The fairy-tale story of Afghanistan cricket will hit a new high on Thursday as the country becomes the 12th Test-playing nation.
Bengaluru will be the venue as Asghar Stanikzai’s men, awarded five-day status, alongside Ireland, in June of last year, battle an under-strength, but by no means weak, India side.
Afghanistan’s rise has been staggering. Not only because of the conflicts in their homeland but also as they only played their first official ODI in 2009, against Scotland in Benoni, South Africa.
That game – in which Scotland’s man of the moment Calum Macleod scored a four-ball duck batting at No 10, having gone at almost eight an over playing as a front-line bowler – ended in an 89-run success for Afghanistan, with Mohammad Nabi and Samiullah Shenwari striking fifties.
And ebullient wicketkeeper-batsman Mohammad Shahzad feels it is not out of the question their maiden Test ends in victory against an India side missing Virat Kohli, Rohi Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah.
Australia are the only side to win their first Test, against England in Melbourne in 1877, but Shahzad said: “It can definitely happen. You know what our spinners have been doing of late. It won’t be easy for either team. It will be a good match.”
Shahzad is right to pinpoint Afghanistan’s spinners. The selectors have named four in their inaugural squad in leg-spinner Rashid Khan, mystery man Mujeeb Ur Rahman – he bowls all sorts – left-arm chinaman Zahir Khan and the left-arm orthodox Amir Hamza.
“In my opinion, we have good spinners, better spinners than India,” Stanikzai rather boldly told Cricinfo this week. Perhaps that statement was made to galvanise his side but, in Rashid at least, Stanikzai may be right. The teenager’s numbers are astonishing.
One hundred ODI wickets in 44 games at an average of 14.40 and an economy rate of a miserly 3.96. Fifty-seven T20I wickets in 33 games at 13.01. Top of the ICC’s T20I bowling rankings by a whopping 80 points from his nearest competitor, Shadab Khan of Pakistan, and second in the ODI standings having only recently been knocked off the summit by Bumrah.
The leggie is also fresh off of a stellar IPL campaign for Sunrisers Hyderabad, having claimed 21 wickets at an economy rate of 6.73, while he starred for his national side in the recent T20 whitewash over Bangladesh.
Having snared 3-13 in the first game and 4-12 in the second, Rashid denied the Tigers a consolation win by defending eight from the last over as Afghanistan triumphed by one run.
Bangladesh batsman Mushfiqur Rahim had blazed Karim Janat for five successive boundaries in the penultimate over to leave Afghanistan reeling, only for Rashid to have Mushfiqur caught from the first ball of the 20th and bowl frugally from there on out.
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“He’s totally different from other leg-spinners,” said Nabi. “He’s quicker in the air. When he bowls the wrong’un and the leg-break, it looks the same when you play. The most important thing is that the hand is very quick.”
Afghanistan’s form as a team has been highly impressive, too – they have won six and drawn two of their previous 10 ODI series, including four successes over Zimbabwe, a win over Ireland and a draw in the Windies.
They then recovered from a calamitous start to the ICC World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe in March, in which they were beaten by Scotland, Zimbabwe and Hong Kong in their first three fixtures, to scrape into the Super Sixes and then find their form in the latter stages to seal a spot at next summer’s 10-team showpiece in England.
Afghanistan beat a power-packed Windies side in the Super Sixes and then again in the final, with victories over UAE and Ireland earned in between.
The biggest stage is coming their way on Thursday but the big stage is not alien to Afghanistan, who have now qualified for the last two 50-over World Cups and the previous four World Twenty20s.
Rashid, Mujeeb, and Nabi also have experience of T20 tournaments around the world – Mujeeb, 17, starring for Kings XI Punjab in the IPL this term – and all three will earn more in England this summer when they turn out for Sussex, Hampshire and Leicestershire respectively in the Vitality Blast.
Plus, in terms of age profile, this Afghanistan troop should be able to grow together – while Ireland’s inaugural Test team featured seven players over the age of 30, Afghanistan’s first 16-man squad includes only three over the age of 26, Nabi the oldest at 33.
That youth brings greenness, though. Nabi has played the most first-class matches in the squad with 32. Rashid four and Mujeeb, set to become the first man born in the 21st century to play in a Test, none.
Batting long, something Afghanistan’s players are not used, could also be an issue against an attack featuring spinner Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravi Jadeja – who may have been stung by Stanikazi’s comments – and Umesh Yadav.
India’s batting is still formidable, too, with Ajinkya Rahane, who will lead the side in Kohli’s absence, Shikhar Dhawan and Kl Rahul, who played some sumptuous IPL knocks, poised to play.
So, Bengaluru may not witness scenes akin to Edinburgh on Sunday when the emerging nation beat the established one. It may be too soon for a realistic chance of victory.
But Afghanistan’s promotion to the Test fraternity – they are scheduled to play 13 fixtures between now and 2023 – has come at the perfect time and with Rashid leading the way, there is no sign of the fairy-tale ending.
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