Afghanistan couldn’t have had a tougher initiation into Test cricket, against the No.1 side in the world, but a fairy-tale finish is still possible.
Irrespective of how their one-off maiden Test against India pans out in Bengaluru, Afghanistan have already won, just by getting here.
And to think they did that despite there being every reason not to – the political instability in the war-torn country has been well documented.
All said, one can’t help but think of a fairy-tale finish to it all. What if Afghanistan can see off the No.1-ranked Test side on their debut? What if?
Below, we look at how they can do that.
Beat India at their own game
The bold proclamations have already been made. “In my opinion, we have good spinners, better spinners than India,” said Asghar Stanikzai, the Afghanistan captain. Not many saw that coming.
There’s no denying Afghanistan’s big strength is their spinners, but for their captain to state their exponents of the skill were better than those of India’s … it hinted at everything from confidence to inexperience – India are the No.1 ranked Test side in the world, possessing in their ranks Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin, the No.4 and No.5 bowlers in the format.
In a country where war has affected so many, cricket has emerged as a source of happiness.— ICC (@ICC) June 13, 2018
How did the sport find a place in the heart of the Afghans? Here's a look back at a remarkable journey. 👇https://t.co/mJ5be3Z0vx pic.twitter.com/Wl9jow6snM
That said, Rashid Khan has bettered the best of the world in limited-overs cricket. Mujeeb Ur Rahman is a shining light, and the Indians found him hard to pick during the Indian Premier League. Mohammad Nabi has a wealth of experience, and Zahir Khan, the left-arm wrist-spinner, is an unknown package who could spring a surprise.
Stanikzai’s claim is bold, but it isn’t borne of over-confidence. He has good reason. He really does have great spinners at his disposal, and on a pitch where Ashwin and Jadeja have found some success, Rashid and Co. could very well too.
Target the Kohli-shaped hole
India will be without a host of first-team players, but it is the absence of Virat Kohli – captain, leader, hero – that stands out.
Apart from the buoyant effect his presence on the field has on the rest of the team, it is his batting that will be missed most of all. How could it not? He’s the No.2 player in the Test batting charts, and his record-breaking streak has already sent bowlers rushing for cover.
Yes, the No.1 Test side should still prove a hard task for the Test rookies, but there’s no denying Kohli’s absence takes away a lot from the make-up of the Indian team.
Team Afghanistan arrived in Bangalore for the historic Test match against India. The inaugural Test match between the two sides is scheduled to take place from 14-18 June at M. Chinnaswamy stadium in Bengaluru. #INDvsAFG #HistoricTest #PhenomenalRise pic.twitter.com/tBUBAq6ey6— Afghan Cricket Board (@ACBofficials) June 9, 2018
India have become accustomed to having a reliable No.4 batsman – get him out early, and that makes vulnerable a middle order that will be comprised of Ajinkya Rahane, whose last 50-plus score at home came in March last year, the returning Dinesh Karthik, who last played a Test in 2010, and the green duo of Karun Nair and Hardik Pandya, each just six Tests old.
Afghanistan know they have a chance.
Handle the Indian pacers
Gone are the days when India harrowed for pace. India now have depth and competition for places in the pace department.
Thing is, three of their five premier pacemen are unavailable for this clash. Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah have been rested for the one-off Test, while Mohammed Shami failed a fitness Test and was replaced in the squad by the uncapped Navdeep Saini.
It more or less ensures Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav will lead the pace attack. Sharma, over the years, has evolved into a grafter – that workman-like pace bowler who will keep steaming in, and producing the tough breakthroughs. As for Yadav, he’s heading in on the back of a fine IPL, and promises wickets, but also can go for plenty of runs.
But they’re not Kumar, Bumrah and Shami, who led the pace attack in South Africa earlier this year. If Afghanistan can survive Sharma and Yadav early on, there could be runs later in the day.
Of lemon and lemonades
Much has been made of the fact that this is Afghanistan’s maiden Test, that their players are inexperienced in the format.
On the flip side, they have the element of surprise. Inexperience might be a weakness, but Afghanistan are an unknown force in the format, and that is a strength.
Rashid Khan, the other day, admitted he had been working on variations specifically for Tests, and if they are anything like his bag of tricks in limited-overs cricket, India should be wary. The likes of Rahman and Khan, despite the former’s involvement in the IPL, are still relatively new and unknown.
And what about Mohammad Shahzad? He is usually a gung-ho sort, but will he stick to that in Test whites?
No one knows. Only Afghanistan do, and they will hope to make the most of it.
Channel the indomitable spirit
The prevailing feeling when watching an Afghanistan team is the rawness. They have, over the years, evolved into a hugely professional unit, but their players still have that child-like zest when playing the game.
Andy Moles, the coach of the Afghanistan Under 19 side, said during the ICC U19 World Cup earlier this year that his players loved “hitting sixes” and would try to do that every ball. You get the feeling it’s a feature of all Afghanistan sides, every Afghan player.
It’s their first ever Test. There will be nerves, there will be prayers, and plenty of anticipation going around. Afghanistan will need to channel all that into their performances over the next five days, they need to do whatever it takes to keep the butterflies at bay.
When they do that, as they have over the last 17 years to reach this point, the effect is usually something to behold.