Ever since the rise of India as a powerful cricket nation in the 1990s, it has welcomed teams to the Test fold marking it with historic series. Be it 1992-93 when India became the first international team to play South Africa marking the end of the latter's exile from international cricket or against Bangladesh in 2001 to celebrate its debut as a Test nation, India has been on the forefront of cricket diplomacy.
Officials of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) ensured that its long standing and friendly relations with Afghanistan were further cemented with India hosting the latest full-member nation's historic debut Test match. Even though, traditionally, India does not play Test cricket in the hot summer months and the monsoon season, cricket administrators are squeezing in the one-off Test match between India and Afghanistan in pleasant, rain-drenched Bengaluru before the hosts embark on their three-month-long tour of England.
Afghanistan aren't bothered about the circumstances that have led them to Bengaluru. They are revelling in it. The weather, for one, is far more pleasant than hot and dry Dehradun where they are based presently. And the occasion―It's a moment in history that Afghanistan cricket has worked hard to achieve.
Under an overcast Bengaluru sky, Afghanistan players trained quietly at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, practising each drill they were put through by their coach Phil Simmons. There weren't many people present in the stadium to see them go through the paces on the eve of the historic match. A handful of people, who were present, searched for the most famous player in the visiting side―leg-spinner Rashid Khan―to sign autographs.
Earlier in the day, Afghanistan skipper Asghar Stanikzai was asked whether he or his teammates were nervous going into their debut Test match against the top-ranked Test team in the world. Speaking in Pasho, translated by their team manager in English, Stanikzai responded calmly. “Nervous? I am hearing it for the first time. We are well-prepared.”
Speaking about the mood back home in Afghanistan, Stanikzai said hopes were high especially after the team's recent performances in shorter formats. “It is historic in itself that we are playing the inaugural Test match against the number one team in the world. The mood back home is very positive and supportive. They are looking forward to a great performance, they expect us to perform well because recently Afghanistan performed really well in the T20s and ODIs, and their expectation will be the same from us. We will try to keep up our performance in the Test match as well. We have worked hard over the last couple of days for this and we will do our best,” said Stanikzai, the soul from his response, however, lost somewhere in translation.
Afghanistan has garnered respect for itself by playing an attacking and expressive brand of cricket. But Test cricket is altogether a different ball game. It tests a player's temperament, skill and mental strength. On the brand of cricket his team would bring to the park, Stanikzai said, “There is a difference between T20, ODI and Test cricket. It depends on our plans. We have succeeded in our plans. We will take this match the same way and we will see tomorrow.”
The moment is huge, without doubt, for each person who has selflessly contributed towards strengthening Afghanistan cricket. The current team misses some prominent names like that of their first international skipper Nawroze Mangal. But for the likes of Stanikzai and all-rounder Mohammed Nabi, who have been part of the team since their first international year in 2009, there will undoubtedly be lots of emotion to deal with.
Giving an insight into the team's red-ball preparations, coach Simmons is satisfied with the team's planning and preparations for the big occasion. Afghanistan comes into the one-off Test after playing a Twenty20 international series against Bangladesh last week, blanking out the Tigers 3-0. “Preparation has been good,” said Simmons. “We only had four players that crossed over. We still had 12-13 players training with red ball. Fortunately, the three fast bowlers were not in the T20 squad and they have been concentrating on Test preparation. The two senior spinners Abid and Rashid, I am sure, will be able to adjust themselves. The training has been good as it was separated except for the four in the T20s.”
Simmons was certain that the Afghan players had a fair idea of what it takes to play Test cricket having played enough four-day matches in their domestic cricket. He gave a thumbs up to his players for embracing the long format without much trouble. “The mental part comes from the way they train. How long you bat, how long you bowl in nets, how hard you train in the nets... That's the only way you prepare mentally because when you get out there then you understand what it takes. As the captain said, they have played four-day cricket, so they have a fair idea... the good thing about it is that they learn quickly,” he said.
Skipper Stanikzai echoed his coach's thoughts. “I think we have very good domestic structure. We have different tournaments, four-day first-class tournaments, university T20 tournaments. So, there are players that can't hide their potential when they do well in domestic cricket. Because most of our matches are live on social media, they are coming through. We have limited players from different provinces but when they perform, we give them a chance in our teams like A team and development squad and they are coming through to the national team.”
On the match becoming a face-off between the spinners from both sides, Simmons backed Stanikzai's claim that his slower bowlers were equal if not better than the Indians. “My captain knows what he is talking about. When you look at it, all spinners in this contest will be excellent. We know that right now, Rashid is the most difficult spinner to play around. He has not played Test cricket. We have to look and see what happens. But his professionalism will help him adjust and I am sure he will come out well.”
The Afghans are not missing India skipper Virat Kohli who is undergoing rehab in Bengaluru. The absence of Kohli does not take away the sheen from such a big moment for them. “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 at it as 'win the Test match and beat India', we don't beat Virat. 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. We are happy to be here and playing India, Virat is not India,” said Simmons.
On the focus and pressure being too much on Rashid Khan―the most popular face of the side, Simmons said the leggie was aware of expectations from him. “Rashid is so professional, he knows how to deal with it. And while he is dealing with it, the others, as you say, have time to work on their own strategies. I can think it's a good thing for the team.”