The new cricket season is upon us, with the Aussies already flying out to the Middle East for the Test series against Pakistan in early October.
Ireland was better of the two team that played their debut Test matches in the previous weeks.
But whereas Ireland had the advantage of playing against lowly ranked Pakistan, a team not known for its batting, and at home in conditions that aided swing and seam, Afghanistan played number one-ranked team India in its backyard.
As a result, Afghanistan was blown away by a top-quality side inside two days whereas Ireland gave Pakistan a run for their money, though they too eventually suffered the same fate.
Both teams had their share of positives and surprised not just opposition but also cricketing pundits, fans and players all around the world.
Firstly, Ireland held Pakistan to 6/159 before letting the advantage slip away as Pakistan declared at 9/310 before bundling out the hosts for 130.
But Ireland showed the guts to end the day three with 0/64 thanks to resistance from William Porterfield and Ed Joyce following on. Kevin O’Brien scored the first Test ton for the host nation along with Stuart Thompson, who dug in with a fine half-century.
Both batsmen held their natural game as they batted with purpose, but unfortunately both ran out of gas on the next day and were bowled out for 339, setting Pakistan target of 160.
Though Tim Murtagh and Boyd Rankin did their best to reduce Pakistan to 3/14 but Babar Azam and Imam Ul Haq saw their side to safety as Ireland lost by five wickets.
Perhaps a better morning on the fourth day would have meant Pakistan had things a lot harder. Maybe getting Pakistan out for, say, 220 in the first innings would have had Ireland turn up on the field more confident and energetic than they were to chase 310.
It was a brave effort from Ireland. Their performance to give Pakistan a scare was put in context by the fact only one team has ever won their first Test match – when Australia beat England by 45 runs in the inaugural Test at Melbourne back in 1877.
Perhaps playing more five-day games at home against top-quality sides will mean they get better and more formidable as a team, like other top teams are, but the thing to notice is their main players – Ed Joyce, William Porterfield, Boyd Rankin, Tim Murtagh – are well into their mid-30s and won’t get any better.
The future of the team representing the country in next ten years needs to come in and stick around the core group of players representing Ireland now to pick up the culture, values, skills and experience to tackle different situation.
An Ireland team with the core group of players has always stood out whenever they were up against a top team, be it Pakistan in the 2007 World Cup or England in the 2011 World Cup. They even sent ripples through the opposition in their inaugural Test. Perhaps that’s the most prominent talking point within the Ireland camp right now or will be going ahead.
Afghanistan had a very young team, with star players Rashid Khan and Mujeeb ur Rahman still under 21 while Mohammad Nabi and skipper Asghar Stanikzai are still in their early 30s. So is Virender Sehwag of Afghanistan Mohammad Shehzad.
The runout of Mohammad Shehzad, which brought to light his earlier comments about not focussing on fitness, show that if he can hit sixes, fitness is the area they have to interrogate. They were terrific in the last session to bowl out India for 474 after the hosts were 1/280.
Perhaps the first session was down to their nervousness, and the experienced duo of Shikhar Dhawan-Murali Vijay didn’t miss out cashing in on that. Even Rashid Khan struggled to find the right pace on the pitch, and the side was struggling to put out four good balls in a row.
Much was expected from their spin department, but pacers were the ones who stood out as Wafadar and Yaman Ahmadzai took five wickets among themselves, especially Ahmadzai, who bowled with purpose and didn’t give any room to the batsman. His economy of 2.68 suggests Indian batsmen were wary of him in the 19 overs he bowled.
This development should definitely lighten up the Afghanistan camp as they do not have only spinners who do most of the damage for the opposition but they have pacers who were a handful on the first day as well.
So if Afghanistan tightens its batting on the field and deals with bowling fitness off it, they will go far as a Test unit. They are a very young team, and with more cricket against the top nations, it’s not a far-fetched dream.
Ireland, on the other hand, has stars who will be fading soon. Can the new faces replicate the success Ireland has had over the years is a big question, while Afghanistan has potential superstars within the team who could rule cricket in the coming years.
After the match Afghan player were seen talking to Indians about their performance, which shows their keenness to go further as a unit, sSo irrespective of performance, the future looks bright for Afghanistan if the team learns to work five times harder.
There are no reasons not to believe.