Afghanistan could not have asked for a better start to their ICC Intercontinental Cup match against the UAE as Ihsanullah and Rahmat Shah both scored centuries on the opening day in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.
Batting first at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium, Afghanistan displayed their batting strength that has put them to the top of the standings by closing play 321-3 after 96 overs.
Much of that was down largely thanks to a mammoth 197-run second wicket stand between Ihsanullah and Shah. Having lost Javed Ahmadi for six, the pair frustrated the UAE with Ihsanullah smashing 124 off 242 deliveries (13 fours and one six), while Shah hit 103 (12 fours) from 191 balls.
Both fell to pacer Mohammed Naveed and spinner Ahmed Raza but captain Asghar Stanikzai’s unbeaten 67 saw the team pass the 300-mark.
This will be the last four-day match that Afghanistan will play after being awarded Test status, along with Ireland by the ICC in June.
As the consistently excellent @pavilionopinions remarked on Twitter, “quite excited to see what happens when Ben Stokes eventually arrives in Australia and is greeted by Jonny Bairstow.”
From Stokes’ loose fists, to various players’ penchant for a night out and now Bairstow being the butt of every joke, the identity of what Australia and their media want this England team to be has been cast in stone and, no matter any midnight curfews imposed, there’s plenty more fun to be had.
How much this gets under the skin of the players is an eternal debate, which has riddled sports teams throughout history. The public declaration always tends to be, “we don’t read the reports/pay attention” but as British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland has subsequently revealed post-New Zealand tour, this is almost certainly false.
The continuing snipes and negative coverage about their attitude, professionalism or demeanour is going to amp up the pressure and potentially shatter confidence or create the age-old siege mentality.
Given the dynamic in the England dressing room of experienced pros like Alastair Cook, James Anderson and the eternal Ashes enemy, Stuart Broad, mixed with the “unnamables” – as the Aussie press dubbed them – of James Vince, Mark Stoneman, Dawid Malan and Mason Crane, it’s difficult to gauge exactly how it’s going to fall.
But one man who it has already been assumed will seize on the barrage of abuse and try and use it as a catalyst for performance is Stokes.
The news late on Monday night that he is flying to New Zealand to spend time with family while also getting his eye in playing for Canterbury, was accompanied by scores of WWE-related gifs mimicking him walking out to bat at some stage in this Ashes series.
Assuming he is given the all clear to play in Perth, starting on December 14, Stokes will want to make up for lost time, stamp his name upon the series and, by that stage, quieten the jibes coming from the press box and David Warner at mid-off.
His bowling will be invaluable on a quick and bouncy WACA track with huge doubts over the fitness of Anderson which could intensify by the time the series rolls into Western Australia; while his aggression in the middle order sorely needed to silence a Baggy Green attack only growing in confidence.
But, before we fully romanticise over the impact he may have, the pressing concern is Adelaide – the one Test highlighted before the series as eminently winnable for the tourists and, given events at Brisbane, one they, at the very worst, cannot afford to be beaten by such a margin again.
The Stokes sideshow has to remain such until close of play on day five. For all he may or may not bring and when he may or may not be able to provide it, issues are there to be solved from Saturday.
Stokes’ decision to fly to New Zealand apparently caught cricket director Andrew Strauss by surprise, with muddled messages coming from the corridors of power at the ECB, and there is no guarantee he will feature in any Ashes Tests, let alone Perth.
The aforementioned “siege mentality” should be adopted to everything, good, bad or speculative. Because should England under-perform on a wicket which has bore them just two Test wins since 1982, outside noise will only be amplified and this series for England very quickly becomes about more of what happens away from the field than on it.
England put their best foot forward at the start of the Ashes and for a good part of the first three days, competed with Australia on even terms. Perhaps even fared better than the hosts.
It wasn’t a typical Gabba wicket and England capitalised on it, first pushing past 300 when hardly anyone gave them a chance against the pace of Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins, and then cashing in with the ball when the wicket quickened up on the second day.
Early on the third day of the Test, Australia were reduced to 209-7 and nearly 100 runs behind the visitors. Steve Smith was batting with utmost confidence but he obviously needed help from the other end. He got that from the doughty Cummins, who blasted a career-best 42 at No9.
When England look back at the opening Test, the focus will understandably be on Smith’s ton, low scores from Alastair Cook and lack of bite in Chris Woakes and Moeen Ali’s bowling for large parts of the Test. But the shoe could have been on the other foot on Day Three if England had somehow found a way past Cummins, if not Smith.
Definitely looked a different game when the wicket quickened up. Hope for more fast & bouncy wickets 🙏🏼 https://t.co/j7cOsd4W5c— Mitchell Johnson (@MitchJohnson398) November 26, 2017
Take Cummin’s 42 out of the equation and there is every chance England would have started the second innings at least 50 ahead, if not more, and then it would have been a different contest.
One solid partnership for England and shoulders would have started to drop in the Aussie camp.
Instead, Australia got the best possible boost when staring down the barrel – an unbeaten century by their captain. It rallied the troops and once they squeezed out two wickets for next to nothing, England were behind the eight ball.
We have been here before. The last Ashes Down Under was all about Mitchell Johnson, his seering pace and that magnificent moustache.
But it was wicketkeeper Brad Haddin who bailed the team out with the bat in the first innings of the first four Tests. His 94 in the first Test helped Australia reach 295 while a century in the second helped fellow centurion Michael Clarke lay the foundation for a mammoth 570.
In the third Test, it was Haddin’s fifty again that allowed Australia – powered by a Steve Smith century – breach the 350-run mark while in the fourth, his 65 saved the day after the hosts were 122-6 chasing England’s 255 in the first essay.
In each instance, Haddin’s rearguard innings stopped the Aussie innings from imploding, kept them in the game and allowed Johnson and Co to go all out without worrying about any deficit.
Australia rely heavily on Smith and David Warner for their runs, much like England do on Joe Root and Alastair Cook and the lower order of Moeen Ali and Jonny Bairstow. The Aussies were fairly efficient in dismantling England’s lower order in both innings and if England can do that in the remaining matches, they will be able to capitalise on game-changing situations like the one they faced in the first Test.
Australia too should be smart enough to realise they got out of jail in the first innings at the Gabba. Left-arm pace ace Starc struggled with the landing area in the second innings and was seen clutching his ankle. If he somehow doesn’t play in any of the remaining Tests, that would level the playing field considerably.
In the meantime, the lower order of both sides will have major roles to play. Australia did that splendidly in 2013-14 and swept the series. If they continue to do that this time, results could be similar.