T20 luminaries, but also dictated terms like few other bowlers before them. Together, the two teenagers have left batsmen befuddled and crowds bewitched with their skills.

Rashid’s limited-overs achievements need no introduction. Ever since he burst on to the international scene as a 17-year-old, he has been going from strength to strength. In February, Rashid became the youngest bowler to top the ICC ODI rankings, soon after which he became the fastest to reach 100 ODI wickets. Drafted by Sunrisers Hyderabad for the 2017 IPL, he instantly made an impression, taking 17 wickets at 21.05 and at a splendid economy rate of 6.62.

Rashid has continued to repay the faith for the Sunrisers this year, with 13 wickets at an economy rate of 7.20 so far. His stifling spells, especially in tandem with Shakib Al Hasan, have gone a long way in cementing the franchise’s position at the top. He has thrice been the Player of the Match, twice against defending champions Mumbai Indians. His ability to strike at critical junctures has given the Sunrisers’ bowling attack a distinct edge over the others.

A case in point was the second game against the Mumbai Indians, at the Wankhede Stadium. Faced with a target of 119, the hosts had overcome a poor start thanks to a promising 40-run stand between Suryakumar Yadav and Krunal Pandya for the fourth wicket, and with the score at 61/3 in the 12th over, they were threatening to take the game away from the Sunrisers. However, after a tight but wicketless first over, Rashid came into action, trapping Pandya on the back leg.

Yet, the Sunrisers had to contend with Kieron Pollard. The Trinidadian biffer warmed up with a six off Shakib, and had managed to bring down the equation to 46 from 42 balls. With the game on a knife’s edge, it was Rashid who produced the telling blow again, inducing Pollard to play a late cut off his slider. The ball did not go past Shikhar Dhawan at slip. Thereafter, Mumbai were left gasping for breath, and crumbled for 87. Rashid’s figures read a mesmerising 4-1-11-2.

Mujeeb, the latest Afghan sensation, was snaffled by Kings XI Punjab on the back of his remarkable foray into international cricket. After making waves on the under-19 circuit, Mujeeb took 4/24 on ODI debut, against Ireland in December. Two months later, he became the youngest to take five wickets in an ODI. Rashid got his 100th wicket in his 44th ODI; Mujeeb has 35 in 15 so far. If he continues in the same vein, his compatriot’s record could well be up for grabs.

Kings XI have made it past the league stage only twice, but stand a great chance of entering the playoffs this time. Mujeeb has played a major role in their revival, and currently sits joint sixth in the wickets chart, with 14 scalps at an average of 20.64 and an economy rate of 6.99. He is one of only two spinners (with at least five wickets) to have an economy rate of under seven, a feat all the more laudable given that he is often entrusted with bowling in the Powerplay overs.

It took Mujeeb only three balls to get amongst the wickets in the IPL, and since then, he has not looked back. Most batsmen have failed to read his wrong ones, one of which gave him the satisfaction of taking Virat Kohli’s wicket in only his second game. His best return of 3/27 came against the Rajasthan Royals at Indore, when he got rid of the English trio of Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer in the space of four balls to derail the Royals’ innings at a vital stage.

The success of Mujeeb, who is the first 21st century-born male international cricketer, is yet another feather in the Afghan cap. Following Rashid and Mohammad Nabi, he is the third player from his country to play in the IPL, and considering his performances, he is here to stay. A bowler in the Mujeeb mould is invaluable for any team; besides his customary off-spin, he possesses a repertoire of leg-breaks and googlies that can rattle the best, as Kohli found out.

In March, Rashid and Mujeeb combined to steer Afghanistan’s miraculous campaign at the World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe. Dead and buried after the first round, the Afghans depended on a mix of good fortune and wizardry from their spin twins to end up winning the title and qualify for the 2019 World Cup. Both bowlers took 17 wickets apiece, with Mujeeb taking 4/43 in the final against the West Indies, whom Afghanistan had also beaten in the super six round.

Through their exploits in the IPL, Rashid and Mujeeb have shown that they thrive on the big stage – be it Rashid deceiving AB de Villiers with a stunning googly at Hyderabad, or Mujeeb’s aforementioned dismissal of Kohli at Bangalore. This experience of performing under high-pressure situations will hold them in good stead come the 2019 World Cup, and it will not in the least be surprising if they inspire their country to even further heights at the quadrennial event.

Afghanistan are slated to make their Test debut against India next month, and the enticing prospect of Rashid and Mujeeb bowling together in whites at the Chinnaswamy Stadium awaits the cricketing world. Back home, Afghanistan now boasts of a full-fledged domestic structure with a constant stream of talent flowing in. Rashid and Mujeeb are worthy examples of the emphasis laid on youth, which can prove to be Afghanistan’s biggest asset in the years to come.

Back in 2008, when the inaugural edition of the IPL was reaching its denouement, Afghanistan were battling the likes of Botswana and Japan in Division Five of the World Cricket League. No one could have possibly predicted that a couple of Afghan teenagers would take the IPL by storm ten years later. But then, throughout the past decade, Afghanistan have repeatedly defied the odds. And if the heady surge of Rashid and Mujeeb is any indication, their best is yet to come.

 

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Rustom Deboo is a cricket aficionado and freelance writer from Mumbai. He is an ardent devotee of T...

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