They call him “The Fizz.” To others, he is the “cutter”. He is, in many ways, still a 20-year old boy. He needs his captain Mashrafe Mortaza – himself a crafty veteran bowler – to communicate for him in post-match speeches. And there have already been quite a few instances like this. He is less than a year old in international cricket. The world knows him as the ‘greatest talent to come out of Bangladesh since Shakib Al Hasan.’ And rightly so.
How Bangladesh wish they had discovered him earlier in 2015. They reached the quarterfinals of the 2015 Cricket World Cup and lost to India. If they had Mustafizur Rahman, they would probably have been in the semis. Such has been the impact of the young medium pacer on his nation’s fortunes. In June 2015, the wiry bowler made his ODI debut against India in the 3-match ODI series. He took a fifer in his first match, and a sixer in his second. He finished the series with 13 wickets – a world record for the highest number of wickets in a debut series. Just like that, Bangladesh had their first-ever ODI bilateral series victory over rivals India.
Against the visiting South Africans a month later, he took 5 wickets in 3 matches to help Bangladesh record their first ever bilateral series victory over them. Not many had remembered that he had actually made his international debut in a lone T20 international against Pakistan in April – a little more than a year ago, where he took the wickets of Shahid Afridi and Mohammed Hafeez. He beat both of them with slower off-cutters. The signs were there.
He has taken 25 wickets in his first 9 ODIs, and recently took a five-for against New Zealand in the World T20 Championship. Right now, he is capturing the world’s imagination as part of the Sunrisers Hyderabad in the biggest T20 league in the world. He is only one of two Bangladeshi cricketers (Shakib being the other) to play in this league, and also to be included in an ICC World Team at the end of the year. He was in the ODI XI in 2015, the first ever from his nation to be a part of it.
But it isn’t about the numbers. Many bowlers have had promising starts and fizzled out later in their careers. Stuart Clark, the Aussie medium pacer, comes to mind immediately. In 2015, Rahman was one of two pacers along with Kagiso Rabada from South Africa to hit the world scene running.
Only, Mustafizur is still running. He took the wickets of a marauding AB de Villiers and Shane Watson in his first Sunrisers game, and destroyed Punjab in his fifth game to record astonishing figures of 2 for 9 in 4 overs. His economy rate is the least in the tournament’s history so far. Those numbers aren’t likely to change. Not a single Punjab batsman could lay bat on ball – forget hit it convincingly – and his variations bamboozled the best of them. He has a cutter that bounces outside leg stump and ends up stretching the keeper outside off. He is responsible for arguably the ball of the decade after cleaning up giant Andre Russell with a toe-crushing yorker – that ended up with Russell’s face on the pitch and Rahman gently celebrating his achievement while jogging towards the keeper. He is a pleasant-faced boy, and almost nobody (except the batsmen who he dismisses) can begrudge him his early success.
I haven’t really switched on a television set specially for a bowler since the retirement of Wasim Akram and Shane Warne. With Rahman, I eagerly follow every stride till his run-up, and watch closely if I can read his wrists (I almost never can; neither can the batsmen). Sometimes, they snap and send down a quick one way beyond his years, and at times, they send down a slower ball that never seems to reach the confused batsman. It is a work of art – these subtle variations – and none more than his dreaded off-cutters, with which he has gotten 70% of his wickets. AB de Villiers slogged across it and fell, and when Watson expected it he got a quicker one down the leg side. Only the 19-year old Sarfaraz Khan fought fire with fire – India’s young star was the only batsman who actually managed to read the ball from Rahman’s hands instead of the pitch. For one of the spinning, swinging cutters (which most batsmen leave, thinking the ball won’t end up reaching their off-stump), Khan simply swiveled, played late and lofted the ball behind square – which seemed simple enough till it was actually done.
Sunrisers have only played 5 matches, which means they have 9 more to go. More importantly, we have 9 more games where we can watch the best left-arm bowler (not just young) in the world run in and terrorize batsmen by looking harmless and friendly – until that ball leaves his hand with a swoosh that isn’t too different from other swooshes.