New dawn awaits Afghanistan in cloudy Bengaluru

While the Indian side will start as favourite, the challenge for the Afghanistan team will be to make an impact over the next five days.

Team India captain Ajinkya Rahane bats in the nets during a training session ahead of one-off Test match against Afghanistan in Bengaluru.   -  AP

Afghanistan's rise from being an unknown commodity to rubbing shoulders with the big boys in international cricket has been simply fascinating.

It will be a red-letter day in the cricketing chapters of Afghanistan history as it takes on India in an one-off Test match at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru on Thursday.

It was little more than a decade ago and some of the players had just taken up cricket. Playing on and off — mostly away from home — the bunch of boys were not too sure how long they would be able to continue with the game. After all, life back home wasn’t easy.

As they would train in the border areas of Peshawar — the Pakistani city closer to the country — the news of blasts and terror attack would often flow in.

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Someday a city would be bombed, the other evening it would be someone’s local territory. Sitting far away from home, the bunch of boys could only think of letting their willows do the talking.

These are the memories Asghar Stanikzai would certainly have in mind when he leads his country to its first-ever Test match against India.

Over the last few years, Stanikzai's men have shown the world what the true Afghan spirit is all about. They have risen from nowhere to earn a spot in Test cricket and finally, the eleven Afghan men would get a hang of things in the ultimate format of the game.

This is not a game of 20 overs, where nerves would need a coolant. This format won’t require too much adrenaline rush to chase down a total in the stipulated 120 balls.

But, this format would perhaps teach the Afghan cricketers, what it takes to last for five days. That too, against a far superior and star-studded side like India — which would ideally treat the fixture as just another outing.

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While the Indian side will start as favourite, the challenge for the Afghanistan team will be to make an impact over the next five days.

A side that is heavily reliant on spinners — with Rashid Khan being the leader of the pack — the aim will be to outclass the Indian batters, who are knowing for taming spinners.

That’s where Afghanistan face a major roadblock. Taking on a Shikhar Dhawan or a K.L. Rahul is always a test of character for any side, and the inexperienced Afghan spinners will have a mountain to climb.

It is a fact that Rashid knows the Indian conditions well, thanks to his outings in the Indian Premier League, but so far, the Afghan spin sensation has only been tested in the limited overs.

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How he handles pressure in the longer spells would be something to watch out for. It is a similar case for the other three spinners — Mujeeb Zadran, Zahir Khan and Amir Hamza — who hardly have any experience in international cricket.

No matter how strongly its captain, Stanikzai, claims that Afghanistan has better spinners than India, there is no denying the fact that there is a possibility of them getting carried away under pressure and the enthusiasm. That’s what Test cricket is all about.

While the Afghans have to ensure they don’t run of out gas, it will be a platform for India to get the house in order before the marathon tour to England.

With regular captain Virat Kohli missing out, the onus will be on stand-in skipper, Ajinkya Rahane, to ensure that the team plays to its potential.

Returning to the longer format of the game after nearly five months, the Indian batsmen, too, will have plenty to play for. If for Rahane, it will be a test to cement his berth for the Test series against England, it will be a similar story for comeback men - Dinesh Karthik and Karun Nair.

While Karthik — who returns to Test circuit after eight years, as a replacement for Wriddhiman Saha — will be hoping to extend his stay in the red-ball cricket, Nair too will have eyes on the coveted Test team berth for longer tenure. And if they get on to the act, the mood would be set.

As much as it is a preparatory ground for the Indian batters, it will also be a litmus test for India’s pace attack comprising Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Shardul Thakur and Hardik Pandya.

Taking on a rather low-key Afghan batting line-up which has captain Stanikzai in the key role, along with seasoned campaigners, Mohammad Shehzad and Mohammad Nabi — the Indian pacers will be hoping to make early inroads.

On the spin part, ace spinners Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin will look to pose a threat. If the two can come good, half of India’s job will be done.

As the sun plays hide and seek in the Karnataka capital city, there are chances of passing showers over the next five days, and that would mean, the pitch — otherwise a bowling friendly surface will have a role to play.

But that should not worry the new entrant. High on confidence, it is out to make a statement in the longer format.

Welcome to the world of red-ball cricket, Afghanistan!