There’s something about the Afghanistan side. They have this raw energy and unbridled passion for the game that you can’t keep your eyes away from them, knowing well that most other sides play with the same passion.
It’s almost like the tag of being an associate nation was always a misfit for them. Little surprise that they leapfrogged their foes- Scotland, Ireland- to even qualify for their second World Cup campaign.
Today, Afghanistan is undoubtedly the most improved and promising team of late and with almost every game they play, they have grown in strength. To say the usual- they have an abundance of talent. To submit a feisty conjecture- they can be greats in Tests, even as they are ‘newborns.’
June 14 would mark a historic day in Afghanistan cricket’s history. In a format that is a century old, they are to make their debut. In a watershed moment for cricket, a thought goes out to which other team enjoyed such fancy reception as to be witnessing an interest from an entire sporting fraternity as it takes baby steps in cricket’s most arduous format?
At Bangalore, they would be the 12th Team to enter the Test arena.
Playing at home, and heavily experienced in the format, India would obviously start as favourites. But it would be imprudent for the home team to take Afghanistan lightly, even as against them is inexperience.
A batting lineup that can put up a surprise
Afghanistan would be playing in conditions that won’t be too different from what they have back home. Moreover, they have been in India since the start of the month, playing T20Is against Bangladesh (and beating them comprehensively), that would have helped them get acclimatized to the conditions further.
Led by Asghar Stanikzai, Afghanistan has a really talented squad and Team India sans Virat Kohli need to be wary of this confident bunch of players.
The wicket at the Chinnaswamy Stadium is known to aid the batsmen and spin bowlers and while Afghanistan’s spin bowling is pretty robust, they might also spring a surprise in their batting.
Mohammad Shahzad, Mohammad Nabi and Asghar Stanikzai together have close to 10,000 runs in between them in limited overs cricket. They will certainly form the bedrock of Afghanistan’s batting in the Test against India.
Shahzad, the audacious wicket-keeper batsman, is like a rampaging rhino at the top and is hard to stop once he gets going. He could be to Afghanistan what Virender Sehwag was for India in Test cricket, provided there’s a thought spared to focus on playing one’s natural game, instead of hoisting every ball. Sehwag was more. Can Shahzad be that time will tell.
Both Nabi and Stanikzai are more than capable of controlling the middle stages given their experience and can be difficult to dislodge. Both of them are very good players of spin and could be vital in nullifying the threat posed by Ashwin and Jadeja.
Then there’s the talented Ihsanullah as well. The 20-year-old top-order batsman has just played 17 international games but has a first-class average of 50.7. He is being regarded as the next big thing in Afghanistan cricket circles and would be interesting to see if he can put some pressure on the Indian bowlers.
In experienced all-rounder Rahmat Shah (45 ODIs for Afghanistan) and middle-order bat Hashmatullah Shahid (4 hundreds and 3 fifties in 14 first-class games), Afghanistan have two more solid batting options that can take care of the lower middle-order. So while the Afghanistan batting unit may not look threatening or as star-studded as India’s, there still is enough solidity to push the Indian bowlers on the backfoot.
The spin bowling threat
While this has been oft-repeated countless times recently, one cannot help but say it again: Rashid Khan will be the ace in a pack for Afghanistan. The leg-spin bowler is on fire at present and the Bengaluru pitch might be right up his alley.
Rashid has had a spectacular season in India – 21 wickets in the IPL and 8 wickets in the T20I series against Bangladesh. He will undoubtedly be an X-factor for the visitors.
However, Afghanistan doesn’t rely on Rashid alone. They have chosen a four-pronged spin attack against India and apart from Rashid, there is Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Amir Hamza and Zahir Khan in their lineup. Mujeeb, with his wily off-breaks, was one of the surprise stars of IPL 2018 and it will be fascinating to see him and Rashid bowl in tandem and exploit the recently found weakness against the spin of the Indian batsmen.
Left-arm off-spinner Hamza is an exciting prospect and was the leading wicket-taker in the domestic first-class competition. Zahir, who hasn’t played ODIs or T20Is yet for Afghanistan, has shown his mettle in the 2015-17 ICC Intercontinental Cup, taking 31 wickets in six matches.
So, while Afghanistan’s pace attack is brittle without Dawlat Zadran, who is out due to injury, their spin department makes up for that void.
Team India, be cautious
Lest one forgets, India is not just without Virat Kohli, they have also rested their in-form fast bowlers Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah in the Test against Afghanistan. This certainly isn’t the best Test outfit and therein lies Afghanistan’s chance to make inroads.
Ajinkya Rahane is an able Test batsman and has a solid bunch of players in his ranks. One expects Team India to do well despite the absence of some of its noted players. However, Afghanistan will be no pushover, despite being inexperienced in the format. They have shown a remarkable ability to quickly learn, adapt and succeed in international cricket and that is why they have risen to prominence so rapidly. There is no reason why they shouldn’t do well in Test cricket too.
Afghanistan has a well-rounded unit riding high on confidence and passion. They have the backing of the world with them and are out here to prove their worth. India need not be over cautious, but they must be careful. Because make no mistake about it: this Afghanistan team has the potential to topple the best and is here to stay. They’d just hope to hold back from doing anything irrational.