International Cricket

Overcoming nerves of a historic Test debut, Afghanistan expose India’s batting frailties

After tons by their openers, India’s middle-order imploded as the visitors staged a comeback in the final session following a sorry start to their debut Test.

Making a Test debut is a feeling not many aspiring cricketers get to experience in their lifetime. It’s an honour reserved for only a select few.

On Thursday, it was the turn of the Afghanistan team to experience the feeling collectively as India hosted the cricketers from the war-torn country for their first-ever Test match in history.

And nerves were obviously a factor.

The occasion was such that the odd hiccup was expected for Afghanistan. That the pressure would faze both sides in a span of a day was a development not many expected.

Sorry start

After being asked to field first, Afghanistan’s bowlers looked completely off-colour as India’s openers went after them. Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay notched up centuries. The former, in fact, reached the mark before the players broke for lunch, becoming the only Indian to have achieved the feat on day one of a Test.

However, after a double disruption due to rain in the middle of the day, Afghanistan’s nervousness seemed to have vanished come the final session. The side made a valiant fightback to not only show off their resolve but also expose the vulnerability of the Indian batting order in star Virat Kohli’s absence.

Nerves of playing in their first-ever Test for the visitors, but, it was their hosts who also had their moments of brain fade.

Even without Kohli, not many would have doubted the ability of the Indian batsmen to keep debutants Afghanistan at bay on day one of a Test match.

All it took was one session to throw this presumption out the window. Wicket after wicket fell in the final third of the day as India slumped from 280/1 to 347/6 at stumps.

Afghanistan’s bowlers who’s shoulders were drooping at one stage had suddenly found an extra skip in their steps.

Learning from mistakes

Afghanistan’s bowlers pulled off a Jekyll and Hyde on India.

In the morning session, there was hardly any pressure on the Indian opening pair. Despite a tinge of green on the wicket, the visitors let slip the advantage early on because of inconsistency in their lines. Not just the pacers, but even the spinners could not find their footing. Star bowler Rashid Khan, who was anointed as the frontline attacking bowler, faltered early on. He tried to adopt a gamut of variations and messed up his first spell by spinning himself in a bind, trying to do too many things too soon.

Dhawan, in particular, went on the attack. The star spinner was a prime target of the Indian opener. Rashid was smashed around the park and leaked over a 100 runs without getting a wicket by the tea break.

The final session, though, saw Rashid comeback with renewed vigour. In fact, all the Afghan players had their tail up. They would have the India’s batsmen to thank.

The middle-order folded pretty quickly after the openers’ exit. Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara seemed to have been overawed by the pressure as Vijay and KL Rahul fell in quick succession after sharing a century-partnership. Rahane was trapped in front by Rashid, who finally found some momentum after a tough day in the office till that point. He nearly had a second as Pujara edged one to Mohammad Nabi at first slip. The fielder, though, made amends in the next over with a diving catch to dismiss Pujara off Mujeeb Ur Rahman. The spell of play turned the complexion of the game, as Afghanistan had momentum on their side.

The bowlers seemed to have learned from their mistakes. The focus was on line and length, and setting up a trap rather than trying variations. Rashid, in particular,used his leg break more frequently - and altering his pace and length to keep the batsmen on edge. He interspersed it with the odd googly to shake the batsmen’s confidence. Mujeeb too kept up the pressure from the other end.

Dinesh Karthik soon felt the pinch and was run-out after resisting a prolonged spell of intense pressure from the Afghan bowlers. India had suddenly lost five wickets for just 99 runs in the final session, a stark contrast from the first session that saw them score 158 runs for no loss.

With no Kohli to anchor the middle-order, the batting-order looked unstable. Pujara, who came in at No 4, seemed circumspect and played tentatively through his presence in the middle. As did Rahane. Rahul threw away his wicket after getting a start. His dismissal came at an inopportune time as Vijay had just returned to the hut.

If this was the final audition ahead of the England tour then the middle-order clearly failed to give a good account of themselves.

Thankfully for the India, the openers have done enough to keep the advantage tilted slightly in their side’s favour. But the fact can’t be discarded that the bulk of the runs scored by the openers came while the Afghans were trying to control their own jangling nerves.

It is unlikely that England will afford India the same luxury.

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