Afghanistan cricket has come a long way. Its cricketers, most of whom have braved violence in their homeland, will on Thursday finally see their toil find fruition as they step onto the field to play their first-ever Test match. That it comes against India – the most high-profile team around – only makes the tie memorable.
While a few Indian fans might be right in considering Afghanistan as minnows, the challenge for the hosts might not be as straightforward. While the tie on paper looks lop-sided in favour of India, individual players from Afghanistan have proved in the past couple of years that they are more than capable of putting up an impressive show on the big stage.
Star spinner Rashid Khan leads the charge for his side. The 19-year-old has been a revelation since bursting onto the scene two years ago. His prowess in the limited-overs format has been well-documented. An impressive show in the recently-concluded Indian Premier League, even saw him garner praise from batting maestro Sachin Tendulkar. The leg-spinner picked up 21 wickets and was the second-highest wicket-taker in the tournament.
His presence as a potential match-winner is one of the key reasons why most cricket followers would be reticent about calling this encounter in favour of India in the lead-up to the toss. A few barbs have already been exchanged between the two sides to add a bit of spice to the encounter.
“In my opinion we have better spinners than India,” Afghanistan captain Asghar Stanikzai told reporters on the eve of the clash. Along with Rashid, the Afghan squad also includes Mujeeb Ur Rahman, who was also one of the bright spots in the IPL.
The challenge, though, for these promising youngsters would be to prove they can stand the stresses of a five-day match. Thankfully for Afghanistan, the conditions won’t be alien. They have been training in India since 2015 owing to the security concerns in Afghanistan.
Getting into the groove
According to former Afghanistan coach and ex-India cricketer Lalchand Rajput, the team has enough potential to hit the ground running in the five-day format.
“For a spinner in Test cricket, the key is to never get upset if dispatched for one or two boundaries,” said Rajput. “No one is ever going to hit you for six sixes or six boundaries in an over.
“So one should never curtail their attacking style while bowling in the longest format. If these bowlers can stick to this resolve they will not face any difficulties in combating batsmen in the longest format.” Rajput added.
Rashid, he feels, has shown the right temperament needed to bridge the gap between the shortest format and the longest.
“If you see Rashid, he doesn’t compromise on his wicket-taking deliveries even in the shortest format,” said Rajput, who stepped down from the Afghanistan role earlier this year.
“His stock delivery is the leg-break, but despite the threat of being smashed around in T20, he has stuck to it. In fact, he has now perfected the delivery further and even improved on his googly which has brought him more success,” he added.
Most bowlers tend to adopt a defensive bowling style in the shorter formats. For someone like Rashid, who has largely played T20 over the course of the last year, it would have been the easier route. Thankfully for him, he has stuck to his attacking style, even perfecting it, a trait Rajput feels will keep him in good stead in Tests.
While bowling style is an important component, the challenges of Test cricket go beyond the technicalities and sometimes depend largely on which side is mentally tougher.
That this will be Afghanistan have never played five-day cricket puts them at a disadvantage almost immediately, however, Rajput reasons that the lack of experience is circumstantial and not reflective of the side’s actual ability.
“When I took over in 2016, the team had little experience apart from playing one-day cricket,” said Rajput who was at the helm of affairs of the side for over a year. “To train them in the longer format, we organised three-day and four-day games against local teams and the Uttar Pradesh Ranji Trophy team.”
“It was during these clashes that we hoped they would pick up the nuances and patience required to play through a five-day game. To keep oneself motivated and physically fit for multiple days is a task which is easier said than done. But this team took to it naturally.
“This side scored over 600 runs during a four-day game against Ireland. There is immense potential, which is why the International Cricket Council expedited their progress into Test cricket,” he added. In that match, Stanaksai and Afsar Zazai had both notched up hundreds while Mohammad Sahzad had scored a half-century.
Afghanistan, though, are facing an opposition that has been all conquering at home. Other than the absence of skipper Virat Kohli, India go into the encounter with a full-strength unit. Like most home games, they will want to dictate how the match plays out.
The visitors, however, will want to disrupt the practice. Rashid will be key for them in this regard. Will he be able to deliver the goods? It’s a question only he can answer, not with words but with the ball.