A reality check for Afghanistan's Test team

Featuring in its first-ever outing in the longest format of the game, not many expected Afghanistan to pull off a surprise against formidable India, but that the proceedings would last just two days was beyond anyone’s imagination.

Ajinkya Rahane being congratulated by his vanquished counterpart, Asghar Stanikzai.   -  K. Murali Kumar

The excitement soon made way for disappointment. The hundred-odd fans who had travelled to Bengaluru all the way from Kabul to cheer for their team were suddenly searching for tickets to go back home. It was just the second day of the Test match, and Afghanistan had been crushed by India at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium.

Featuring in its first-ever outing in the longest format of the game, not many expected Afghanistan to pull off a surprise against formidable India, but that the proceedings would last just two days was beyond anyone’s imagination. The Asghar Stanikzai-led Afghanistan team scripted an anticlimax — meekly surrendering to the Indian spinners Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.

As wickets tumbled, the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) CEO, Shafiq Stanikzai, could only shake his head in disappointment. After a decade-long struggle to attain Test status, he would not have thought that all their hopes would go up in smoke, that too in such a manner. “We have to focus on Test cricket and invest more on the longer format. Though it is a challenging task for a cricket board, in terms of finance, to host a Test match, we have to concentrate more,” Stanikzai said.

Below par

Walking into the Test arena, the new entrant found itself in the middle of nowhere. If the batsmen went extra defensive while facing the Indian spinners — a move that backfired — the much-talked about spin attack comprising Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Zadran too looked below par. And that invariably raised the big question — was it too early for Afghanistan to play a Test match?

Logically, the answer would be no. But the outlandish defeat by Afghanistan has pointed fingers at the lack of a proper first-class cricketing structure in the country.

Just last month, Ireland — another new entrant — played its first-ever Test match against Pakistan in Dublin. Even though the side finished on a losing note, most of the Irish cricketers looked comfortable with the format. The reason is quite simple. With most of the players from the team featuring in English county sides for years, they had a fair idea about the longer format of the game. So, when they took the field at the Malahide, the players knew how to last five days.

Ireland’s old warhorse, Niall O’Brien, even admitted that it was the county experience that came in handy for the side. “We have played a lot of county cricket so we know how to play the longer format of the game. We never panicked even when we had a bad first innings. We showed our character,” the 36-year-old stumper-batsman said.

Perhaps that’s where the catch was for Afghanistan.

Even though the fixture was decided in December last year, the team majorly focused on the shorter format. Interestingly, a few days before the Test match, the side was settled in the picturesque town of Dehradun to play a three-match T20 series against Bangladesh. While Afghanistan head coach Phil Simmons insisted that they had created a different group to prepare for the Test match, the result, however, was self-explanatory.

The Afghanistan players with their new caps and mementoes before the Test.   -  K. Murali Kumar

 

While the Afghanistan cricket bosses agree that there is a need to develop first-class cricketing structure to ensure that the boys have enough exposure to the longer format of the game, the irony is that they will not play a Test match for seven months — the next only in February against Ireland.

With the International Cricket Council (ICC) coming up with the new Future Tours Programme (FTP), which gets underway in 2019, it is important for the new entrants to get more Test cricket experience. That’s something the boards and the ICC must ensure. In 2000, when Bangladesh played its first-ever Test against India in Dhaka, there were doubts on whether it would be able to sustain itself in the longer format. But the ICC and the Bangladesh Cricket Board made it a point that the team played at least three to four Test series in the next couple of years. And by the beginning of 2002, the side had played two series against Zimbabwe and one each against New Zealand, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It even took on South Africa. Though the results went against Bangladesh, it at least got a hang of things in the international arena.

It was a similar story for Zimbabwe as well. After making its Test debut against India in 1992, it played home and away series against India, Pakistan, New Zealand and Sri Lanka in the next couple of years. That was something which helped the country produce some of the brightest cricketing talents. To add to the minnows’ joy, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) also allowed the teams from Zimbabwe and Bangladesh (its ‘A’ team) to play the Duleep Trophy. The system was introduced in 2003-2004 to give both Indian cricketers and the lower-ranked teams some benefits. While it helped the Indian youngsters get a hang of things, the sides like Bangladesh and Zimbabwe too made the most of it and prepared themselves for the Test format.

Helping hand

Though the system was scrapped in 2008, the BCCI has always extended a helping hand to the Afghanistan players. In 2015, it had leased out the Shaheed Vijay Singh Pathik Sports Complex ground in Greater Noida to the Afghanistan board. Earlier this month, the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in Dehradun too was handed out to the Afghanistan team as its ‘second home base’ in India. And to ensure that the Afghanistan players are well prepared for the longer version of the game, the BCCI has gone into an agreement with the ACB that any foreign team touring India will have to play at least one tour game against Afghanistan. While it is likely that an ‘A’ team will be fielded, the good thing is those preparatory games will somewhat help them get an idea about Test cricket.

But then, is that enough for a new entrant to grow?

The answer could well be ‘no’. As much as the ACB has to fix its domestic cricketing structure, it is important that the ICC too steps up and protects the interest of Afghanistan cricket by allotting it more games in the longer format. The new FTP released by the ICC shows that Afghanistan will play a total of four Tests in the next one year, against Ireland, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and the West Indies. In 2020, it is supposed to take on Australia for a Test. Ironically, in the next one year, Ireland plays only one Test — against Afghanistan. And that’s why it is important that the world body gives it enough time in the longer format.

Ever since its introduction to international cricket a decade back, there has been a sea-change in Afghanistan’s cricketing approach. From being a no-hoper, it has gone on to create a stir in the T20 format and has also made its presence felt in One-Dayers.

And these successes had kept the spirits high in the Afghan camp as the players dressed up in whites for their Test debut. Hopes, however, were dashed soon. But looking at the positives, this reality check has actually brought Afghanistan cricket back to the drawing board and has forced it to come up with a roadmap. How it adapts to the situation will define the future for the strife-torn nation. A poor start, after all, is not the end of the world!

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