Noor Ahmad, 18, a mystery spinner with nerves of steel

Maybe growing up in the hostile environment of embattled Afghanistan is what gives someone like Ahmad his yen to not just survive, but emerge a champion

Noor Ahmad in the Gujarat Titans uniform
Noor Ahmad in the Gujarat Titans uniform

Gautam Bhattacharyya

It seems Rashid Khan, one of the most consistent matchwinners in the IPL since his arrival in 2017, now has competition. Noor Ahmad Lakanwal, the left-arm wrist spinner and already a teenage sensation in Afghanistan, showed a lot of heart as he provided the X-factor in the Gujarat Titans attack when the champions handed the Mumbai Indians a 55-run defeat at home on Tuesday.

Their fifth win in seven matches now has the Titans sitting pretty in the second position in the table—and more importantly, promises a variety to their spin bowling attack that will not allow their future opponents to relax. If teams in the past had adopted the strategy of playing out the enigmatic Rashid’s four overs, they may not have that luxury with the 18-year-old Noor attacking in tandem.

 ‘’I can’t pick the googlies of Noor (at the nets),’’ was a frank admission from young Abhinav Manohar Sadarangani, who emerged as Man of the Match with a quickfire 42 for the winners—which was instrumental in taking the Titans' total past the two hundred mark. Noor’s final haul was 3 for 37, against his senior partner’s 2 for 27. Noor's scalps included Cameron Green, impact player Tilak Varma and Tim David.

The Afghan impact, even after the Taliban takeover, is clearly on the rise in the most cash-rich T20 league in the world. It started with Rashid Khan casting his spell immediately on arrival for the Sunrisers Hyderabad, with former national skipper Mohammed Nabi playing a supporting role. Off-spinner Mujeeb Ur Rahman also made his presence felt for a brief while for the the Punjab Kings and then the Sunrisers. Rahman, however, went unsold in the last auction. On the other hand, Rahmanullah Gurbaz— playing his first IPL as an opener from the Kolkata Knight Riders—has not looked a misfit in the limited opportunities he has had so far.

Ahmad is now the new kid on the block, who shows no signs of getting overawed by the occasion and already has six wickets to show from his three matches. This vindicates the claim of Hikmat Hassan, an erstwhile Afghan board official, that Afghanistan is the 'spin capital' of the world at the moment. Tall claim? Not quite, if the recent performances are anything to go by!

There is no doubt that Rashid Khan may have had a hand in influencing the Titans' management to rope in young Ahmad for a base price of Rs 30 lakh in the mini auction last December. "It's great to have him in the side and sharing the bowling partnership with him since last year. That kid, he just wants to learn and he's working so hard. Last year, the way he was working—bowling lots in the nets, kept asking the questions...!"’ gushed superstar Khan after their win on Tuesday.

"Even when I was in the gym, he was coming to the gym and saying, 'Let’s bowl here at the gym!' At 1 am, 2 am, he was bowling with me in the gym. He wanted to get better and perform. He got the opportunity and he's been delivering. I am so happy for him… It’s great news for [the Gujarat Titans] and also for Afghanistan," Khan said.

Hailing from a village called Lakan, Ahmad has already had his debut in international cricket with one ODI and a T20 for Afghanistan. Like Khan, Ahmad’s village is located in the Khost province in the south-eastern part of the war-torn country—the same as Rahman—where instances of militancy and strife are routine affairs.

Maybe growing up in such a stressful environment and battling the odds is what gives someone like Ahmad nerves of steel.

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