India v Afghanistan
M Chinnaswamy Stadium, Bengaluru
Wednesday 13 June, 4am GMT, 9.30am local
First things first: 14 June is a momentous occasion in the history of the game, as Afghanistan become the 12th Test-playing nation, capping a journey that has been as exhilarating as it has been dramatic. If sport is about the triumph of the human spirit, Afghanistan’s rise as a cricket team has had all the ingredients of an award-winning story. On Thursday, at Bengaluru’s M Chinnaswamy Stadium, they will add the latest, and perhaps most glorious yet, chapter in that story by making their Test debut.
Like Ireland just a few days ago, Afghanistan are not in it to just be in it. They are going out to win, and they have talked the talk in the lead up to the game. “In my opinion, we have good spinners, better spinners than India,” said Asghar Stanikzai, the Afghanistan captain, the other day.
Look at the squad: Rashid Khan, arguably the best short-format wrist-spinner in the world, is the leader of the attack. Him aside, there’s Mujeeb Ur Rahman, the finger spinner who moves the ball both ways and is extremely difficult to get away. Mohammad Nabi has been picking up wickets with his off-spin for a decade or so now. And there’s Zahir Khan, the left-arm wrist-spinner with 34 wickets from seven first-class games.
Stanikzai’s confidence is well founded, except that, of course, none of them have played Test cricket, and how they go over five days is anybody’s guess. If the track at the Chinnaswamy aids spinners, they will be in business all right. But, as Karun Nair pointed out – “All our spinners are proven wicket-takers in Test cricket, so there is nothing much to say there” – in Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav, India have a spin attack with great pedigree; Yadav is young, but Jadeja and Ashwin are the No.4 and No.5 bowlers in the MRF Tyres Test Player Rankings respectively.
Both the teams are more than just their spinners. Afghanistan’s batting might have looked a bit under-cooked in the ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifier 2018, but in Mohammad Shahzad, Stanikzai himself, Rahmat Shah, Nabi, Javed Ahmadi and others, there’s a pack of batsmen who have scored lot of runs against varied bowling attacks in different parts of the world over the years. Not in Test cricket, as we must remind ourselves again, but there’s no reason to believe they can’t hold their own.
How they go against the Indian spinners, as well as a strong pace attack headlined by Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav, remains to be seen, but Afghanistan should also be confident because the Indians are without some of their regulars for one reason or another.
Virat Kohli, the talismanic Indian captain, had opted out of the Test to prepare for the tour of England later in the year with a stint at Surrey before going down with a neck injury. In his absence, Ajinkya Rahane will lead India, and Rahane won’t have the services of many players who have played key roles in making India the No.1 Test team in the world. Bhuvneshwar Kumar has been rested, as is the case with Jasprit Bumrah. Rohit Sharma isn’t there either. And both Wriddhiman Saha, India’s first-choice Test wicket-keeper, and Mohammed Shami have withdrawn from the match with injuries.
Six frontline options not being available would hurt any team, but you don’t become the best Test team in the world without enough bench strength. India still have a formidable line-up, which will be put to the test by a confident bunch of debutants, players who have already done more than many would have expected of them in a very short time, but men who will be desperate to do more than just make up the numbers.
Dinesh Karthik (India): The 33-year-old wicket-keeper batsman made his Test debut back in 2004, but with Mahendra Singh Dhoni first and then Wriddhiman Saha India’s preferred options with the big gloves, Karthik has played just 23 Tests over the years. Now a prominent player in the limited-overs teams, Karthik has got a rare opportunity to make a mark in Saha’s absence, and going by his rise in the other formats, it could be the break he was waiting for. Behind and in front of the stumps, expect him to make a difference.
Mohammad Nabi (Afghanistan): Yes, there’s Rashid, up at the top of the batting order is Shahzad, in the middle Stanikzai and Shah, but there’s something to be said for experience when it comes to the big occasion, and there aren’t many better cricketers – or ambassadors of the game – than the 33-year-old off-spinner and dependable middle-order batsman. Nabi has been key to most things great in Afghanistan cricket for the best part of a decade, and on this historic occasion, expect him to play a key role.
It’s been raining on and off in Bengaluru for the last few days, and the forecast for Thursday is of more dark skies and downpours. It comes and goes in the city, though, and while there may be interruptions through the day, we should have some play on what is expected to be a good pitch for Test cricket.
India: Ajinkya Rahane (c), Ravichandran Ashwin, Shikhar Dhawan, Ravindra Jadeja, Dinesh Karthik (wk), Kuldeep Yadav, Karun Nair, Hardik Pandya, Cheteshwar Pujara, KL Rahul, Navdeep Saini, Ishant Sharma, Murali Vijay, Shardul Thakur, Umesh Yadav.
Afghanistan: Asghar Stanikzai (c), Afsar Zazai, Amir Hamza, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Ihsanullah, Javed Ahmadi, Mohammad Nabi, Mohammad Shahzad (wk), Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Nasir Jamal, Rahmat Shah, Rashid Khan, Sayed Shirzad, Wafadar, Yamin Ahmadzai, Zahir Khan.