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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

IPL final: Stage is set for Rashid Khan to cement his rise to superstardom

Afghan bowler has been the standout player this season and has led Sunrisers Hyderabad to a place in the final

Rashid Khan, centre, produced a thrilling display with bat and ball to lead Sunrisers Hyderabad into the IPL final. Bikas Das / AP Photo
Rashid Khan, centre, produced a thrilling display with bat and ball to lead Sunrisers Hyderabad into the IPL final. Bikas Das / AP Photo

Rashid Khan is the world’s best cricketer at present: discuss.

He has a fair claim. The game has moved on since the days when the only accepted barometer for such an assertion would have been Test-match returns.

He has not had a chance in that form at all just yet. But give him three weeks and see how he takes to it, when Afghanistan debut against India in Bengaluru. He might just find it to his liking. After all, he is taking eight wickets per match on average in his admittedly small first-class career to date.

And he is irresistible in all the other cricket he plays. Top of the rankings in T20 internationals. Dragging Afghanistan through to the World Cup from the point of no return the 50-over game.

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And now this in the Vivo Indian Premier League. Carrying his side through the playoffs like they were Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls, or peak Eric Cantona Manchester United.

Sachin Tendulkar sealed it with a tweet. “Always felt @rashidkhan_19 was a good spinner but now I wouldn’t hesitate in saying he is the best spinner in the world in this format,” Tendulkar wrote on Friday night. “Mind you, he’s got some batting skills as well. Great guy.”

Sunrisers Hyderabad are through to Sunday’s final against Chennai Super Kings because of the force of Rashid’s personality.

In the past eight days of the tournament – so when the pressure has been at its most frenzied – he has taken eight wickets. The list of victims is like an IPL/world cricket Who’s Who: Robin Uthappa, Chris Lynn, Andre Russell, MS Dhoni, Dwayne Bravo, Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers, Moeen Ali.

A couple of those would have a decent claim to be regarded as the world’s pre-eminent player themselves, especially with Steve Smith being on his enforced sabbatical.

Kohli is, clearly, ridiculous. But he has been unable to find the solution to the perennial failings at Royal Challengers Bangalore. Ditto De Villiers, who as good as conceded that time has dulled his own greatness by calling his international career last week.

The IPL eliminator play-off against Kolkata Knight Riders at Eden Gardens on Friday night was Rashid’s masterpiece.

Until he was actively employed either with bat or ball, Sunrisers were behind the game. His 10-ball cameo with the bat worth 34 at the end of their innings gave his side something to bowl at.

But with him as one of the bowlers, maybe anything would have been defendable anyway. The wickets of Uthappa, Lynn and Russell spun the game Hyderabad’s way.

To say his charisma was magnetic seemed almost literal at points, too. Three times the ball was attracted to him in the field, with decisive consequences. One run out, and two boundary catches in the final over did for KKR. He was directly involved in six of the nine wickets to fall.

And all this when the rest of his side’s kingpins were conspicuous by their timidity. Kane Williamson – another who belongs in the “game’s best” conversation – was dismissed cheaply. Shikhar Dhawan blew out. Bhuvneshwar Kumar was dealt with. And Carlos Brathwaite failed to fire in the manner he has at the Gardens so famously in the past.

The flowering of Rashid warms the heart, especially given where he has come from. An Afghan cricketer even being the topic of such a debate is a triumph for the sport.

The IPL might not be everyone’s cup of chai, but it does a good job of letting talent flourish. Increasingly, this talent has emanated from beyond cricket’s mainstream.

The international game does not provide the same platform to thrill that Afghan players like Rashid and Mujeeb ur Rahman have had over the past two months.

Sandeep Lamichhane, briefly and belatedly, also had the chance to show to a wider audience what Nepal supporters and followers of associate cricket already knew.

And even within cricket’s established elite, players are getting opportunities from new avenues. For example, the player who might well be the one most likely to deprive Rashid an IPL winners’ medal on Sunday night had humble beginnings in the game.

When Lungi Ngidi announced himself to IPL suitors by taking six wickets in a Test for South Africa against India earlier this year, his parents watched the game on TV at the primary school where they were cleaners.

Before he cracked cricket, Ngidi and his brother once used to sell peanuts from the side of a road. Later last winter, his parents stayed in a hotel for the first time when they came to watch him play in an international in Johannesburg.

The fast-bowler’s exceptional form for Chennai in the IPL has come in spite of the heartbreak of his father’s death last month.

Ngidi or Rashid: who wins? Who knows. The only thing for certain is cricket, and the IPL, are all the better for the presence of both.

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