CricViz Analysis: Why is Rashid Khan so good?

CricViz analyst Freddie Wilde examines what makes Rashid Khan so good.

He came; he saw; he conquered. Following Rashid Khan’s successful season at Sussex, he has now played in – and dominated – five of the six major domestic T20 leagues. Only the Pakistan Super League remains and you wouldn’t bet against him succeeding there as well.

When Rashid is so brilliant match after match after match it is too easy to take him for granted but we shouldn’t; the man is a phenomenon who is redefining what is possible in T20 bowling. Since his debut in October 2015 Rashid has taken 190 wickets in 125 matches at a strike rate of 15.1 balls per wicket and an economy rate of 6.04 runs per over. Rashid is proving that it is possible to be both exceptionally economical and take wickets at an exceptional rate: among the bowlers to have bowled more than 1000 balls since his debut no bowler has a lower economy rate than him and only three bowlers have a lower strike rate.

Traditionally leg spinners have tried to beat batsmen in the air by tossing the ball up above their eye-line at slow speeds and on full lengths – this attacking philosophy and the unnatural wrist rotations involved in delivery has meant that leg spinners have historically been strike bowlers but also expensive bowlers. The rise of T20 cricket and the growth of power hitting has necessitated the evolution of a new breed of leg spinner who bowl flatter, faster and shorter, keeping the ball away from the batsman’s arc, and who bowl a high proportion of googlies to complicate attacking batting. Leg spin bowling has been transformed by T20 cricket and Rashid is perfecting its new developments. A T20 comparison of Shane Warne – an old-school leg spinner – and Rashid is amazingly illustrative of the transformation in leg spin across the last decade. 

Rashid’s average speed in T20 cricket of 91.76 kph makes him the 12th fastest T20 spinner and the third fastest T20 wrist spinner in the CricViz database. Growing up Rashid idolised Shahid Afridi, one of the two wrist spinners with a higher average speed than Rashid, and there are clear similarities in their bowling actions. Most spin bowlers, especially leg spinners, don’t really have a run up—it is more of a slow gather or at most a bustling walk—but Rashid, like Afridi, runs up to and through the crease and this speed creates momentum for a rapid delivery motion. “My pace comes from the speed of my run up and the quick-arm action,” explained Rashid in a recent Masterclass on Sky Sports Cricket. “The difference between normal leg spinners and what he is doing is the pace through the air,” explained Marcus Trescothick – who as part of the Masterclass faced an over from Rashid. “The arm speed and the speed it’s coming down at you is a lot quicker than I normally expect.”

As well as bowling faster than most wrist spinners Rashid also bowls a lot flatter. Analysis of Rashid’s release trajectory shows that only 25% of his balls rise from his hand at release compared to 41% for all wrist spinners and only seven wrist spinners in the CricViz database have a lower average release angle than Rashid’s -1.25°. One drill for bowlers to help with their flight is to get them to bowl a ball over a piece of string suspended about a metre high half way down the pitch; with Rashid you can imagine he’d look to fire the ball beneath the string.

Rashid’s fast release speeds and flat trajectory gets the ball to skid off the pitch which allows him to bowl shorter lengths and keep balls out of the batsmen’s arc. Only 24% of Rashid’s balls are categorised as “full” – the 13th lowest proportion among T20 spinners and fourth lowest proportion among T20 wrist spinners in the CricViz database.

At Rashid’s speed, line is arguably more important than length, and here the Afghan is also excellent. 74% of his deliveries pitch either in the channel outside off stump or in line with the stumps; above the global average for leg spinners of 65%. Rashid bowls an exceptionally tight line to both right-handers and left-handers and this is reflected in 53.60% of his dismissals being bowled or lbw – the second highest percentage of any bowler in T20 cricket to have bowled in more than 100 innings.

Rashid’s career heatmaps illustrate how tight his line is and at his pace that kind of accuracy is very difficult to get away. 

Bowling fast leg spin is one thing but bowling fast leg spin while maintaining control is another thing entirely. In the Masterclass Trescothick may have identified the most obvious difference between Rashid and other leg spinners – his speed, but Rashid then revealed a subtler – perhaps defining difference. “Other wrist spinners use their wrist for leg spin but I don’t use my wrist, mostly I use my fingers.” Rashid showed how other leg spinners generate revolutions on the ball by rolling their wrist in a way that one might turn a door handle but Rashid instead only uses his wrist to get into his release position and then imparts revs using his fingers. The wrist rotation of typical leg spinners is what allows them to turn the ball as far as they do but it also compromises their control because it is such an unnatural movement. By using his fingers to spin the ball Rashid sacrifices his degrees of his spin—and he does turn the ball less than typical leg spinners—but gains precious control. In an interview with Times of India earlier this year Rashid was forthright in admitting “I call myself a finger spinner.” 

In addition to control Rashid’s finger-spinning method helps him disguise his different deliveries. Ball-tracking analysis shows Rashid to have three distinct deliveries: a leg break, a googly and a slider. In the Masterclass Rashid’s demonstration of his releases for his leg break and his googly showed there to be only the slightest change in his action at release position for either delivery and the majority of the change is in the fingers. In a video interview with CricBuzz Rashid also showed his slider which is released from a similar position to his leg break but with no spin imparted by his fingers. Coupled with the speed of Rashid’s delivery motion his finger-spinning action makes reading him from the hand immensely difficult. “What you normally expect with leg spinners is the wrist turning and you can quite often pick that when you’re facing them,” explains Trescothick, “but when it is such a fast speed of an arm and not much variation because it is all in the fingers then it is really tricky.”

Perhaps a batsman’s best chance of reading Rashid comes during his run-up. In the 2018 IPL former left-arm wrist spinner Brad Hogg spotted a very small change in Rashid’s grip that is discernible as he approaches the crease with his fingers split for the leg break but together for the googly. Given the speed of Rashid’s run-up picking this up is a tough-ask but it might be the only clue that batsmen get.

The trouble batsmen have picking Rashid is illustrated by shot connection analysis which shows batsmen miss or edge one in five deliveries bowled by Rashid – the highest false shot percentage against any spinner in the CricViz database.

The control Rashid exerts over his googly and his ability to disguise them so effectively contributes to him using it a lot. 39.20% of Rashid’s deliveries are googlies – the highest googly percentage of any bowler in the CricViz database. On average his leg break pitches 10 cm fuller and 10 cm straighter than his googly to right-handers and 2 cm fuller and 5 cm straighter to left-handers. At Rashid’s speed batsmen will have fractions of a second to react to these differences. 

Not only are batsmen rushed for time by his speed and cramped for room by his line and length but the direction of spin is changing almost every other ball and they have almost no idea which way it is going and all the while their stumps are under threat. Faster, flatter, shorter, more varied and unerringly accurate. It’s a deadly combination. 

Rashid is not impossible to counter. On occasions batsmen have got on top of him – AB de Villiers in the World T20, Alex Doolan in the BBL, Chris Gayle in the IPL and Aaron Finch in the T20 Blast to name a few and more recently he has struggled against left-handers. But these are fragments of flaws—hints of weaknesses—not glaring deficiencies. No one team or player has yet capitalised on these moments and turned a fleeting victory into something regularly exploitable. In five different leagues and at international level he has emerged from his setbacks as dominant.

Rashid now has command of the holy trinity of spin bowling: speed, control and variation and with these weapons at his disposal it is no surprise he has been so successful. Rashid has redefined leg spin bowling and has mastered his creation. 

Freddie Wilde is a CricViz analyst @fwildecricket 

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