Would you like to hear my totally baseless World Twenty20-related conspiracy theory about Bangladesh’s “mystery” medium-pace bowler Mustafizur Rahman? The answer to this question is almost certainly: “No, no thank you, I’m fine thanks.” But I’m going to tell you it anyway.
So, how about that Mustafizur Rahman? A shy, skinny left-armer from a village near Satkhira on the southwest border, Mustafizur has enjoyed a sensational eight-month rise. Check out the stats, stats fans. To date, Mustafizur has bowled a total of 824 balls in international cricket. Including consecutive five-fors in his first two ODIs, his cross-format wicket haul now stands at 43 at 14 runs apiece. At last month’s IPL auction he was bought for £150,000 by the Sunrisers Hyderabad.
So far, it is a rare kind of cricketing pop-stardom, an embodiment of the T20 dream: kid from the village enters the franchise stellar-sphere. The boy from Satkhira is currently the most Googled person in Bangladesh. MS Dhoni even deigned to jostle him during the India series last year. Despite the fact I’ve never actually seen him play live, or understood anything he has said in his interviews on YouTube, or seen him do anything other than take wickets and awkwardly high-five his team-mates in highlights packages, he is undoubtedly my favourite international cricketer right now.
Mainly this is down to his method. Mustafizur isn’t quick. He doesn’t swing the ball much or have a snorting bouncer. He is, on the face of it, a deeply everyday statistically freaky medium-pace tyro. He does, though, have his own superpower in the shape of a subtle and apparently devastating mystery variation.
Blessed with a freakishly supple wrist that can snap through 90 degrees at the point of release, Mustafizur has found he can make the white ball jump and stop alarmingly without any change of action once the shine has scuffed and there’s a bit of grip about. It is a homemade skill, a cutter he learned in the nets while also weaning himself out of hopping off the wrong foot. It works too. His highlights reel is already stuffed with batsmen spooning drive-length balls to cover before trudging off swinging their bat helplessly through the line of some imaginary half-volley.
And now with the World T20 in India only a week away, it turns out he is injured. On Monday, Bangladesh announced their most devastating bowler had a strained rib, enough to keep him out of this week’s Asia Cup games.
My own theory: they’re holding him back. This theory, which is based on absolutely no inside knowledge whatsoever, no whispers, no hard facts, states that Bangladesh are instead preparing to unleash their Agent X on the unwitting batsmen of Ireland, the Netherlands and – most likely – New Zealand and Australia.
A World T20 in India is a serious opportunity. Why risk the mystery man? “We are expecting he will make a quick recovery,” Bangladesh’s physio said this week. Me too, old chum, me too.
Once again, I must emphasise this theory is based on absolutely no information, research or inside knowledge. It is instead wishful thinking. I don’t want him to be injured, or normal. I want him to be special. In his own way – or rather in the way I’m so keen to force upon him – Mustafizur, the Mustafizur of the imagination, is the player I’ve been waiting for since it became clear T20 cricket really was opening up a new kind of fever to play and watch.
Those who are evangelical about the shortest form often talk about a lack of due analytical attention for its skill levels and innovations. And yet, even as someone who loves watching T20, it is still a puzzle that the game remains, despite its altered tempo and texture, the odd crowingly received ramp or scoop, basically a high-speed version of the orthodox, a tinkering with what we had.
Batting strike rates have rocketed. Sixes and fours are swatted to unusual areas. But there could be so much more. Where are the real innovators, the T20 babes, kings of the new frontier? Bowling in particular is still essentially the same as it was 60 years ago: pace, swing, seam, leg-spin, off-break. Some have tried. The doosra looked like something new but it has been redefined as cheating in pretty much any form, never mind the extreme skill and flexibility required even to chuck it properly.
It is interesting to imagine how Mustafizur might have got on in England, where the unorthodox and the quirky – key elements of the fast-twitch game of bluff that is white-ball cricket – have never really been embraced in sport. A few years back the super-flexy doosra bowler Maurice Holmes was warned and regulated out of county cricket, when another approach might have been to nurture and cultivate.
More happily, Jos Buttler has thrived as the most successful mildly unorthodox English cricketer of the new age, feet clamped in leg irons while those beautifully destructive hands whir away, with something nobly doomed in the way he simply stands there swatting magnificently as another innings subsides, like some frock-coated lieutenant propped up against the sandbags, a bayonet through each knee, still brandishing his sword-stick as the Boers come swarming over the blockade.
It will be fascinating to see Mustafizur close up when he turns out for Sussex this summer in very different conditions. Before then, the Jump-Ball Kid gets to inflict his delicate mystery in front of the watching world in India. No doubt the numbers will drop off a bit, the cutter finding itself unpicked (already there is talk of a telling change in his grip at the end of his run: stop it, stop that).
Probably the significance of the Mustafizur Supremacy is the nature of his rise. The change here is simply opportunity and interest, never mind the search for new forms. If cricket can make an instant star of a tennis ball cricketer with a flappy wrist who not so long ago was riding his brother’s bike 30 miles just to play a game, you get the feeling something, somewhere is heading the right way.
This article was first published in theguardian.com