Rashid Khan looks at the camera through a ring light
Catherine Ivill / © ICC/Getty Images

Talking Cricket

Rashid Khan: 'You can get form back, but once you lose respect, it's hard to get that back'

The world's leading T20 leggie talks about how he fell in love with the game and what his parents taught him about dealing with stardom

Interview by Nagraj Gollapudi  |  

In 2017, when Sunrisers Hyderabad bought Rashid Khan for nearly US$600,000, he was a clean-shaven, chubby 18-year-old Afghanistan spinner. Five years on, a much leaner Rashid, now sporting stubble, is the Sunrisers' MVP and wanted by every T20 franchise across the world. He's the leading T20 wicket-taker of this period, with 333 wickets, and second on economy rate. Ahead of his second T20 World Cup, Rashid spoke to the Cricket Monthly about his early life, slipping off to play cricket without his family's permission, his favourite T20 spells, and fasting for Ramadan with SRH team-mates Kane Williamson and David Warner.

Would you say one of your biggest strengths is being open to a situation and then quickly it sizing up?
That's why I have been more successful - reading the situations and conditions very quickly and adjusting myself quicker than maybe others. That's how I have been more successful in different countries.

Does courage play a part in being able to do that?
Exactly. As a player you always have pressure on you. Whenever you are playing around the world, any format, that pressure is always there. But as long as you get involved in the game, as long as you have the positive mindset, you can deliver at any stage. Once you start losing a bit in the mind, you think negatively, different things come to your mind, then it affects your performance.

I always love challenges, tough situations. I want to do well in that situation. That's the time the team needs you and you are trying your best to deliver. For that you have to encourage yourself, you have to have that positive mindset. You have to have that kind of energy that, yes, I am fully ready for it, I have worked hard for it, so I can deliver when the team needs me in tough times.

Rashid takes a selfie with his team-mates:

Rashid takes a selfie with his team-mates: "I never had it in my mind to be a cricketer, playing for Afghanistan. I always had in my mind to be a doctor" Munir Uz Zaman / © AFP/Getty Images

Can you tell us about when you started out as a cricketer and where you grew up?
I grew up in Afghanistan and Pakistan. When things were not good in Afghanistan, my family shifted to Pakistan. I mostly played cricket at home with my brothers. These were very competitive games and it was a challenge for me to get them out, to score against them, to win games. Those times made me a proper cricketer. I was not allowed to go outside and play with friends. My family said, anything can happen outside, you better focus on your studies, and if you want to play cricket, better play with your brothers at home.

I never dreamed that I would be a cricketer. Yes, I was good at cricket at home, but I never had that in my mind - to be a cricketer, playing for Afghanistan, playing all around the world. I always had in my mind to be a doctor, which was the family's expectation as well, especially my mom's. She always used to tell me: we want to see you as a doctor. I was pretty good at studies as well.

One of my friends took me to a game on a Sunday. I didn't let my family know - I went without their permission. I scored 65 runs and I was like: "Oh, I love this game." That was the first time [I played] with a hard ball. I used to play with the tape ball [previously]. From there, that dream started, but still the target was not to play international cricket. It was to play every Sunday with my friend.

Later I played more and more and [eventually] with a few domestic players in Afghanistan in club matches, which were friendlies. They saw me and said: why don't you come and play for our domestic team? A little permission was given by my family. They said: "Your friends say you are [good] in cricket. Better just go, we will give you the kind of freedom to go and play cricket."

"I always love tough situations. That's the time the team needs you and you have to have that kind of energy that, yes, I am fully ready for it" Arjun Singh / © BCCI

Once, I played an Under-19 game in Lahore against Pakistan U-19s [which was shown on TV]. I scored 60-something. That gave my family a very good image that I can play good cricket. That is how they started supporting me. Then I came to the Afghanistan national team at the end of 2015.

Who were the bowlers and batters you imagined yourself to be in those teenage years?
Batting-wise, I always loved watching Sachin Tendulkar. [Back then] I wasn't the kind of player with a mindset of hitting sixes. I loved playing down the ground, singles, boundaries. I don't know how and why I changed my mind to now mainly focusing on hitting sixes.

[Bowling-wise], definitely Shahid Afridi and Anil Kumble. Even at home, playing against my brothers, I was bowling quicker legspin [like Afridi and Kumble]. I loved watching them on TV. I still watch videos [of them] on YouTube - there are so many things I learned from them and still do.

I used to dream about these three players and imagine being them. We didn't have a proper Afghanistan team back then and there were no hopes for us to be international cricketers, so watching them was a great, great time. And now when I meet them, it is more than a dream.

Strong suit: after playing in the 2017 IPL, Rashid (left) realised how important fitness was to becoming a better bowler

Strong suit: after playing in the 2017 IPL, Rashid (left) realised how important fitness was to becoming a better bowler Punit Paranjpe / © AFP/Getty Images

When opponents played Tendulkar, Afridi or Kumble, they were sometimes playing the name rather than the player. You might be only 23, but you have built a similar aura. Do you see the pressure in the batter's eyes?
Whenever you bowl a couple of balls to a batsman, you understand his mindset and his plans. It's always great to see a batsman who just wants to play a dot ball or rotate the strike. [He is] not going to charge at you. He's not going to hit. Then you have a plus point: okay, this batsman is not reading me. He just wants to get off strike. Now I'm going to put pressure on him, I'm going to get him out, I'm going to place a different field. It gives you a lot of energy as a bowler. It doesn't matter whoever the batsman is - [it's] someone who has that fear that this bowler is a bit tough and can get me out. Then he is just trying his best to get off strike.

This has happened in the last three years where batsmen don't charge a lot against me. As a bowler, it's pretty hard to get wickets when someone doesn't go after you, but still you will have to bowl your best delivery. That is an advantage I have - that you have in your mind, that batsmen are not going after me.

You are probably the most well-travelled player in cricket today. How do you keep yourself hungry to perform day in day out?
Before 2017 - when I played the IPL for the first time - my consistency wasn't as good, and the reason for that was my fitness. After playing a couple of games, my body wasn't ready for the next couple, and that's why the performances weren't coming. But since the 2017 IPL, I saw how players took care of their fitness.

I was hardly going to the gym before that (laughs). Coming from Afghanistan, it's pretty hard to understand these things when you don't have the kind of facilities to see how important fitness is. It is more cricket there than about fitness.

"Whenever I go to play in any tournament, I always ask the coaches: what are the things I have improved in since the last year and what are the things I have to improve next year?" Ron Gaunt / © BCCI

Since then, I started working on my fitness. It took a couple of years to get back in proper shape. Still, going to different countries and performing there is pretty hard. But I have always had the mindset that I have to enjoy myself. So many fans love watching me playing all around the world, so I have to perform for them as well.

One other thing is that I always enjoy my skills. I always want to be on the ground, bowling those tough deliveries to the batsman, beating the batsman, getting him leg before, getting him bowled. That is something I love the most. I can do it any day. That's the kind of love I have for cricket. That's the reason I perform everywhere. I just focus on what I can do. And that's the only way to keep my mind fresh, especially in the last one and a half to two years.

It's pretty hard to be in the bubble and playing cricket and staying mentally relaxed. But when you see the love and expectations of the fans, you are trying your best to be at the ground, giving a good performance, doing something special to make them happy. That's one of the main reasons I can go everywhere [and still] be fresh and focused in performing every day.

How has your diet changed?
I used to eat so much unhealthy food: biryani, breads, a bit of sweets. But since the 2017 IPL, I have stopped all that. Now mostly I have barbecue or grilled food along with salad. I decided if I want to be the best and if I have to improve my skills, I have to be fitter.

For a couple of years, I totally stopped eating biryani, breads and sweets. I have them once a month or when I decide to have a cheating day. But I do gym regularly. If I miss my gym, I don't eat properly. As long as I can do my workouts, I can eat properly. That's the kind of mindset every cricketer should have, because this is our job and we have to be fully committed to it. As long as you are fully committed, the performance will speak for itself.

Frequent flyer: Rashid is presented with his 50th BBL cap, 2021

Frequent flyer: Rashid is presented with his 50th BBL cap, 2021 Daniel Kalisz / © Getty Images

It shows in the energy you put into your fielding. And with the bat, you are trying to win matches, trying to run hard. Is that something you think you have got better at?
Exactly. In 2018, when I came back for the second IPL season, I got so many positive messages from the coaching staff, especially for my fielding - they said, you are much improved and much quicker. Whenever I go to play in any tournament in any country, I always ask the coaches: what are the things I have improved in since the last year and what are the things I have to improve next year?

This really helps me. I always put energy into my fielding, bowling, batting. My mind is always telling me: doesn't matter whatever the situation is, whatever the conditions are, I have to give 100% for the team. That is the reason I have to look fitter on the ground, I have to run twos, and when the team needs me, I have to get runs, and bowl long spells.

I bowled 99 overs against Zimbabwe [in the second Test in Abu Dhabi in March], which was a lot (laughs). But I still just wanted to bowl. When I was bowling the 98th over, the captain [Asghar Afghan] asked if I wanted some rest. I said, no, I'm pretty okay. I want to bowl till the end of the day. I want to bowl till we get them out. I noticed that I'm capable of bowling those long spells and that what I'd worked for has paid off. It was not an easy job to bowl 99 overs in a couple of days, doesn't matter whether you are a fast bowler or spinner. The reason behind that was my fitness.

Since 2019 you have delivered 3196 balls in T20s. The next best is by Mujeeb Ur Rahman (2328). What do you focus on at the gym?
I do core and strength work. I don't need to have big muscles. In the past, I had a hamstring injury a few times when my body wasn't as strong. Whenever I play a game, the next day I go to the gym and do a stability workout, sprint on the treadmill, take a 30-second break and then get back on. Mostly, I am working on my [core] strength. That allows me to play for longer. Rather than [building up] my muscles, I prefer to do more core work. It has been working for me .

I usually bowl at about 90-91kph. That extra 4-5kph is due to my fitness. The other day I was watching videos in which I was bowling at around 99-100kph. Lots of people focus on bowling quicker, but they need to know that you have to be stronger as well. It is not just about bowling quicker. You need the energy to allow you to bowl quicker.

Has anyone switch-hit you so far?
[Colin] Munro did once. It's pretty hard [to] because of the pace at which I bowl. If someone goes to switch-hit, he doesn't get the time because I bowl quicker and it doesn't allow him to go. They do reverse-sweep.

Can you talk about two or three batters who have been enjoyable to bowl against but who are also challenging?
There are two types of batsmen: one is a busy batsman, trying to hit you in the gaps; and the other is someone who hits you for sixes.

The batsmen who try to hit you in the gap, like Virat Kohli, are pretty hard to bowl to. As soon as he finds out that this ball is a bit off length or a loose ball, he is going to hit you in the gap. The hard hitters might just block you and might want to get off strike or just play a dot ball. But Kohli will either get two or a boundary. Kane Williamson and Babar Azam are similar. These three batsmen are harder to bowl against because you have to be accurate against them - bowl the perfect line and length.

Power-hitters like Hardik Pandya, [Kieron] Pollard, [Andre] Russell, Chris Gayle - if you bowl anything fuller to them, they are going to hit you harder. If it is a good-length ball, they are going to block you. They won't be looking for that gap to take a single, double or hit a boundary.

© ESPNcricinfo Ltd

What's your best bowling performance in T20 cricket?
There are three performances I have loved. First, against KKR in the second Qualifer, at Eden Gardens in 2018, where I got [Robin] Uthappa, Chris Lynn and Russell, the danger man [Rashid was the Player of the Match for his 3 for 19]. That night I enjoyed my bowling a lot.

Also, in the first qualifier, against Chennai Super Kings [in 2018], where I got the wicket of MS Dhoni, the biggest wicket. It's a dream of every bowler, especially a spinner, to get his wicket. It's pretty hard to get him out as a spinner. That game I gave around 11 runs in four overs [2 for 11].

Then the game against Peshawar Zalmi [in the 2021 PSL], where I got 5 for 19 [5 for 20]. I absolutely enjoyed that game because all the wickets were leg-before or bowled.

Also, I can't forget the game against Sydney Sixers [in the 2019-20 BBL], when I got the hat-trick in my 4 for 20 [4 for 22]. Getting a hat-trick in Australia is always a big achievement as a spinner.

And what's your worst performance?
I still remember two consecutive games in the 2018 IPL. The first one was against Kings XI Punjab, where Chris Gayle hit me for around 28 runs [26] in one over. [Rashid's 1 for 55 in that match remains his most expensive T20 spell.]

Flummoxing the old fox: MS Dhoni is bowled by a Rashid googly, 2018

Flummoxing the old fox: MS Dhoni is bowled by a Rashid googly, 2018 © BCCI

The very next game was against Chennai Super Kings and I was hit for 55 in four overs [1 for 49].

What did you do after those two games? What went through your mind?
There were lots of things going on, especially on social media, [where people said] that I'm done, that [teams] have found out how to play me because of those two games. I knew what I'd done wrong, what made it easier for the batsmen to hit me. I knew what my plans to come back harder [would be] and how I could be more effective in the next game. I was supported by the team. They gave me the confidence to go on.

I still remember Laxman sir [VVS Laxman, Sunrisers' mentor] called me to his room when we were playing against Mumbai [Indians] in Mumbai [in the next match]. He said: "Look, I have faced so many bad days in cricket and these days teach you the best [things]. You can learn from this. These days will make you a proper player."

I had a very, very good conversation with him and that gave me lots of confidence. It was very important and very necessary for me. Then I spoke to the captain, Kane Williamson. He put his hand on my shoulder and said: "You just need to enjoy and keep smiling. That's the only thing I want from you - doesn't matter whatever the result at the end, but what I want is [for] you to be smiling in the ground." The same thing was told to me by Tom Moody and [Muthiah] Muralidaran [SRH's head coach and bowling coach, respectively].

The next game I got the Man of the Match against Mumbai [Rashid took 2 for 11]. I knew I'd come back to my normal length. In the last two games I had bowled bad length and [that's why the] batsmen punished me. Now I'd come back by pitching on the right length, right areas, and I could put the batsmen in trouble and I got more dot balls. After that I never had a day where I have been hit for more than 50.

"I still remember Laxman sir [VVS Laxman, Sunrisers' mentor] called me to his room and said: 'Look, I have faced so many bad days in cricket. These days will make you a proper player'" Samuel Rajkumar / © BCCI

You were only 19 back then. In an interview with Aakash Chopra last year, Moody said that length is the "ace up Rashid's sleeve". What do you do to practise hitting that length consistently?
I place bottle tops at different spots on the pitch and bowl until I hit each one. It doesn't matter how long it takes - one hour, two hours, three hours, or if it takes five or six balls - I have to hit every one of those bottle tops.

Another way I challenge myself is by asking the person [running] the nets - coach or net bowler - where he wants me to pitch [the ball]. Then I pitch it on the spot. I tell the coach: "I'm going to bowl here; it is going to finish there." And I bowl there and it does happen. I'm going to pitch on middle and it's going on the fourth stump. If it doesn't, I keep trying.

That is the kind of extra pressure I put on myself in the nets, because in my mind I have that area and my body gets used to hitting in that area.

How many bottle tops do you hit?
About five to eight. They are very small, so it's pretty hard to hit them and it takes a long time. I don't do it before every game. I do it when I have more time, like during a fitness camp with my national team or when I have more days between games. I also did similar work at Sussex with Jason Gillespie, who would put cones for me to hit.

With Imran Tahir:

With Imran Tahir: "He is one of the best. All us spinners have so much love and respect for him. And his celebrations bring lots of positivity" Sandeep Shetty / © BCCI

Can you talk about a few T20 spinners that you enjoy watching?
One is Yuzvendra Chahal. He has been one of the most consistent performers for India as well as for RCB. Shadab [Khan] - love watching his bowling. Ish Sodhi is someone who has improved. Adam Zampa.

But the young guy I love watching is [Ravi] Bishnoi. He has improved so much [since the 2020 IPL]. We had a discussion last year during the IPL on bowling line and length and other stuff. We met this year at the IPL as well and he told me straightaway: "I have worked on those things you told me and it is helping a lot." I love the energy he bowls with. It's something that gives you confidence. Most importantly, he is loving his bowling, he is enjoying it. That is something you want to see in a spinner.

And definitely, the one and only Imran Tahir. He is one of the best and that is why I mention him in the end. All us spinners have so much love and respect for him. He is a senior bowler. We always like to discuss stuff with him and share our experiences. And his celebrations bring lots of [positivity]. Considering his age, his celebrations are something I love the most.

You are often the first pick at any auction. You might not have won the MVP at the IPL, the Big Bash, the Blast or CPL, but you remain most valuable as far as franchises are concerned. How do you handle the pressure of expectations?
It's true that wherever I go, there are a lot of expectations from me. Not just from the team, even the fans have so many expectations. They expect things to happen in every game, which is pretty hard in cricket.

"If a fan asks for a photo and I ignore it, I don't think I'll be able to sleep [well] at night. I never want to hurt someone's feelings" Kelly Barnes / © Getty Images

But I never focus on those things a lot, or put that extra pressure on myself. The result is not in my hands. If it was, I would have taken five-six wickets and won every game for the team. I have to get rid of that [thought]. What is in my hands is my bowling. I know my areas and I have worked hard on that. I keep it simple: this is the area I have to hit.

As long as I am hitting my areas, my job is easier and I can deliver for the team at any stage. That's the mindset I have.

It's true that I have not won the MVP in any league, but I'm still trying my best to do well on the day for the team - to bowl economically, to get the team where we can win the game. That is the kind of role I want to play. Yes, I'm working on my batting as well.

Hopefully in the coming years I will be able to win that award. Even I want [to be the MVP]. Sometimes I feel bad that I'm the most wanted player in the leagues. Every franchise wants me. I have the ability to win that award. That will come with time. I still have a long career. There is still a lot of work to be done in my bowling. At the moment, I am 70-80% consistent with my line and length. I want to make it 100% consistent.

How do you handle stardom?
My mom told me one thing I always keep in mind: "You have to be Rashid as you were. You can never change with time. It doesn't matter what happens - whether you are on top or the bottom of the world. You have to be the same Rashid as we have seen before. I don't want your performance, your fame, to affect that because performances come and go. The kind of personality you have, how humble you are at home, and how you treated others in the past - you should be treating them the same now as well."

"There is still a lot of work to be done in my bowling. At the moment, I am 70-80% consistent with my line and length. I want to make it 100% consistent" Arjun Singh / © BCCI

Her words made it easier for me [to handle fame]. My position in life shouldn't be changing my personality, my lifestyle. Yes, I got fame, but I have to be honest, I have to be the same as how I used to be. If I say I am Rashid Khan, I have to do this and that, I won't be happy with myself. If a fan asks for a photo and I ignore it, I don't think I'll be able to sleep [well] at night, because those things will be in my mind. I never want to hurt someone's feelings. I was a fan of cricketers and I know that feeling. If someone like Afridi, Kumble or Sachin ignored me [as a fan], I know how I would have felt. Even in the team, if I take five wickets or if I take no wickets - just stay the same. My performance, my fame doesn't affect me.

Would you say the way you were raised, especially by your mother, who passed away recently, is the main reason behind your grounded nature?
That's how I was brought up by my mom and dad. Not just me, they [parents] taught all of us children how to live, how to be someone successful. One thing was very clear to us: money doesn't give you good fame, good personality, good image. The only thing that gives you that is being humble, being kind to everyone. We have to help each other rather than to hurt someone. I am so blessed to be brought up this way.

My mom used to tell me that even from before my U-19 days. I never told my sister, my brother, my mom, to bring shoes for me, to wash clothes for me - never ever. When I was going for a game, I never asked someone in my family to pack my bag. I used to do it myself.

When I was travelling for cricket outside the city or for a camp, I never told my family when I got the message from the cricket board that tomorrow we are leaving. I did not have the energy to tell my mom that I was going to leave, because she would not sleep the whole night. So when they were asleep, I would quietly pack in the middle of night. In the morning my family would see the bags and ask: "Are you leaving?" It was one of the toughest things - to leave the family.

My message to youngsters is: Never change. Stay humble. Nothing is impossible. Have a clear mindset. The most important thing is that you are kind to your family, who play a key role in your career. You can get your form back, you can get the money back, but once you lose the respect of someone, once you hurt someone, it is pretty hard to get that back.

During the first half of this IPL in April, there was a video on social media of David Warner and Kane Williamson joining you on a day of fasting during Ramadan. Can you tell us about it?
That's a team, that's a family. As a team member, as a family member, we all need to understand each other's feelings. Then you know what is the right thing to do. Those days when Ramadan was on, we were fasting and playing. David Warner and Kane Williamson said, it's pretty hard to fast and play, it's a tough job. They wanted to fast, but on an off day. They came for sehri at around 3am. It was so good to see them fasting with us, to understand our feelings. When there was one hour left [before breaking the fast in the evening], I remember sitting by the poolside with Williamson, who was like: "We haven't played cricket, we haven't done anything, we have just been at the hotel, but it is so difficult to eat nothing."

Afterwards I told Kane and Warner: "You both are our guests - me, [Mohammad] Nabi and Mujeeb [Afghanistan and Sunrisers team-mates]. You guys have to eat with us. That will be a huge pleasure." I loved the way they came up and said we want to fast with you, we want to know the feelings. It made me so happy. I have so much respect for both of them. They even agreed to do more fasting, but the IPL was postponed.

It's important to know each other's traditions and cultures. It automatically inculcates further respect. That's the beauty of [T20] leagues - to bring different cultures together, which makes us understand each other better.

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo