A Test of nerves for Afghanistan in debut against India
Shaken by the horrors of war, Afghanistan will take a mighty step in cricket history when captain Asghar Stanikzai leads his team out for their first ever Test match against India on Thursday.
Conflict has scarred virtually every member of the team and they are impoverished compared with their opponents, the world’s wealthiest cricket nation.
But Stanikzai said they are determined to show their rise to a Test nation less than two decades after being recognised by the International Cricket Council in 2001 is merited.
“It’s a great moment for us as we embark on our Test journey,” said Stanikzai, who has been a member of the Afghanistan side since they gained one-day international status in 2009.
“To be competing against the best on the Test rankings table is something to be proud of and we will try to do our best in whatever chances we get and exhibit the skills the players possess individually as well as collectively as a team.”
Afghan cricket grew out of the refugee camps in Pakistan where many families were based after they fled the Afghan conflict in the 1980s and 1990s.
Now the country is producing world-beaters like 19-year-old spinner Rashid Khan.
In March, the teenager became the fastest bowler to reach 100 one-day international wickets, and is currently the world’s top-ranked Twenty20 bowler.
Khan was one of a handful of Afghan players in this year’s Indian Premier League and proved one of its most dangerous bowlers. He took 21 wickets for runners-up Sunrisers Hyderabad, who paid $1.4 million for his services.
“In my opinion we have better spinners than India,” Stanikzai told Indian media, highlighting the likes of Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Mohammad Nabi, Rahmat Shah and Zahir Khan.
After impressive performances in the limited-overs formats, Afghanistan must prove they can stand the stresses of a five-day match.
Conditions in India are unlikely to surprise them, though: the team have been training in the country since 2015 because of poor security at home.
– Passion v experience –
Afghan players got a new reminder of the horrors in their country last month when an attack on a cricket match in Khan’s home city of Jalalabad killed eight people and wounded 45.
“Cricket has been a source of happiness and pride for all Afghans,” said Afghanistan Cricket Board chief Atif Mashal at the time. “These attacks are against peace, unity and humanity.”
But growing up in a tough environment where such militant attacks were common did not deter spin sensation Khan.
“The terror in our home area meant we did not have access to an education while growing up. My parents even forbid my siblings and I to play cricket outside our home,” Khan, one of 12 children, said in a recent interview with Afghan media.
“But no amount of war stopped me from sneaking out to play cricket with my brothers.”
Former Afghanistan coach Inzamam ul Haq, the ex-Pakistan captain, said the team’s “passion” in adversity sets them apart, and the performances of Khan and the other spinners in the IPL has boosted their confidence.
But the Afghan spinners will be up against experienced Indian rivals Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja who between them have 476 Test wickets.
And Indian batsman Karun Nair, famed for his triple century in his third Test against England in 2016, cast doubt on Stanikzai’s claim of spin superiority.
“I think that’s a pretty big statement to make considering they haven’t played Test cricket,” Nair told reporters.
“All of our spinners are proven wicket-takers so there is nothing much to say on that.”
The Indian team will be led by Ajinkya Rahane in the absence of regular captain Virat Kohli, who is resting, and are overwhelming favourites.
But the Afghans can give heavyweights India a tough time if they follow the footsteps of the other team to make their Test debut this year: last month, Ireland made Pakistan sweat before eventually losing their first-ever Test.