For 24.4 overs, Rashid Khan prowled wicketless back and forth to his bowling mark. There were some scowls and maybe a few growls mixed in too, because for someone who strikes once every 14 balls in T20Is and every 5.3 overs at the worst of times in first-class matches, this was unusually long.
A plethora of exuberant and exasperated lbw appeals from Rashid had been turned down, and one started to wonder if UAE’s line-up had tapped into a secret supply of Kryptonite to magically repel Afghanistan’s superhuman spinner.
And then suddenly, Rashid zeroed in on his antagonist’s vulnerability. An inside edge off Saqlain Haider’s pads popped into the circus hands of Javed Ahmadi for a juggling catch. It was the kind of chance that, throughout the previous day and a half, would have found a way to pop out, but Ahmadi’s nervy grab was just the slice of fortune Rashid had been searching for. A few overs later, he took three wickets in four balls and Afghanistan’s star leggie was back spinning on his normal axis.
“There wasn’t any difference except luck,” Rashid told ESPNcricinfo after bagging five wickets in the second innings of Afghanistan’s ten-wicket Intercontinental Cup win. “I didn’t have enough luck yesterday. I bowled some good, wicket balls but didn’t get wickets on them. That was, you could say, a bad day for me, 20 overs without a wicket.
“I just tried my best to bowl in a good-length area. It didn’t matter if I get wickets or not but my main target was to bowl in a good-length area. Today, I was trying the same area and it was lucky for me today to get some wickets.”
On a flat pitch that didn’t change much over the course of the three and a half days, Afghanistan were made to sweat in the field. Most teams struggle to bat 100 overs against Afghanistan in two combined innings in an I-Cup match, let alone a single innings. It had been 13 matches since an opponent had done so against Afghanistan, that too by UAE at Sharjah in 2011.
Winning had come easy to them in this tournament, with four consecutive innings wins all wrapped up inside three days with two of them in less than two. So to have an opponent show a bit of backbone at the crease was something they were unaccustomed to. And yet, Afghanistan’s focus rarely wavered. Even when Rashid wasn’t taking wickets, he wasn’t bowling half-trackers until his team’s disciplined efforts reaped rewards.
“It means a lot to us to finish the I-Cup,” Rashid said. “It’s a good preparation for Test cricket for us. We’ll play against some good teams. It was a very challenging two days for us. In upcoming games against big teams, we’ll have days like this and we learned a lot from it.
“We are second-time winners of the I-Cup. The guys did a wonderful job in this Cup. We are unbeaten. We worked hard for it. It was a tough challenge to get UAE out twice on a wicket like this. We were trying our best to get them out as early as possible but they played really well and played some good cricket in the second innings.
“Taking the last wicket and then when [Ahmadi and Ihsanullah] chased the 19 runs, it was a really proud moment for Afghanistan. It will be the last time playing in the I-Cup so to finish it on a winning note is a really great feeling for us.”
The other aspect of Afghanistan’s win that Rashid found satisfying was their consistency despite the scarcity of matches in the tournament. When Afghanistan first joined the Intercontinental Cup in 2009, they played seven matches over 18 months.
The following edition was stretched out by an extra 12 months with the same number of matches. On the other hand, Associates have a far steadier diet of limited-overs fixtures to keep themselves busy. For Rashid, the ability to be dialed in – despite the lengthy stretches between four-day matches – is a testament to the side’s preparation.
“It’s very tough to play a tournament like this in which you have a gap, you play a match, then you have to play T20s, ODIs, then again come back for this tournament,” Rashid said. “So it’s very tough to keep the consistency and we did really well. From the start, they performed and did well in every match.
“Their concentration level was very good. So if you are getting something from a Test nation, you have to be ready for these things. I think the guys switch off, switch on really well in ODIs and T20s and then coming for this format and how to utilise yourself in this cricket. So it feels really good. We had lots of good memories in it and we really enjoyed this.”
Rashid ends the tournament with 23 wickets, tied for fifth overall, but they came in just three games. Up until last December, his focus had been entirely on limited-overs formats and only made his I-Cup debut in March against Ireland. He had already taken 12 wickets on first-class debut against England Lions and the way he left Ed Joyce and the rest of the Irish line-up flummoxed showed he had the capacity to be a Test-match prospect. It continues the remarkable surge Rashid has made since his international debut in an ODI in Zimbabwe in October 2015.
“It was a really special two years for me from when I started against Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe,” Rashid said. “From there on it’s just keeping on. I just try my best to do the basics right and then see the results. I think the motivation I got from team-mates, senior players, the skippers, they really help me.
“Then to come play in big leagues and share the dressing room with them, it really helps me to play under good coaches. So you get a lot of experience from these things and then come to play for the national side. I really enjoyed myself the last two years and really worked hard for it. Inshallah we will try our best to keep continuing it in the future as well.”