Rashid returns ‘home’ for crucial World Cup match

Rashid Khan is the world’s top-ranked T20 bowler who has also captained Afghanistan in Test and ODI cricket, but is yet to represent the nation of his birth on its native turf.

That’s why this week’s ICC T20 World Cup clash against Australia at Adelaide Oval could be as close to a ‘homecoming’ as Rashid gets for the foreseeable future, given the slim hopes of Kabul hosting international cricket anytime soon and his historic association with Adelaide Strikers in the KFC BBL.

The 24-year-old has been integral to what he happily calls the Strikers “family” since 2017, and over the past six seasons has become so beloved by fans in the South Australia capital he has joked Friday’s match in Adelaide might effectively be a “home” fixture for his team.

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“Whenever I have played at the ground, I have got so much love and support from the fans,” Rashid told reporters prior to the World Cup kicking off last month.

“Definitely there will be support for Afghanistan and we won’t feel that we are playing in Australia, we will have that feeling that it’s a kind of Afghanistan home game.

“Some other players in our team were discussing that, (saying) ‘Rash, … will the Strikers fans be supporting you, or Australia?’.

“That’s the kind of questions that were going on in the team.”

There are other historical reasons, extending beyond Rashid’s six-year stint with the Strikers, as to why the Afghanistan cricket team can expect a warm welcome amid Adelaide’s unseasonal late spring chill.

Rashid Khan atop Adelaide Oval in 2021 // Getty

It was the mid-1860s when the first ‘Afghan’ (in truth, Pathans from the tribal country on what is now the Afghanistan-Pakistan border) settlers arrived in SA to operate the camel trains that carried goods to the nation’s interior as well as materials for construction of the overland telegraph.

Australia’s first metropolitan mosque was built in Adelaide more than 100 years ago and still stands in Little Gilbert Street, and the role of Afghan settlers in trans-continental transport is recognized through the naming of the Ghan train service that runs between Adelaide and Darwin.

But support for Rashid and his team won’t be restricted to the state’s Afghan community, that has grown significantly in Adelaide’s northern suburbs during the recent decades of upheaval in their homeland.

Adelaide Strikers coach Jason Gillespie, whose has forged a strong bond with Rashid here was as well as at Sussex in the UK, has observed first-hand the reasons why the irrepressible leg spinner and entrepreneurial lower-order hitter has become such a local favourite.

“The reason he’s been embraced is obviously his skills and what he does on the field, but it’s also the way he goes about things, how open he is and how engaging he is with our fans and the wider community,” Gillespie told cricket. com.au.

“He’s always got time for people, and his genuine enthusiasm for playing for the Adelaide Strikers has really endeared him to everyone in South Australia.

“You go to any Strikers game at Adelaide Oval, and Rash will be the last player out on the field signing autographs at game’s end – people don’t forget that.

“I’m very confident that when Afghanistan play they’ll get some really strong support, not only through the Afghan community in South Australia but across the wider cricket community because Rashid’s played such a big role for the Adelaide Strikers.”

Rashid with a Strikers fan in 2020 // Getty

And while fan engagement is a key element in Rashid’s deep attachment to Adelaide Oval, there’s also his in-depth knowledge of the way its pitches play and precisely how the famous ground’s dimensions suit his bowling.

It’s a familiarity that might prove crucial in Friday’s encounter, the first T20 international between the teams.

Rashid can certainly claim vastly greater experience of bowling in 20-over cricket at Adelaide than Australia’s front-line quicks.

While Afghanistan might be making their maiden international appearance at the historic venue, their premier bowler boasts 29 BBL appearances at a ground where he’s the competition’s second-most prolific wicket-taker behind his Strikers teammate, Peter Siddle.

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By contrast, Josh Hazlewood – the world’s number two-ranked T20I bowler, behind Rashid – has played just two BBL matches at Adelaide (for Sydney Sixers in 2014 and 2020) and no internationals, while Mitchell Starc’s only T20 outing there came when Australia played Sri Lanka in 2019.

Gillespie believes that Rashid not only carries an acute understanding of Adelaide Oval and its vagaries, his style of bowling is especially suited to the oval’s long, straight boundaries.

“The key to his bowling is the length he hits,” Gillespie said.

“He’s got that great skill in that he can spin the ball both ways and he bowls fast, but it’s his management of length – hitting just below the top of the stumps – and the fact he consistently hits a ‘shoe box’ on that length .

“That’s what makes him so challenging in T20 cricket, because if he doesn’t give the ball air, the only way batters feel they can score boundaries is to step-hit if it’s overpitched, so they can play down the ground.

“But Adelaide’s long straight, and if he gets his length right and doesn’t drop too short, it then becomes very difficult to play him square of the wicket because he keeps the stumps in play all the time.

“Plus, if they’re not picking him through the air, they have to wait for it to come off the pitch and it’s very difficult to play a bowler of Rashid’s pace and skill – with his ability to spin the ball both ways – if you’re reading him off the pitch.”

Rashid admits that – unlike his mesmeric range of deliveries – his bowling strategy is contrastingly straightforward.

He’s delighted if rival batters try to take him on because he believes that gives him a “70 to 80 per cent chance” of claiming their wicket, but he’s equally happy if opponents play him cautiously in the hope of seeing off his four overs with minimal runs but no further damage.

“Either way is fine for me, if someone is taking a risk or if someone is not taking a risk, the most important thing is where I’m pitching the ball,” he said.

“That is something that matters to me the most rather than the reaction of the batsman.

“If he’s after me, it gives me that opportunity where I can take his wicket … but at the same time, if someone is not taking that risk, I’m happy.

“It’s not about me, that I will be taking a wicket.

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“If I build up that kind of pressure and have two or three dot balls, bowl one tight over, then whoever is bowling from the other end, there’s the opportunity for him to be very smart and he can take wickets, and that is something which we are always planning.

“I just keep things simple for myself.

“I never think about what’s the planning of the batsman, what he’s going to do – it’s his job, and he has to think about it.

“I’ll always have that belief in my skills, in the talent that I have, and one thing that is always in my mind is just to keep it simple and hit that right area consistently.

“We are so excited.

“Yes, it’s against Australia, and it will be a tough game for us as a team.

“But at the same time (we) know the conditions, know the wicket, know the preparation for that ground, so I hope we are well prepared for that and we have a good day of cricket.”

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