Afghanistan’s Test debut is the most important cricketing event of 2018

Anindya Dutta Roar Guru

By Anindya Dutta, Anindya Dutta is a Roar Guru

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    While there has been a focus on the delay in promoting Ireland to elite Test status, less has been written and discussed on Afghanistan. It’s a pity, because this is a story worth telling – time and again.

    By announcing this week that India will play Afghanistan on their Test debut in 2018, the BCCI has launched this story into the realm of cricketing folklore.

    A short history of cricket in Afghanistan
    While cricket was played during the Anglo-Afghan wars of the 19th century, the game disappeared in the perennially war-ravaged country for a hundred years and only gathered popularity among Afghan refugees fleeing to Pakistan in the 1990s.

    They brought the game back in 2001, when the Taliban eased up on their rigid stance as an exception for the sport of cricket.

    Tim Albone talked about his experience in 2009 (yes 2009) while filming Out of the Ashes, following the Afghan cricket team over an 18-month period when they went from having no pitches, the entire team having never left their country, and players hesitating to step on to an unfamiliar contraption called an escalator at Dubai airport, to qualifying for the 2010 World Twenty20 in the West Indies.

    In 2018, 17 short years after the game was introduced into the wartorn country – in less time than it took India to win her first Test match (20 years), and the exact same time that it took South Africa to record her maiden victory, a mere blip on the timeline of Test cricket – Afghanistan will debut in Test cricket.

    That is nothing short of astounding.

    A phenomenal rise
    In 2009, Afghanistan failed to qualify for the 2011 World Cup at the qualifying tournament, but earned ODI status for four years in the bargain.

    When they played Scotland for the fifth place payoff, it was their ODI debut. For the second time in the tournament, and for the first time in an ODI, the Afghans beat Scotland. The journey had begun.

    Since then, Afghanistan has played 52 ODI against full ICC members and won 21 of them. Against Associate members it has won 22 out of 34.

    In February 2010, Afghanistan qualified for the ICC World Twenty20, where they lost to South Africa and India at the group stage. In both matches they gave a good account of themselves. Since then they have played 28 Twenty20 against full members and won 13. Against the Associates, their record is 26 wins out of 32.

    In a head-to-head comparison to their fellow debutants, Afghanistan has beaten Ireland in seven out of ten Twenty20 encounters and trail them by seven wins to nine as far as ODI are concerned. Astonishing numbers, given Ireland played their first ODI three years before Afghanistan and the first Twenty20 a year before them.

    Lest one attributes their success to being a team of near mediocre cricketers who play out of their skin as a team, it is prudent to remember that 19-year-old Afghan leg-spinner Rashid Khan has 70 wickets, with a bowling average of 14.48 – the best among all bowlers to have ever played the format with a cutoff of a minimum of 30 matches.

    The West Indies are unlikely to forget their decimation at his hands earlier this year, when Rashid took 7 for 18 in a magnificent exhibition.

    I asked VVS Laxman, who was launching my new book Spell-binding Spells in Kolkata a couple of weeks ago, why he chose to pick Khan and Mohammad Nabi – two unknown Afghan spinners – for the IPL team Sunrisers Hyderabad, which he mentors, when all other teams were bidding for established players.

    He said that they had seen videos of the two players bowling in other tournaments and had been tremendously impressed. They thought that the two, especially Rashid, would bring that aura of uncertainty and raw ability that could give an extra zest to the Sunrisers’ attack.

    Rashid took 17 wickets in 11 matches at an unbelievable average of 21.05 and a strike rate of a wicket every 19 balls. It is clear that Laxman’s well-deserved tag of being ‘Very Very Special’ now extends beyond his batting abilities!

    The Afghanistan national cricket team

    Wiki commons

    The role of the coaches
    As if to demonstrate their impatience in the climb to the upper echelons of the game, Afghanistan has run through eight coaches in the past ten years.

    Starting with Taj Malik, their first homegrown player and coach, on to Kabir Khan, Rashid Latif and Inzamam-ul-Haq of Pakistan, with England’s Andy Moles squeezed in between them, the merry-go-round must have been daunting.

    But they found some stability when India’s Lalchand Rajput, who had won the inaugural World Twenty20 as coach of the Indian team and guided Mumbai to IPL titles, brought his experience and tremendous calming influence.

    He imbibed discipline and taught his charges that the team who stays in the game until the end is the one with the highest probability of going away with the victory.

    It is a pity that Rajput, with his family still in distant Mumbai, chose not to renew his contract because of security concerns – which are, of course, understandable.

    While he cannot be given sole credit for Afghanistan attaining Test status, he played a stellar role over the past couple of seasons in the team’s meteoric rise.

    Rajput has now been replaced by Dean Jones, who has been appointed interim coach.

    Lalchand Rajput on Afghanistan cricket’s future
    I asked Rajput recently what his experience was like as coach of the Afghan team for over a year and what was so special about the team.

    He was effusive in his praise for the players, very optimistic about their prospects, and made a point regarding what sets their players apart.

    “Think about the environment they come from and how they live. When you grow up and live every day with war around you, you want to be the best you can in what you do and put in that extra effort because time is so precious,” he said.

    “Cricket gives them the chance to not only make a decent living but make a better life. It is more than a sport. It is a way to live.”

    It was also clear from my other chats with Rajput that the Afghan players are enjoying every step and it clearly shows in their game.

    When the BCCI announced that India would host Afghanistan in 2018 for their debut Test, I reached out to Rajput for his reactions.

    Not surprisingly, he was ecstatic. His hard work with them had paid off and it was his nation hosting his former wards. What could be better?

    “I am really happy that India will host them and play the inaugural Test match,” he said.

    “As India has been always supporting them in all aspects this was the best way they could promote them and give them an opportunity to play against the best team in the world at No.1 in the ICC Test rankings.”

    But, given India took two decades to achieve a Test victory, what in his view is in store for Afghanistan?

    “They are a most talented team. Given the tremendous talent of the players they have I am sure they will do well. I believe they will adapt to situations quicker and better than other teams from the past,” he responded.

    Looking to the future
    While some may question how quickly the coveted prize of Test match status has been granted, given how the team has grabbed their opportunities and made their presence felt every step of the way, it’s merely what they deserve.

    In 2018, when Afghanistan faces up to India and Asghar Stanikzai goes out to toss with Virat Kohli – perhaps at the Eden Gardens, where South Africa emerged out of the shadows of Apartheid – history will have been made, even before the first ball is bowled.

    Whatever happens in the rest of the year in the world of cricket, there will be no moment more important than when the first Afghan run is scored and the first wicket is taken by an Afghan bowler.

    A nation that has suffered for decades will rise in joy as one. That, for cricket, will have been reward enough.

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    The Crowd Says (35)

    • December 13th 2017 @ 5:27am
      Venkat said | December 13th 2017 @ 5:27am | ! Report

      Very well written as usual… looking forward to seeing them perform well… only hope that their domestic scene improves so that they can host other teams too… and yes, nice of you to have got Rajput into the loop…
      Looking forward to many such articles, Anindya….

      • Roar Guru

        December 13th 2017 @ 9:46am
        Anindya Dutta said | December 13th 2017 @ 9:46am | ! Report

        Thanks so much Venkat. Yes they are an exciting team and it would be good to see them compete at the highest level. Their domestic competition is expanding. We will only find out the depth once they play a bit more.

    • December 13th 2017 @ 5:41am
      Gulu said | December 13th 2017 @ 5:41am | ! Report

      Super piece, especially the quotes. Hugely excited to see two nations make their Test bow in the same year, the first time since 1877!

      • Roar Guru

        December 13th 2017 @ 9:48am
        Anindya Dutta said | December 13th 2017 @ 9:48am | ! Report

        Thanks So much Gulu. Yes 141-years later we will have two new debutants. Exciting times for cricket. About time the highest form of the game expanded its reach.

    • December 13th 2017 @ 7:43am
      John said | December 13th 2017 @ 7:43am | ! Report

      The more countries playing cricket the better. It is baffling that only 10 countries are playing in the 2019 world cup it should be at least 14.

      • Roar Guru

        December 13th 2017 @ 9:51am
        Anindya Dutta said | December 13th 2017 @ 9:51am | ! Report

        Yes John that was bizarre in the extreme that they would cut down on the number of teams instead of expanding it which FIFA is doing for example. Let’s hope that’s a one off and better sense will prevail for future tournaments.

    • December 13th 2017 @ 9:26am
      Brian said | December 13th 2017 @ 9:26am | ! Report

      Is good news, can only hope the ICC now extends the nation competing in the ODI World Cup and resets the format of the 2020 T20 World Cup being held here.

      • Roar Guru

        December 13th 2017 @ 9:53am
        Anindya Dutta said | December 13th 2017 @ 9:53am | ! Report

        Absolutely Brian. We need more teams not less and I think the current make up of the ICC committees and the people in them are starting to take slightly more rational decisions after that bizarre one cutting down on teams.

    • December 13th 2017 @ 9:34am
      paul said | December 13th 2017 @ 9:34am | ! Report

      I’m concerned your article made no mention of the Afghans form in 4 day cricket, for example. They’ve obviously made tremendous strides as an ODI side but that form needs to translate across to the longer version of the game.

      The other glaring omission concerns the Afghan batting lineup, which you don’t mention at all. Do they have an potential Test quality batsmen in their lineup?

      It’s also a brave ask for them to taken on India in India as their first Test. Naturally all hope they do well, but it would be a shame for them to be given a comprehensive hiding. That would do nothing to increase cricket participation in Afghanistan.

      By the way, where will Afghanistan play it’s home Tests?

      • December 13th 2017 @ 6:34pm
        Bakkies said | December 13th 2017 @ 6:34pm | ! Report

        ‘I’m concerned your article made no mention of the Afghans form in 4 day cricket, for example. They’ve obviously made tremendous strides as an ODI side but that form needs to translate across to the longer version of the game.’

        Exactly that’s the issue I have with Ireland becoming a test nation. The players that are likely to play in the test side aren’t standing out in County Cricket and there is a rebuilding process going with the bowling attack. I haven’t seen anything of what the ICC expect in terms of first class structure and developing future test Cricketers in Ireland. The Irish Cricket season clashes with the GAA which is a Summer sport.

        In regards to Afghanistan’s home venues that is another question that needs to be answered.

        • Roar Guru

          December 14th 2017 @ 1:44pm
          Anindya Dutta said | December 14th 2017 @ 1:44pm | ! Report

          The idea of the Inter-Continental Cup, the international 4-day first class competition between non Test playing nation was played over a 18 month period. I quote from the Wiki link to the competition:

          ” As a result of changes to the structure of international cricket announced by the ICC in January 2014, the winner of the 2015-17 Intercontinental Cup (and following editions of the tournament) were originally scheduled to play four five-day matches against the bottom ranked Test nation (two home and two away matches), an event known as the 2018 ICC Test Challenge. Should the winner of the Intercontinental Cup go on to win the ICC Test Challenge, they would have became the 11th Test nation.

          However, in February 2017 following an ICC Board meeting, changes were agreed in principle to expand the number of Test nations to twelve. Both Afghanistan and Ireland were likely to be granted Test status before the proposed 2018 ICC Test Challenge. In June 2017, the ICC awarded both Afghanistan and Ireland Full Member status, making them eligible to play Test match cricket. As a result, the planned Test Challenge was scrapped.”

    • Roar Guru

      December 13th 2017 @ 10:07am
      Anindya Dutta said | December 13th 2017 @ 10:07am | ! Report

      @Paul – Ok let me try and answer your questions To the best of my knowledge:

      1) Batting – There is no doubt that their batting is weaker than their bowling. They have Shanwari, Shahzad and Stanikzai who are excellent bats. But they will no doubt Need to Learn to cope with the longer version of the game. Like any team which starts off and particularly a team that rises from the limited overs format, they are stuffed will all rounders. One hopes some among them will find their niche as batsmen. They do however have tremendous depth in their bowling both in pace and particularly spin so that will clearly be their strength in the starting years. On top of that it’s a young team so they will quickly learn and evolve.

      2) They have a 4-day domestic competition but it’s honestly impossible to tell how useful that will be in moving to the 5-day game of Test cricket. You are right that in the longer format they are untested. The case is not different for Ireland by the way. So the proof of the Afghan pudding in this case will be in the eating as they say!

      3) For the foreseeable future I don’t see them hosting Tests or indeed any matches in afghanistan. They are largely based in a india for their matches at Noida near delhi. There is a substantial Afghan population in india and thousands will come across the border for matches so I suspect that’s what they will have to live with until the safety and political situation improves.

      • December 13th 2017 @ 2:35pm
        Paul said | December 13th 2017 @ 2:35pm | ! Report

        Thanks for responding to my questions and thanks for putting together a very well written article. Hopefully Afghan cricket might be a way to heal some of the rifts in that country.

        • Roar Guru

          December 13th 2017 @ 2:49pm
          Anindya Dutta said | December 13th 2017 @ 2:49pm | ! Report

          Thanks Paul for the very kind words. So glad you liked it. Have you had a look at my new book? If you are a fan of bowling you might find it interesting. The Amazon link is in one of the comments below if you want to check out the preview.

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