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Understanding the genius, Rashid Khan

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Last updated on 05 Apr 2023 | 11:22 AM
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Understanding the genius, Rashid Khan

What makes the leg-spinner stand out as the best amidst the rest

That Rashid Khan is a genius is no secret. He has been playing around the world in every other league as the most important spinner in the team. Just to get an idea of how much he has played, we need to look at the list of teams he has played for. 

In the Indian Premier League, he has represented Sunrisers Hyderabad and now he is with Gujarat Titans. In PSL, he has played for Quetta Gladiators and Lahore Qalandars. In BBL, the Afghanistan spinner has been a regular feature for Adelaide Strikers. In CPL too he has played for a couple of franchises not to mention the smaller leagues where he features regularly. 

This is enough to count him amongst the greats of the game as these are very good teams and their overseas quota is limited. He has played more than 370 matches and has taken more than 500 wickets in T20s at a bowling average of 18 and economy rate of 6.3. To sustain these numbers across years, venues, leagues, and oppositions is in itself a remarkable achievement. He is arguably the best T20 bowler of all time. 

But what makes him such a great bowler? Laxman Sivaramakrishnan (LS), in his column for Cricket.com, has explained the difficulties for the batters to pick his googlies and what has made him such a special cricketer.

“Rashid is not an orthodox leg-spin bowler. He is very unorthodox, in fact. His arm action is so quick that he has to release the ball at the right time. That he has been able to do, thus making him very accurate. His grip doesn’t change too much between leg spin and googly. If you observe, he doesn’t turn his leg-spin as much as his googly. Because his grip is more like an off-spinner’s grip with a big gap between the index finger and the middle finger. That allows him to bowl a better googly.”

If a batter fails to pick googlies, almost every attempt he makes at scoring becomes a risky one. That makes scoring against that bowler a matter of pure chance to a large extent. This mystery is what Rashid Khan exploits. Also, as mentioned by LS, his finger-spinner-like grip makes it easier for him to maintain the accuracy of length. But is this the only thing he does differently from other bowlers? Let’s look into what makes him stand out. 

Let’s start with the lengths he prefers to bowl. To make the comparison, we have taken the data of all T20s post-2018. The bowlers that are categorized as ‘Other Leg Spinners’ are the ones who bowl leg-spin and have taken at least 50 wickets in T20s.

It is evident that the proportion of different lengths is similar to other leg spinners. Like other leg spinners, he bowls ~56% of his balls in the good length area and the second most preferred length for him is the short length. So Rashid Khan does nothing different in terms of choosing his lengths. But is there a particular length he is better at than other bowlers? The metric we use for this is economy rate because the most effective method of dismissal in T20s is by controlling the runs and making batters take more risks.

His economy rate is better than other bowlers across lengths. Only Imran Tahir comes close to being consistently economical across lengths. Hasaranga, the third-most economical leg spinner since 2018, goes at 7.27 runs per over for his short balls. Rashid Khan is the most economical bowler of shorter lengths after Pravin Tambe and Shahid Afridi. 

Tambe has bowled only 156 balls post-2018 and Afridi went for 7.64 an over against Rashid Khan’s 6.04 per over on good length balls. So overall, it’s not just a particular length Rashid Khan bowls that make him a better bowler. He is a better bowler than everyone at every length. 

What makes him so effective across lengths? Anyone who has seen him bowl can tell that he bowls a bit quicker than other spinners. 

If we see the speed at which he operates as compared to other leg spinners, we notice that 21% of his balls are above 95 kph while for other spinners that number is 5%. This difference is huge. It can safely be said that other bowlers use > 95 kph balls as rare variations while for Rashid Khan, it is the second most bowled speed range.

Is speed the reason Rashid Khan is so exceptional? This is a corollary to the question - do leg spinners at a higher pace perform better? 

The graph above shows that leg spinners tend to be more economical at higher speeds. One more remarkable thing about Rashid Khan is that his economy rate across speeds does not go above 6.63. 

Two questions arise out of this -

  1. Why don’t leg spinners bowl quicker and more often?
  2. If Rashid Khan is better than others across speeds as well, then clearly there is something else he does differently from others. What is it? 

The answer to both of these questions lies in the table below:

If we see the circled areas in both tables, it is obvious that other bowlers do not bowl quicker because it is not a wicket-taking option for them. Rashid Khan is different because he takes a lot of wickets at this pace (11%+8% = 19%). The second bowler that comes close is Ravi Bishnoi. He has taken 20 of his 87 wickets at this pace while Rashid Khan has taken 74 out of his 397 wickets at this pace (since 2018). 

The share of Rashid Khan being slightly less than Bishnoi is a testament to Rashid’s diversity as a leg spinner. Please note that most of his wickets have been taken at good length at speed a < 85 kph. Which means that he has the traditional wicket-taking options of leg spinners open. Apart from that, he has an extra wicket-taking option. ‘Extra’ being the keyword here. It is possible that this extra option has allowed him to do well across conditions. 

Let’s unpack the modes of dismissal for this kind of deliveries (> 95 kph and Good to short length). The predominant one for googlies is bowled+LBW while for leg breaks it is caught. 

Also, please note that for leg Break, 12 out of 19 Bowled+LBW dismissals are of left-handed batters. This means that the trick he uses is the same as googly against right-handed batters, i.e., trapping the batters at the stumps with the ball coming in sharply. 

How does he manage to do this? This is where the insights of LS bring to light the explanation. According to LS, Rashid Khan’s grip is more like an off-spinner which gives him more control over the length and presumably, speed. This seems to be the reason that he is able to operate at higher speeds for both googlies as well as leg breaks. 

Since he operates with excellent control at this speed, he doesn’t have to take the risk of bowling fuller and slower. He errs, if he errs at all, on the shorter side of good length as his share of short balls is slightly higher than the others and his share of full deliveries is slightly lower. 

Like any other good spinner, his lengths ensure that batters don’t reach the pitch of the ball and his speed ensures that the batters don’t get enough time to pull or cut him.  And the impossibility to tell apart his googlies from leg breaks makes him invincible.

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