Rashid's new mystery ball to test Australia
Afghan superstar enthused by prospect of returning Down Under for T20 World Cup and Test, as his national side strives for improvements
Rashid Khan completed his third Australia summer campaign delighting fans at his favourite cricket ground, albeit in a fundraising charity game rather than the hoped-for high-stakes final with his KFC Big Bash League franchise, Adelaide Strikers.
But when the acclaimed leg-spinner next visits these shores, he will be wearing the national colours of his native Afghanistan and potentially packing additions to his bowling repertoire he hopes will confound rivals in both the Test and T20 formats.
Prior to his departure for the next engagement in his nomadic cricket life, with Sunrisers Hyderabad in the Indian Premier League starting next month, Rashid revealed he's been developing new deliveries in the practice nets during his stint with the Strikers.
And while he was reluctant to unveil them in the pressure-filled T20 format where every dot ball is tantamount to gold dust, he aims to have them perfected by the time Afghanistan tackles Australia in the teams' first Test encounter later this year.
"I'm trying my best in the nets and the practice sessions to bring something new, but never bring them in the (T20) game because everything is going well there," Rashid told cricket.com.au.
"But I'm looking forward to bowling those deliveries more in the Test games.
"That gives me an extra opportunity because you're bowling many more overs and there's not so much pressure on.
"If I bowl a bad ball there, it doesn't matter as much as it does in the T20 game.
"Hopefully, next summer when we're here (in Australia) I'll have more control on that and then be capable of then bowling them in the T20 as well."
It was his ability to perfect extraordinary bowling skills, through autodidactic intuition rather than professional coaching, that launched Rashid as a global sensation while still a teenager.
He first became exposed to cricket, which was not formally registered as a sport in Afghanistan until 1995, during the seven or eight years he and his 10 siblings spent as refugees in the neighbouring Pakistan city of Peshawar, while post-9/11 war was waged on the Taliban in his homeland.
When the family eventually returned to their home in Bati Kot, a small trading centre amid the Pashto-speaking tribal areas an hour's drive from Jalalabad, young Rashid shared a passion for cricket with his older brothers.
But he also needed to find a way of getting them out so that he might take a turn at bat.
Bowling with a tennis ball on a narrow concrete path beside the family home (which also housed his father's tyre business), Rashid quickly learned that skidding seamers and slow-turning off-breaks offered little hope of troubling his brothers, so he turned to wrist spin.
Not only did he find that delivering leg breaks at maximum speed presented a harsher examination for his siblings and other boys, by also perfecting a delivery that spun the other way (a wrong 'un) without any demonstrable dip in pace he became a doubly difficult proposition.
It's that fearsome googly, that fizzes through the fragile defences of rival batters who are used to leg-spinners sporting a wrong 'un that floats more slowly from the back of the hand, that has taken him to the top of the T20 bowling rankings and made him one of the most sought-after T20 bowlers worldwide.
However, the more cricket Rashid plays in white- and red-ball formats around the globe, the greater scrutiny is applied to his idiosyncratic fast-arm technique and batters increasingly devise strategies for taming his threat, if not totally quelling his potency.
He is therefore looking to expand his range of deliveries to maintain his competitive edge, as well as sharpen his understanding of variable conditions found on different pitches, at different grounds and in different match situations to make himself an even more ominous threat to rivals.
"I have to be more consistent with my line and length and just to read the game – read the wicket, read the ground, know how to bowl and where to bowl with those things," Rashid said.
"That's what I'm focusing on."
Rashid finished BBL|09 with 19 wickets at 20.84, lifting his career tally over three seasons with the Strikers to 56 from 40 appearances – the most successful bowler to have operated in the Australian T20 competition during that period.
It's therefore little wonder the 21-year-old is already excited about the prospect of returning in October for the ICC men's T20 World Cup, and his country's maiden Test match against Australia expected to follow immediately after.
The venue for that historic first Test encounter between the game's oldest and newest combatants has yet to be decided, and Rashid has lodged his informal request that it be played at Adelaide Oval where he has established himself as a crowd favourite since starting with the Strikers in 2017.
However, he's happy for the Test to be staged at any ground in Australia other than Perth's new stadium or WACA Ground which are known to favour fast bowlers and fearless batters, but traditionally offers little comfort for the spinners who remain Afghanistan's trump card.
It's also cold comfort for Rashid that the first two matches his national men's team are drawn to play at the T20 World Cup later this year are at Perth Stadium, against teams that win through from the pre-tournament qualifying competition that includes Test-playing nations Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Ireland.
But the quasi allrounder, who began his junior competitive cricket life as a top-order batter before he turned his obvious talent to specialist leg-spin bowling in 2014, believes the 20-over format remains Afghanistan's best chance of making a splash on the world stage after they failed to win a match at last year's 50-over World Cup in the UK.
Even on Australia pitches, of which most of his countrymen (with the exceptions of Melbourne Renegades allrounder and former Afghanistan captain Mohammad Nabi, and Brisbane Heat off-spinner Mujeeb Ur Rahman) boast little previous experience.
"We had the 50 overs World Cup here (Australia) in 2015 which wasn't as good for us, but I think we have the best combination for T20s," Rashid said of his impending return with Afghanistan.
"We hope, Inshallah, we do our best in the T20s but after that, a Test game against Australia … every team finds it very tough here, it challenges you a lot to perform but, as a team, it would be a great experience for us.
"It's more than a dream for the country where you came from, playing a Test match against Australia."
As much as the alien conditions will challenge Afghanistan in their one-off Test against Australia later this year, it's the team's lack of regular exposure to competitive red-ball cricket – both domestically and internationally – which Rashid sees as a greater problem in their ongoing development.
Since earning Test status (along with Ireland) from the International Cricket Council in 2017, Afghanistan have played just four matches – losses to India and West Indies in 'home' Tests played on India soil due to ongoing security concerns in Afghanistan, and wins against Ireland (in India) and Bangladesh (Chittagong).
While the heavy defeat to India – with whom Afghanistan cricket is now strongly aligned having previously been closely linked to Pakistan – was expected, the nine-wicket loss to West Indies (at Dehradun in the shadow of the Himalayas) last November proved a bitter setback.
It led Rashid to clearly identify what needs to change if his country, which is now forging a new global identity through the exploits of their star spinner and his teammates on the cricket field, is to become competitive in the Test arena.
"As long as we're doing well whenever we get an opportunity to play against any team, then they will see Afghanistan is doing well in Test games, so they'll say, 'Let's play a game with them'," Rashid said.
"We still need to do lots of hard work, especially in the batting department and our fast bowlers – that's the two departments we need to work on more.
"But as long as we're doing well whenever we play, that will determine how many games we get regularly.
"If we play like five, six or seven Test games in a year, that would be something important for us.
"Right now, we're only playing one in a year which doesn't allow you to get much experience.
"But even if we get just one or two in a year, we have to use them and we have to perform as good as possible to put in the mind of other teams that this team is capable of playing five-day cricket, and they can give you a tough challenge."
As a relatively new sport in a perennially war-torn nation, cricket continues to face numerous challenges within Afghanistan despite the best efforts of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Cricket Board which oversees domestic first-class (four-day), 50-over and 20-over competitions.
Logistics remains a sizeable issue for a country with more than 30 provinces, many of them battling for basic resources, and the regular absence of international-standard players such as Rashid who ply their trade for global franchises further dilutes the pool of domestic talent.
Rashid sees positive signs in the growth of 20-over cricket in his homeland, but recognises there is much work to be done to develop a strong, self-sustaining domestic structure in the longer formats.
"I think the (Afghanistan) Cricket Board right now is focusing more on the red-ball back home, and hopefully that works to maximise those games and that could help our youngsters," he said.
"And that could also give the best opportunities for them to read and understand the red-ball game better, and to understand about spending more time on the ground.
"That's what we should be focusing on more back home.
"To have more red-ball games, that's the only way we can have the best Test squad."
There are, of course, far more pressing matters facing Afghanistan as it continues to rebuild from decades of war and the ongoing sectarian violence that remains a far-too-regular occurrence throughout the strife-torn nation.
As the country's most recognised sportsperson, perhaps Afghanistan's most famous individual, Rashid feels a deep responsibility for making his people proud and to promote a positive image of the nation wherever he plays throughout the world.
But he is also making a direct impact through actions such as the donation of his IPL player-of-the-match prizemoney to the victims of a bombing that rocked a cricket match in Jalalabad, 40 kilometres from his home town.
Just months after that atrocity in May 2018, Rashid launched a charitable foundation in his own name to provide humanitarian aid and education opportunities to orphans and under-privileged children.
Given his nomadic lifestyle as a professional cricketer – his trips home are fleeting and unannounced, but often include visits to schools – Rashid feels the most pragmatic help he can offer people who have suffered much is to on-pass some of the tangible rewards that flow to him as a celebrity sportsman.
"My (Rashid Khan) Foundation back home is mostly for education, and mostly for orphaned people who can't afford education – it's all about them," he said.
"We need to build up the schools and have free education for them, and especially for the girls.
"We don't have a proper structure for girls to get a decent education, and that's what I have in mind.
"To give something back to my country, to help out that young generation – we have suffered a lot with different situations and problems but if I can do it, that's why I took that step."
Rashid's commitment to others is as sincere and unstinting as his devotion to cricket.
Having learned the game during his childhood repatriation in Peshawar where he idolised former Pakistan allrounder Shahid Afridi who also hails from the tribal areas around the Khyber Pass region that connects the two countries, Rashid knows first-hand the game's capacity to transcend.
Like Afridi, he believes that in addition to helping his team win matches, his duty is to entertain the fans who flock to matches in the hope of witnessing memorable moments.
But he also understands that to achieve those goals, he must maximise every training and fitness session he undertakes, and share the wisdom and insights he gleans along the way with teammates, with fellow leg-spinners (men and women) and with the supporters who underpin the game.
It's why he devotes so much time to meeting fans and signing autographs and posing for photos, and why he turned out for last Sunday's bushfire relief charity match the day after his BBL duties ended, when he could quite justifiably have taken a rare break from his relentless cricket schedule.
Rashid admits he knows little about the Australian football code the competing teams represented, but he saw enough of the fires that devastated so much of the nation during BBL|09 to know the $1 million-plus the charity match raised was sorely needed.
"It's always great to be involved in activities such as charities, and I love being involved, anywhere and any time.
"It's something that gives you lots of pleasure, and best hopes."
Which is also what Rashid Khan brings to his many fans in Australia – whether he's in the Strikers kit of one of his adopted home towns, or the Afghanistan T20 and Test uniform he will proudly don here later this year.