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The eternal efficiency of Mohammad Nabi

Last updated on 03 Nov 2023 | 11:12 PM
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The eternal efficiency of Mohammad Nabi

Nabi is not a great off-spinner. He's no Muralitharan or Ashwin. But what makes him so important to Afghan cricket?

Mohammad Nabi is not the greatest off-spinner. He isn’t even ‘one of’ the greatest. 

He just bowls simple, classic, traditional, enticing off-spin. So much so that if off-spin were English literature, Nabi would have been its Charles Dickens. Greatest of all time? Umm no. But was it good enough to get your attention and make you turn pages? Oh boy, now we are talking!! 

Today, November 3, Nabi won the Player of the Match for his off-spin bowling as he pocketed 3 Dutchmen. The first one, Bas de Leede, went to push a ball towards covers that was pitched on a good length and bowled on a wide line outside off stump. He nicked it. Ikram Alikhil gloved it. Finished. Tata. Bye bye. 

The second victim was Logan van Beek. He loves dancing. If you don’t believe me, go and look at his Instagram. He danced down the track against Nabi as well. However, the ball was given a lot of air and bowled slowly — at 82 kmph, it dipped and passed beneath his bat. Ikram caught it again. He stumped the dancing Dutch as Nabi switched off the music after inviting him halfway towards him. No dancing for van Beek. Just a sombre, straight walk back to the pavilion. 

The third one was Paul van Meekeren, who totally missed a classic off-spinner that drifted and turned in and hit his body bang in front of the wickets, while his bat was busy slogging an imaginary ball for a six straight into a Dutch canal. 

Three wickets. No wizardry like Muttiah Muralitharan. No conscientiously scientific stuff like R Ashwin. Nabi “just focused on line and length, focused on bowling dot balls”, as he said in the post-match presentation. He used his angles perfectly, like bowling from near the stumps, to allow the ball to go slightly wider from right-handed Logan van Beek. His variations are subtle, with just enough impact behind them to get a wicket if the batter makes a mistake. 

That’s the blueprint of Nabi’s bowling, essentially. He builds pressure with dots, bowling them one after the other, tiring batters from the boredom of defence. This World Cup, he has force-fed 171 dot balls to batters out of the 297 balls he has bowled !! The sheer incredulity of this fact deserves the double exclamation at the end of it. 

The reason he has managed to bowl in that manner is simple (nothing with Nabi is complicated). He has bowled 229 balls out of 297 on a good length. With his speed that revolves largely in the mid-80s, he’s hard to get away with on Indian tracks that offer some grip to spinners when bowled at his mid-80s pace. It allows him “to keep it tight and hence bowl with a good economy”, as he said after the game. 

In this tournament, he has the second-best economy (4.0) after Ravindra Jadeja (3.8). In fact, he is the most economical spinner after the 2019 World Cup, along with Shakib Al Hasan. However, his average and strike rate aren't able to hide that Nabi is not a strike bowler. A career strike rate of 45.2 in ODIs probably would have told you that already. 

Moreover, his time with the bat isn’t as prolific as it used to be. His role in the side is limited to a pinch hitter, who can come down the order and play some impactful cameos at the death, just like he did against Sri Lanka in the Asia Cup. He is a player selected in the Afghanistan side because of his secondary skill (spin bowling). 

But is that all to Mohammad Nabi? Is that why so many writers have been typing away words after words on him for a decade and a half? For someone who isn’t even a great off-spinner? 

Greatness, like all superlative things, is also a fog. It hides the human from their achievements, keeping them shrouded in a cloud of mystery, which is required to build a mythology around them. That’s how Mahiya from Ranchi becomes Thala Mahendra Singh Dhoni of CSK. That’s how Shahrukh from Rajendra Nagar, Delhi, becomes The SRK of Mannat.

Nabi’s spin isn’t a mystery. He’s not a great. He doesn’t need a cloud to hide him. There’s no fog. Maybe that’s why he’s more relatable, his attributes more achievable.  

Mohammad Nabi has been with Afghanistan cricket since its inception. He was there when it was being forged with Afghan refugees in Peshawar. And that’s what Nabi was then — a refugee.

Also read - Afghanistan: Finding identity through cricket

Nabi started playing cricket when he returned to his nation in 2000 from Peshawar. He was there with the Nawroz Mangals, Asghar Stanikzais (later Asghar ‘Afghan’) and Hamid Hassans as they took Afghanistan from Division Five of the World Cricket League to One Day International status in just a few years. He was part of their first T20 World Cup in 2010, and when Afghanistan made it to their first ODI World Cup in 2015, Nabi was their captain. 

When the phenomenon of Rashid Khan emerged and started trotting the globe, Mohammad Nabi was doing the same along with him. There’s hardly any T20 league of note where Nabi hasn’t played. And with him went his Afghan identity. He wore it on his sleeves, expressed it through his tongue, and affirmed its presence by his bat and ball. 

Hence, when politics became louder than cricket in the corridors of the Afghanistan Cricket Board, he stood his ground and spoke the truth to power. He left his Captaincy, got it back, and then left it again. 

Today, Afghanistan cricket has reached a stage where they don’t need Nabi to bat often. They have Rahmanullah Gurbaz and Ibrahim Zadran - one of the best opening pairs in ODI cricket. They have skilful pacers in Fazalhaq Farooqi and Naveen ul Haq. And above all, they have the spin quartet of doom — Rashid, Mujeeb ur Rahman, Noor Zadran and Nabi. 

Also read - How underrated are Zadran-Gurbaz as an opening pair?

Afghanistan are now banging the doors of the World Cup semi-finals. It took them two decades and more to reach this point. In their first-ever official ODI against Scotland, Nabi scored 58 off 64 and was the Player of the Match. And today, in Afghanistan’s 159th ODI against the Netherlands, he's the Player of the Match again for his 28 for 3. 

In between the two games for Nabi, there are more than 14 years, 154 ODIs and at least two different generations of Afghanistan cricket. Mohammad Nabi has survived the inertia of anxiousness derived from the trauma of war that mournfully flows in the Afghan blood. He has lived the staggering rise of Afghan cricket. He has survived the slump in its sophomore years. He has gone around the globe flying the Afghan flag, wearing different coloured jerseys. And now, he’s back in the Afghan blue as they find themselves on the edge of a new history. 

As Dickens says in A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Nabi knows that. In such a dichotomy of his career and life, Nabi keeps doing what he knows best – one dot ball after the other, one dot ball after the other. 

He might not be right-arm great. But he is definitely right-arm efficient because that’s what Afghanistan needed him to be, both as a team and as a nation. 

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