IPL champion Rashid Khan’s story: Adoring son, venomous spinner, chef

“Even if you give me poison, I will drink it,” Rashid Khan’s mother mutters from the sick bed. She had wanted salt, and other prohibited items, as she lay suffering from Covid-19 at their home in Afghanistan. Rashid had offered to make orange juice instead, and she had brought up the poison.
Rashid gets the juice, and retires to his room. He wondered why that day she wanted to eat all the things she shouldn’t be touching. A cry from his sister jolts him and he rushes downstairs. The mother looks at him and “her head just dropped”. Until then, he had no inkling that his mother was in any mortal danger. For a couple of months, he had been beside her bed, massaging her legs through some nights. Once at 4am, she woke up startled to find him pressing her legs.

“You haven’t slept?” “No, I shall soon get some sleep, you sleep now,” Rashid would say. “That day, the blessings she gave me…” Rashid says in a poignant chat with Neroli Meadows in her podcast Ordineroli Speaking. “She died in front of my eyes” in 2020.

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Her final look has stayed with Rashid to this day. Two days after her death, he woke up, telling his younger brother lying beside him to “take care of mother” while he went to the washroom. “There I realised what did I just do?” The two had been very close, once he had even had an 11-hour video call with her. To this day, he says he can’t sleep properly. He would wake up with a jolt, with an image of his mother. Her love, her voice …

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Another sound keeps Rashid awake at times. The noise of a bomb. He was in his teens in an U-19 camp when an ear-splitting explosion woke him and his teammates in the room, in the middle of the night. “There was debris all around us, dust…” Rashid thought the place they were staying was under attack and someone would soon arrive at their room to “shoot us down.” He locked the room and sat tight. Someone came knocking to inform them that the blast was not in the building and all the young boys sat at the ground from 1 am to 8 next morning. “The sound of the blast. It never goes away; it was a different sound and I never heard that kind of sound in my life. Whenever something bad happens back home (in Afghanistan), I do think about it.”

When he was young, Rashid’s parents wouldn’t allow him to go out on the streets to play as they were afraid that he would be caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. “Fight has broken out. Guns. That’s why my parents were very careful about me.” A young Rashid spent most of his time indoors till he went to Pakistan to study. It’s an apprehension that tails him even today. “People love sports stars back home but only fear is if I am caught at the wrong place at the wrong time.” The fear is if he gets in the crossfire of some violent event directed at someone else.

Another setback

Eighteen months before his mother died, Rashid was playing in Australia when he heard his father wasn’t well. He couldn’t believe it as he had spoken to him for half an hour a couple of days ago. “I asked him what shoes he wanted”. Rashid hadn’t seen his father in a really long time as he was globetrotting and the father was at their village. He asked his brother to place a video call so that he could see his father but he was “in the ICU and I couldn’t even see him”. In an hour’s time, when he was at training, a call came with the dreaded news.

Rashid’s world spun out of control and it was his mother who nurtured him through that crisis, constantly talking to him. He talks in the podcast about how his life was so sheltered compared to his parents, who when young had kept moving around the country during the war, lost a few close ones, and wanted their kids to be safe. “Their stories were scary, like in movies. They are the strongest people I have ever known.”

Getting respect from batsmen

Jos Buttler is in the form of his life, four violent tons in just this IPL season, and yet when he faces Rashid in the final, just as he did in their previous encounters, he adopts ahimsa. A tap, a nudge, a poke and slowly the aggression and intent are sucked into the evening sky, and the game turns. The plan, not unwise, is not to give any wicket to Rashid. That he still manages to take out Devdutt Padikkal is his mastery. Just 18 runs came in four claustrophobic overs; it would have been 14 had it not been for a misfield in the covers that conceded a boundary.

Off the field, Rashid wants to make friends. His social media posts show him cooking at team hotels for his teammates, be it in the IPL, BBL or PSL. However, there isn’t a more intimidating spinner in the world right now. Others tempt or strangle, Rashid bosses the batsmen. He can give the octopus, supposedly the creature with the best camouflage skill on the planet, a complex. He is the true innovator of our times. Imaginative spinners flick out the carrom ball, contort wrists, run in angles – window dressing basically; Rashid transformed the soul of his art. Throughout history, the palm facing the sky meant a googly. It was the one constant in the leg-spinning world; Rashid can bowl a leg- break or a wrong’un with that grip. Bowlers traditionally bowled the googly with a high-arm action; Rashid collapses his knees, gets the arm lower, and contorts it out to bewilder the batsmen further. Unable to fathom, even as good a batsman as Buttler chose to play him off the pitch. Wait, see what it does, tap it away.

It was the one constant in the leg-spinning world; Rashid can bowl a leg- break or a wrong’un with that grip. (Twitter/Rashid Khan)

The innovation isn’t just in his bowling. In the post-AB de Villiers world, if there is one batsman who still manages to come with a new shot, it’s Rashid. There is a short-arm jab he plays to length deliveries, a mutant version of the swat-flick, a swat-punch more like, and crowds in Melbourne and Sydney have gasped as the white ball lands amidst them in the BBL. On his Instagram once, a batting video popped up. The ball is really full, a yorker almost, and Rashid bhai is tapping it between his legs. As the unknown figure shooting the video cracks up, the signature smile lights up Rashid’s face.

The spell to Babar Azam

Not many batsmen have been able to consistently take him down. There have been exceptions like Shane Watson who has managed to land his monstrous slog-sweeps and Rashid’s face was quite a sight those times. Dent in pride, an air of supercilious anger about it, as if he couldn’t fathom how he was hit. Not many spinners can genuinely possess that; he has earned his right to that haughty emotion.

At last year’s T20 World Cup, his spell to Babar Azam is worth a re-look. Azam was in the form of his life but Rashid tied him down, embarrassed him into a self-destructive provocative reply to take him out.

A series of googlies, that included an LBW verdict overturned after Babar took the DRS, was followed by a couple of big-spinning leg-breaks that shook him up. Next over, another such leg-break produced a chance but it was grassed. Ultimately, off the last ball of his last over, Babar, who had been the most restrained that tournament, fell to his ego. He went for a big slog-sweep but missed the slower googly and was bowled. Rashid can do that to the best. Hence the likes of Buttler prefer to nod their heads in respect and walk away. All through that spell to Babar, as he often does, Rashid would chatter away with the batsman, smiling often. The smiling, genuinely friendly, devilish tweaker.

The love for his country sparks brightly in Rashid and he says in the podcast how he is driven by the fact that his performance brings “some happiness” in fans’ lives, so that they can “forget something bad that happened”. He runs a Rashid Khan Foundation that supports Afghan children.

His burning desire is to play at home in Kabul. “You see in the IPL how the crowd reacts when an Indian player comes. I want that feeling.” On the morning after a sweet triumph in the world’s largest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad, Gujarat Titans’ official handle tweeted him, “This wasn’t a dream na, Rashidbhai?” Rashid replied, “Nahi nahi Sach hai, Jagoooo!” (No, it’s reality, Wake up!”). He hopes one day it will be him tweeting that question after tormenting a team on a wintry Kabul morning in front of adoring screaming fans.

If and when it happens, it will be some sight. Short-cropped boyish hair, a smile to light up a country, and the dreaded right-arm whirring over with the palm facing the Afghan sky.

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