Ranked third and tenth in the world, Afghan mystery spinners Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman will undoubtedly be a major focus of Australia’s planning sessions – and the world’s media – in the build-up to their World Cup opener on Saturday.
But the spectre of another Afghan BBL star, veteran allrounder Mohammad Nabi, also looms large over the clash at Bristol’s County Ground that will signal the start of Australia’s title defence.
As the third-prong of a triple spin attack and a vital part of Afghanistan’s middle order, the 34-year-old will be pivotal if one of the tournament underdogs are to take the big scalp of the five-time world champions this weekend.
Despite his success at international level and in global T20 leagues over the past five years, Nabi has regularly failed to grab the media attention of his more unorthodox teammates.
While the mystery of Rashid and Mujeeb confound batsmen and captivate spectators in equal measure, Nabi is cut from more traditional cloth. A cricketer’s cricketer, he bowls conventional off-spin in an era where mystery spin is in vogue, is a reliable fielder and is solid rather than flashy with bat in hand.
But Andrew McDonald, who coached Nabi during the Melbourne Renegades’ title-winning run in the KFC BBL last summer, says the veteran’s greatest asset is above his shoulders.
“I just think he’s a really intelligent cricketer,” McDonald told cricket.com.au this week.
“In the Afghanistan team, there’s always a lot of discussion around Rashid Khan. He’s taken the spotlight and there’s a little bit more mystery around what he does.
“(Nabi is) the sort of player that flies under the radar.
“Not many people knew about him before he came in (to the Renegades) a few seasons ago. He was a little bit unknown. But within the cricket world he commands great respect and lot of people know what he can do.
“There’s not a lot of mystery about him. He’s conventional, but he just continues to get the job done.”
Nabi’s ability to simply “get the job done”, as McDonald puts it, was underlined in Afghanistan’s two warm-up games this week.
Against Pakistan, his haul of 3-46 from 10 overs – including two vital wickets in the 12th over of the match – was followed by a valuable cameo of 34 with the bat that helped to steer his side to a three-wicket win.
And against England on Monday, Nabi’s 42-ball innings of 44 helped lift his side from a perilous 8-92 to a score of 160 before he took the only wicket as the tournament favourites stormed to a nine-wicket victory.
Nabi’s ability to ice an innings with some lusty blows, save his side after the loss of early wickets and bowl at any stage during the innings has made him a valuable commodity on the world T20 circuit. In addition to the Big Bash, he’s played in the domestic leagues of Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, the Caribbean, England and his homeland, showing the versatility that has made him a favourite at the Renegades.
“You’re always a little bit wary about bringing subcontinent players to Australia, but his ability to adapt to conditions in the Big Bash has been great and indicative of a smart cricketer,” McDonald said.
“We’re in an era of mystery spinners and the conventional spinner has been lost a bit in the conversation, but there’s still a lot of guys who can play a role.
“I can’t speak much for him in 50-over cricket, but in T20s he can bowl overs 1 to 20. He has an ability to close out an innings as an off-spinner, so he might bowl in the last 10 overs as well.”
Despite the temptation to focus on the undeniable threat of Rashid and Mujeeb, the Australians are unlikely to overlook Nabi in their planning this week. A title-winning teammate of skipper Aaron Finch and fast bowler Kane Richardson at the Renegades, Nabi has also enjoyed great success as a teammate of David Warner at Sunrisers Hyderabad in the IPL.
Such is the strength of Afghanistan’s bowling unit that is built around their mystery spinners, McDonald expects Nabi’s most significant role in Bristol on Saturday – and the focus of Australia’s strategy sessions – will be the danger he poses with bat in hand.
“They’ll probably put a little bit more time into him with the bat,” he said. “In that team, he’s very important with the bat.
“If there’s any weakness with Afghanistan, it’s probably their top order, which would really expose their middle and that makes Nabi’s role really important.”
2019 World Cup
Australia’s squad: Aaron Finch (c), Jason Behrendorff, Alex Carey (wk), Nathan Coulter-Nile, Pat Cummins, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Shaun Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Kane Richardson, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Marcus Stoinis, David Warner, Adam Zampa
May 22: (warm-up) Australia beat West Indies by seven wickets
May 25: (warm-up) Australia beat England by 12 runs
May 27: (warm-up) Australia beat Sri Lanka by five wickets
June 9: India v Australia, The Oval
June 12: Australia v Pakistan, Taunton
June 15: Sri Lanka v Australia, The Oval
June 20: Australia v Bangladesh, Trent Bridge
June 25: England v Australia, Lord’s
July 9: Semi-Final 1, Old Trafford
July 11: Semi-Final 2, Edgbaston
July 14: Final, Lord’s
For a full list of all World Cup fixtures, click HERE