You would struggle to find a bunch of a cricketers with a more perilous journey to the international arena than Afghanistan.
The current group of Afghanistan players picked up cricket in refugee camps in Pakistan as cricket mushroomed either side of the Durand line that divides Afghanistan and Pakistan during the prolonged period of turmoil and violence in the central Asian country.
Players like Mohammad Shahzad and Mohammad Nabi featured regularly in Pakistan’s domestic matches and local leagues in Peshawar. Conditions back home were far from ideal. In fact, when they returned to Kabul after the war ended, the team used a grounded helicopter for a makeshift dressing room as there was simply nothing else around.
“We used to sit inside that grounded helicopter because it used to rain all the time. Now, we have a stadium there (Kabul),” the Afghanistan team’s then media manager Bashir Stanikzai was quoted as saying by the DNA newspaper.
In 2009, Afghanistan gained ODI status and within a decade of their rise to the international stage, the Afghans were granted Test status.
What has set Afghanistan apart from other cricketing regions is the fact they are the only nation that actively picked up the sport without any intervention from the British.
Afghanistan’s first cricket body was formed in 1995 in the refugee camps in Peshawar. Cricket, in fact, is the only sport that was ‘approved’ by the previous regime in Afghanistan in the early 2000s. From there, the game flourished and we have now reached the stage where Afghanistan will not only take on world No1 India in one of the most historic venues in the world – M. Chinnaswamy Stadium – but will get to play against every team visiting India.
For a team that started its cricketing journey in a refugee camp two decades ago, Afghanistan have come a long, long way.
As Afghan fast bowler Hamid Hassan, quoted by ESPNcricinfo, said: “I have seen people die and not shed a tear. But there is something about cricket that gets me in my heart.”
Afghanistan captain Asghar Stanikzai said it is the responsibility of his players to live up to expectations as they prepare for their inaugural Test against India which begins in Bengaluru on Thursday.
Stanikzai hopes the buoyant mood back home in Afghanistan will help his team when play begins at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium against the No1 Test team in the world.
“It is history that we are playing the inaugural and historic Test match against the number one team in the world,” Stanikzai was quoted as saying by AFP.
“The mood back home is very positive. They expect us to perform well because recently Afghanistan performed really well in T20 and one day internationals and their expectation will be the same for Tests.
“We have worked hard for this and will try to keep up our good performance in the Test match as well,” the 30-year-old said.
Afghanistan gained ODI status in 2009 and have since qualified for their second 50-over World Cup – in England next year. They have also been part of four World T20s.
Afghanistan, who have set up base in India due to lack of a secure environment at home, enter the Test on the back of a 3-0 T20 series win over Bangladesh.
ALL EYES ON RASHID
Adding to their confidence is the form of teen sensation Rashid Khan who is now an established international star. Rashid took 21 wickets in the IPL for runners-up Sunrisers Hyderabad and scalped eight wickets in the T20 series against Bangladesh.
Afghanistan coach Phil Simmons said with the spotlight on rashid, other players are focusing on raising their game.
“Rashid is so professional, he knows how to deal with it. And while he is dealing with it the others have time to work on their own strategies,” Simmons said. “It’s a good thing for the team.”
The Afghanistan coach, however, was disappointed that his team won’t get to play against one of the premier players in the world – Virat Kohli.
“I think there will always be a bit of disappointment in the players not to be on the same field as Virat, but at the same time we look to win the Test match and beat India, we don’t beat Virat,” said Simmons.
“So we are disappointed he is not playing but a little bit happy that we are not going to bowl to him all the time,” he added.
When the match was originally scheduled, it was expected to be a straightforward proposition for the Indian team against Test cricket’s newest entrants. Even a less-than full strength Indian team was never going to be really tested by Afghanistan who anyhow don’t play a lot of first-class cricket, right?
Now a couple of days before the inaugural Test in Bengaluru, it doesn’t look like that will be the case. Afghanistan are riding high on their 3-0 T20 series win over Bangladesh and the sizzling form of leg-spinners Rashid Khan and Mujeeb ur Rahman. India, meanwhile, are without a few key players.
Here we take a look at the factors working in favour of Afghanistan ahead of their inaugural Test.
FITNESS ISSUES IN INDIAN CAMP
Regular captain Kohli was anyhow going to miss the match as he had lined up a stint in county cricket to prepare for the England Test series. Then he picked up a back/neck injury and now need to prove his fitness. Wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha injured his finger during the IPL and pace ace Mohammed Shami failed to pass the fitness test on Monday.
That’s three crucial member of the team missing. India have decided to give pace spearheads Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah rest. Also, Test regulars Ajinkya Rahane and Murali Vijay are not in any sort of form. This is far from a settled Indian unit and Afghanistan can make some quick inroads into the Indian line-up.
FORM OF RASHID AND MUJEEB
All we need now is the Afgan Boys to topple India and the world will be turned upside down !!— Niall John O Brien (@niallnobiobrien) June 10, 2018
Good form is invaluable, irrespective of the format. England’s Jos Buttler took his sizzling form in the IPL to the Test arena and helped level the series against Pakistan after his team had fallen behind.
Rashid and Mujeeb did well in the IPL and then in the subsequent T20 series against Bangladesh and that is overs and wickets under the belt in Indian conditions. Also, both Mujeeb and Rashid dismissed star players of spin like Kohli, MS Dhoni and KL Rahul in the IPL emphatically, which should give them confidence against ‘lesser’ batsmen.
The big boys are having a tough time against ‘minnows’ of late. Ireland kept Pakistan under pressure almost throughout their inaugural Test in Dublin. Thereafter Afghanistan blanked an established Test nation like Bangladesh 3-0 in T20s in the subcontinent. And then Scotland pulled the rug from under England in Edinburgh.
There is a real buzz among the teams who have felt left out over the past few years, especially after the ICC’s decision to restrict next year’s World Cup to 10 teams. There seems a genuine hunger to prove ‘them’ wrong. Ireland and Scotland have done so brilliantly. Afghanistan will be even more determined as they are the most dangerous among the bunch.