Afghanistan cricket team, with spinners Rashid Khan and Mujeeb ur Rahman as trump cards, is confident of making a good account of themselves in the maiden Test vs India which begins in Bengaluru on Thursday, June 14.
Asghar Stanikzai is a man at peace. The captain of the Afghanistan team raised a few eyebrows in the lead-up to his country’s first Test match (starting June 14) when he suggested that the visiting team’s spinners were better than host Indian cricket team’s. You expect a captain to back his players and there was no hint of disrespect or cockiness in his statement. So, when Stanikzai was asked if he was nervous ahead of his country’s first Test match, his answer did not come as a surprise: “Nervous? That is the first time I’m hearing that word.”
Anticipation can trump nerves, and Afghanistan know that they are rank outsiders against the No. 1 ranked Test team in the world. Why, if the Bangalore weather holds — rains have dotted every single day in the recent past and even on match eve Afghanistan’s practice session was greeted by an enthusiastic shower — most experts do not expect this match to go the distance.
The prime reason for this is Afghanistan’s approach to the international cricket they have played. While mystery spinners and zippy medium pacers abound, Afghanistan’s batsmen have not been the kind to take an old-fashioned approach to the game. They are fearless, for sure, and play some electric shots, but that is hardly the need of the hour in a five-day game. Playing your natural game can only take you thus far and at the highest level it is adapting to conditions and reading match situations that separate the good from the ordinary.
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Afghanistan’s spinners have caught all the attention so far, and not without reason. Rashid Khan is one of the hottest properties going in world cricket, his leg break that looks like a googly and googly that looks like something developed on the dusty tracks of rural Afghanistan are causing all manner of problems to batsmen.
At 19 he is the experienced mentor of the spin camp, with
Mujeeb ur Rahman, who celebrated his 17th birthday only two months ago, all set to roll out his bag of offbreaks, leg breaks, carom balls and googlies. Incredibly, Mujeeb learnt a lot of his tricks watching YouTube videos — notably of R Ashwin, who he will be up against — and bowling his heart out in solitude.
Conscious of the threat these two pose, India are hoping the pitch will be hard, and a touch green. But Phil Simmons, coach of the Afghanistan team, did not think this would make a difference.
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“When I played with them in Ireland, it was a little bit greener than this and it still turned. I think the bowlers are experienced enough to turn on that. It looks a lot darker today than it did two days ago, so I think by the time tomorrow comes it will be dry enough to spin on it,” said Simmons, while backing up his captain’s confidence in his spinners.
“My captain knows what he is talking about. When you look at it, all spinners in this contest will be excellent. We know that right now, Rashid is the most difficult spinner to play around. He has not played Test cricket. We have to look and see what happens. but his professionalism will help him to adjust and am sure he will come out well.”
When Simmons was asked if his team was a touch disappointed that Virat Kohli would not be playing this Test, he cracked a smile. “I think there will always be a bit of disappointment in the players not to be on the same field as Virat, but at the same time we look at it as win the Test match and beat India, we don't beat Virat,” said Simmons. “So we are disappointed he is not playing but little bit happy that we are not going to bowl to him all the time. We are happy to be here and playing India, Virat is not India.”
Back home in Afghanistan, the excitement is naturally at fever pitch, and Stanikzai knew that expectations had been raised by their recent short-form success. “It is history that we are playing the inaugural and historical Test match against the No. 1 team in the world. The mood back home is that they are very positive and supportive and looking forward to the best performance,” said Stanikzai. “They expect us to perform well because we’ve done really well in the T20 and ODI and their expectation will be the same from us in this Test.”
The first step though is to enjoy the occasion, and allow the gravity of the moment to set in.