Joe Root is arguably England’s finest player of spin in the sub-continent this century. But Mujeeb-Ur-Rahman flummoxed with a simple piece of trick. In their early exchanges, Root stepped out and met him on the full to get used to his deception. Mujeeb played along. When Root gets confident, he tends to play spinners off the back-foot, with the turn and using those dexterous hands to stub out the danger, if any.
But here, he lost to Mubeeb the battle of skills as well as wits. He slipped in the off-break — his change-up ball, and therein is the irony of being Mujeeb — that rushed him through the gate to hit the stumps. The ball kept a trifle low, Mujeeb had released this from a slightly lower trajectory. He has an unorthodox grip too, as he holds the ball between the thumb and forefinger. The middle finger acts as a hand-rest, as he releases the ball with a wristy flourish. The carom ball — his stock ball — would later devour Harry Brook, before the googly, which he floats more than other variations, nailed Chris Woakes.
He is classified as an off-spinner, but one that rarely bowls the off-breaks. He corrects the assumption in self-introductions. “Mujeeb-Ur-Rahman, mystery spinner from Khost, Afghanistan,” was how he described in an intro video for his previous Big Bash League team. In another interview, with the Sunrisers Hyderabad channel, he wonders why he is categorized as an off-spinner and asserts himself: “Call me a carrom-ball spinner.”
It’s an apt description, for he primarily bowls carrom ball and purchases most of his wickets with this finger-flicker. There is no more a compulsive carrom-ball practitioner than Mujeeb either; there are few better executors of the ball either. Most bowlers employ it as a variation, or a change-up or a novelty ball. But Mujeeb uses this all the time — not because that’s the only ball he bowls but also because that’s the best he has. Just like a googly-bowler — as his teammate Rashid Khan is often referred to — or like an off-spinner or a leg-spinner, why not term him carrom-ball bowler?
Apart from Root, luminous right-handed victims include Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers. In short, Mujeeb works on the inverse logic that batsmen are troubled by the balls that leave them and not come back into them. What confounds the batsman most is that he has a similar grip for both carrom ball and wrong’un. He holds the ball between the index finger and the thumb, with the middle finger under the ball like a cushion, before it propels the ball in anti-clockwise direction. The fundamentals are the same for the wrong’un, only that the release is from the back of the hand. There are other minute clues too. The wrong’un tends to be floatier, and hence turns more prodigiously than the carrom ball. He also bends more and the release point is a fraction lower. But most batsmen watch his grip for clues and they find nothing.
There are more variations that he sparingly uses like the under-cutter, a reverse under-cutter, and an in-swinging yorker that he bowls with an angled seam and a slightly quicker action. On how he has developed all these variations he once explained in a Brisbane Heats video: “My first coach is Youtube. I learnt the carrom ball by watching Ashwin, Narine and Mendis bowling it. Then I would try those a thousand times at home or when playing with my friends. Then I began to experiment with different grips and different releases, and automatically mastered the variations,” he says.
But whichever variation he develops in his bowling lab, he reproduces it in a match only when he has acquired utmost control of bowling it. Little wonder then that his quest for experiments is matched only by his accuracy. He rarely bowls short or full, or strays on the leg-side; rather he always looks to land the ball on off-stump or just outside it. “There is not much room for error to bowl wide so I have tried to bowl wicket-to-wicket,” he said after his most memorable World Cup spell.
This is a deadly blend — accuracy, aggression and variations. Call him a mystery spinner as he says in self-introductions. Root too would approve.