At the time of the 2017 Champions Trophy, for those who had seen Mustafizur Rahman, he was close to the most interesting player in the world. For those who hadn't seen his early Bangladesh games, or his one full IPL season - Jonathan Agnew looked at Rahman's figures and assumed he was a spinner during the opening broadcast of the tournament - it was easy to assume he was a fingerspinner because that is, predominantly, the kind of bowler that comes out of Bangladesh. And the thing is, Rahman was a spinner. Just that the magic part was he was doing it at 130kph.
By then, Bangladesh had not only their brightest seam-bowling talent ever - an incredibly unique player - but also one of the world's best. In 2015, he was chosen for the ICC's ODI team of the year. He destroyed India in a series and was picked up for US$200,000 by Sunrisers Hyderabad. When he played in Tests, he could bowl left-arm round the wicket to right-handers and be unplayable. Cricket had not seen a bowler with his skills in a very long time.
But that version of Rahman was already over by the time some were learning about him. By that time, Bangladesh had uncovered a remarkable fast, spinning unicorn and his shoulder had already killed the unicorn.
The 2016 version of Rahman was like an alien. We hadn't seen a bowler like him in the game in living memory. We'd had cutter bowlers like Chris Harris in the 1990s, and we'd then had Benny Howell and Ben Laughlin, who were trying to deliver medium-paced spin. While they all had success, none stormed through the top level of the game.
Bob Appleyard is probably the most recent like-for-like example, and there is no way to do his story justice here. He overcame incredible personal misfortune, including a long hospitalisation losing a chunk of his lung, had his development stunted by World War II, and started playing first-class only when he was 26. But in his first full season for Yorkshire in 1951, he took 200 wickets at 14.14.
"It's clear his arm can still put the revolutions on the ball, especially for the overspinner, but his shoulder can't handle the sideways spin of before"
The next two years he battled serious illness. In 1954, Appleyard returned and took 154 wickets at 14.42. He was picked for England, played nine Tests over two years, and took 31 wickets at 17.87. But by 1956, his shoulder was wrecked, and in 1957 he was being occasionally left out of the Yorkshire team. The next year was his last at Yorkshire. In all, he took 708 first-class wickets at 15.48.
Appleyard bowled lots of things. He was never considered specifically a seam bowler or a spinner. Instead he bowled both, and often combined both. He began as a bowler who would bowl the outswinger early, and then an offspinner later. Over time, the two morphed, and he brought in legcutters and inswing. He could move the ball off the straight with an astonishing number of weapons. And unlike many of the English cutter bowlers of his era, he took 26 cheap wickets on a tour of Australia and would bowl traditional offspin with the same action and technique as that with which he had just bowled swing. No one considered him part of the 1950s cutter movement; he was his own distinct creature.
Before Appleyard, Sydney Barnes described himself as a spinner, even as cricket writers of the day referred to him as a seamer. Barnes - like Appleyard - bowled a combination of spin and pace. And he took 189 wickets in 27 Tests at 16.43. He would have played more if not for his constant wars with authorities.
And that's it for these hybrid fast spinners. Not to say others haven't tried it. Some could bowl spin and pace ably, like Garfield Sobers. But we haven't had many players who use both skills at once, delivering a ball at pace that still turns. But it's clear from the careers of Barnes and Appleyard, that when you do, batters struggle.
Rahman famously tried it after being dared by the wicketkeeper Anamul Haque to try it, and then he wondered if he could bowl fingerspin at a high pace consistently. That was his plan, and for the shortest time, it made him almost unhittable.
A lot of his skill comes from an incredibly flexible wrist, and the ability to impart spin on the ball without losing the pace that other bowlers do. We don't know if Rahman would have put up numbers like Appleyard or Barnes. He only ever bowled in one Test before he injured his shoulder the first time. And for a while in that debut Test, against South Africa at home, nothing that special happened. Then with the score on 173, Rahman dismissed Hashim Amla, JP Duminy and Quinton de Kock in the space of four balls.
We don't know if he could have kept doing this; his numbers since the injury are not great. But at his absolute best, Rahman could bowl left-arm fingerspin at 130kph. He could have bowled around the wicket to right-handers and moved the ball on any surface, at pace. There was a feeling that he could have been found out, but how do you work out someone who can move the ball at pace from that round-the-wicket angle?
In 15 first-class matches before that first injury, his bowling average was 18.38.
The Mumbai Indians collect overseas left-arm seamers like it's a hobby.
That is why they signed Rahman in 2018. You would assume they had done their due diligence on him, knowing the shoulder was not quite what it had been. But there were few bowlers in the world with a bigger upside as a reclamation project.
If you could get Rahman back to what he once was, you potentially had one of the IPL's best bowlers. And part of the plan was for Lasith Malinga to come in and mentor him.
"As he wasn't like a standard seamer, like a pitcher he might have needed more days off between spells. That's probably why seam bowlers haven't bowled spin at pace: bowling quick alone is hard enough on the body"
"He [Rahman] was really good when he had first arrived in international cricket, but people now are expecting more than that," Malinga said at the time. "I think he has confused his skill. He has got very good variation, but I think he needs to focus on his game plan. He has got three or four variations, but he needs to think of how to make use of that variation. I think, at this point, he is a bit aggressive and trying a bit too much. I think I can sharpen that for him."
That was a misunderstanding of what was happening. Essentially, at his best, Rahman only needed three deliveries: the fairly fast straight ball and two cutters. One of those was more like the traditional cutter many bowl but which lost little pace; the other one he ripped like an offbreak with more wrist work on it. He was trying all these other balls because the cutter either couldn't be bowled, or wasn't working as well. He played seven games for Mumbai, averaged 32.85 with an economy of 8.36.
The numbers hint it wasn't ideal, but you got an idea at Mumbai's frustration with him in the Netflix documentary Cricket Fever. Coach Mahela Jayawardene has a reputation in cricket - well-earned - as a friendly, amiable man but you can see him losing patience with Rahman, eventually lashing out at his translator, suggesting Rahman should learn English. In 2019 they released him. But the IPL still remembered that 2016 season, which meant that any uptick in his form might bring a new contract. Sure enough, the Rajasthan Royals were willing to bid on him after some promising form with Bangladesh and a bunch of wickets in a lower-level local league.
It's worth remembering that breakthrough season in 2016, when he averaged 24.76 with an economy of 6.90. But at the death, where he bowled 144 balls, his economy was 7.83. Only three players have ever bowled more at the death in one season than he did: Jasprit Bumrah, Siddarth Kaul and Dwayne Bravo (on three occasions).
The Sunrisers had found a death-bowling star, and they left him there. Teams didn't go out to him, partly because half the time they couldn't get near him. To right-handers, he would start the ball way outside leg stump and then drag it across them. That is an angle that does not exist in cricket. Left-arm bowlers almost never swing the ball away from righties - they angle them across - and they certainly don't start the ball a foot or further outside leg when they do. He bowled 69 balls out of those 180 that ESPNcricinfo recorded as batters not being in control against. Of those - so, more than 11 overs of them - the economy rate was 2.43. Only four other bowlers have delivered 50 balls at the death that batters were not in control of and at an economy of under three. The closest is 0.4 runs an over worse than Rahman that season.
He may not have produced the best season ever, but in 2016 he delivered the most unhittable death balls of any season.
Baseball pitchers impart incredible revolutions that make the ball curve and slide all over the place. But baseball pitchers don't play every game, or in back-to-back games unless they are late-innings specialists with low workloads. Clayton Kershaw has won the Cy Young Award for best pitcher in the National League (in North America) several times. He last won in 2014, when he played only 27 out of his team's 162 games.
If you overuse a pitcher, they get injured, because of the pace they throw at, but also because of the revolutions they impart on each pitch. Pitchers commonly undergo ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction - replacing your elbow tendon with a different tendon from your body. It's called the Tommy John surgery.
Pitchers rest, they are looked after by teams of experts, and still some of them need to borrow another tendon to continue. Back injuries are what we get in cricket for bowlers, not the Tommy John surgery (Shaun Marsh had one of those).
Rahman's shoulder, rather than elbow, was the problem, a tear in his superior labrum from anterior to posterior. Appleyard also had shoulder injuries. It makes sense because bowling fingerspin at maximum pace should injure the shoulder or elbow. Those revs at that speed has to be carefully managed.
In 2016, Rahman only bowled 120 overs. With the Sunrisers as they won the IPL, some internationals for Bangladesh, and then two games for Sussex. It's not a lot of balls. A common refrain was that he was being overbowled. But it's possible he wasn't overbowled in a traditional cricket sense.
Before 2016 he had played 44 professional games. As he wasn't like a standard seamer, like a pitcher he might have needed more days off between spells. That's probably why seam bowlers haven't bowled spin at pace: bowling quick alone is hard enough on the body.
"After seven games with the Royals, he is averaging 28 with an economy of 8.30, and that's down after his 3 for 20 against his old team, the Sunrisers"
After Rahman came England's Pat Brown, a similar bowler. He takes a wicket every 16 balls in T20s. He hasn't had shoulder or elbow problems, but he's had stress fractures in his back, which is maybe the most conventional thing about him. Rahman and Brown will be among the many bowlers like this who will give medical teams and coaches as many wickets as they do headaches.
Ottis Gibson was a brilliant bowler. As Bangladesh's bowling coach, it wouldn't have taken long for him to realise that Rahman was one of the best hopes he had with the new ball. The first step towards fixing him was developing a vital left-arm seam-bowling weapon - an inswinger. It might seem odd to turn one of the most innovative bowlers ever into a standard seamer, but Rahman had never really had the chance to learn the basics earlier.
We haven't seen it as much in this IPL, mostly because the Royals have two other left-arm seamers who need the new ball. But he has swung the ball back in a little at times.
As for his slower balls, there is no extraordinary sideways movement. He does still have a slower ball, with massive revolutions on it. Whereas before it darted off sideways, now he bowls it like a Murali overspinner. It kicks up and is still hard to hit. But while it's still a ball only he could bowl, it's not the kind you can build a career around.
It's clear his arm can still put the revolutions on the ball, especially for the overspinner, but his shoulder can't handle the sideways spin of before.
Playing against Mumbai, the Royals are way behind. Mumbai have promoted Krunal Pandya to take on some match-ups. The commentators are talking about how the two teams are neck and neck in the chase, but Jasprit Bumrah has bowled some overs to restrict the Royals, so they have to take wickets with de Kock at the non-striker's end.
Rahman comes on to bowl the 17th over. His first ball is in the slot, a cutter but in name only. It doesn't deviate wildly and it's not fast either. Pandya smashes it over wide long-on for six. In his glory season, Rahman was hit for seven sixes in 144 balls at the death and in 2018 seven in 51 balls.
The next ball is a quick yorker, and Pandya can only edge it onto his foot. Then it's the offspinning overspinner he now prefers, and Pandya picks it, but is beaten by the bounce. It hits him on the body and goes nowhere. It's this ball that is still uniquely Rahman's, a softer, gentler version of the demon offspinner he once delivered. The next ball is the attempted yorker but ends up as a half volley outside off stump. Pandya tries to smash it and drags it onto his stumps.
By the following Rahman over, Mumbai need nine from 12. There was a time when Rahman would have made it difficult. He doesn't here. de Kock and Kieron Pollard take a boundary each, and they only need three balls to finish the game. If the Royals had Jofra Archer, Rahman would probably only play the odd game. Even without Archer, he still may not play the entire season. In fact, he is due back with Bangladesh on May 20. After seven games with the Royals, he is averaging 28 with an economy of 8.30, and that's down after his 3 for 20 against his old team, the Sunrisers. There have been times he's looked as good as these numbers, and others whem he's only just been holding on.
There has been no fairy tale in this comeback yet. The magic he once had is gone. He was a cricketing unicorn, and now he's another battling bowler thrown into the death overs to survive.
There are few players with the natural talent of Rahman. There are even fewer who start with that talent, lose the thing that makes them successful, and find another way to stay. He will be hit for more boundaries now but for someone who entered cricket with one of the rarest gifts ever, only to have it wreck his body, just to be back to be hit for boundaries is success.
He made it to the IPL twice, as a unicorn first and now as another left-arm seamer. Most people don't get there even once.