Mohammad Shahzad turned to a group of hacks and greeted them in polished Hindi: “Namaste. Aap sab ka swagat hai (Namaste. You all are welcome).” The portly Afghanistan ’keeper-batsman then got down to the serious business of merry hell hitting at the Chinnaswamy nets. The heavy artillery continued for 30-odd minutes. Every spinner, including Shahzad’s teammate, left-arm orthodox bowler Amir Hamza, bore the brunt.
Shahzad’s T20-style preparation for a Test match encapsulated Afghanistan’s uninhibited approach towards the game. History beckons but the momentous occasion doesn’t appear to be weighing heavy on the Afghan cricketers. They seem to have opted for a fun build-up instead.
Afghanistan are cricket’s joie de vivre and the ICC should revel in their march to the top. Till the mid 1990s, the sport didn’t exist in the war-ravaged country. About 20 years down the line, they will turn up for their first-ever Test match, commencing in two days, thriving on an all-indigenous participation. Ireland became the 11th Test-playing nation last month and won many a heart, putting in a spirited performance against Pakistan. Ireland players, however, have had the privilege of constantly rubbing shoulders with English cricket elite. They could even call on 39-year-old Ed Joyce, who played a World Cup for England. The Scotland team that defeated England in an ODI two days ago had three England-born players, a cricketer of South African origin and another one of south Asian origin. In fact, cricket in ICC Associates has always been a game of the migrants. Afghanistan, granted ICC Full Member status in June 2017, are a glorious exception. Credit to the BCCI, especially Anurag Thakur who, as the cricket board secretary in 2015, was instrumental in handing out the Greater Noida cricket stadium facility to the Afghanistan Cricket Board.
The Great Game, as immortalised by Rudyard Kipling, had a tenuous link to cricket. British troops reportedly played a match in Kabul in 1839. Afghanistan’s next contact with the sport came in the 1990s through refugees who migrated to Pakistan. When the expats returned home, they brought cricket to Afghanistan. It quickly became the country’s No.1 sport. They featured in the 50-over World Cup for the first time in 2015. Three years hence, they are turning up at Chinnaswamy to face the world’s top-ranked Test side. This is a fairytale even ‘Kim’ would have been proud of – a Kipling overdose is probably permissible here. “In my opinion, we have good spinners, better spinners than India,” Afghanistan captain Asghar Stanikzai’s claim bordered on the audacious. India can throw up Ravi Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, who have 476 Test wickets between them. The hosts also have the liberty to add Kuldeep Yadav’s wrist-spin to the mix.
The IPL has made Rashid Khan a household name in India alright. During the last IPL, Mujeeb Ur Rahman showed his guile, which outsmarted even Virat Kohli. Chinaman bowler Zahir Khan impressed enough at the U-19 level to be picked by Rajasthan Royals at the auction, although the teenager missed the tournament due to a shoulder injury. Spare a thought for Mohammad Nabi also, who would mother-hen the youngsters, apart from offering tight off-spin. Five-day, red-ball cricket, however, is different and the Afghans have just reached the beginner’s level.
On Tuesday, Dinesh Karthik was asked about the Afghanistan skipper’s spin superiority claim. The India ‘keeper for this Test put things in perspective. “I don’t know what that person has said, in terms of having better spinners. Look, you have to understand we have a lot of experience. Not only Test match cricket but also domestic cricket; a lot of four-day matches. Clearly, all their spinners put together would not have played as many matches as say a Kuldeep Yadav would have played in four-day cricket.
“At the end of the day, experience has a lot of value. We saw that with CSK in IPL. Experience pays. I’m sure in time, they will be even better bowlers than when they start off. But the point is, the kind of improvement they have shown in white-ball cricket has been phenomenal. There’s no reason why they cannot do that in Test cricket. But I would definitely say our spinners have a lot of experience and experience is not something that can be easily bought. I’m sure their players will also vouch for that. So, I wouldn’t harp too much on that statement.”
Karthik, though, didn’t hide his excitement over Afghanistan’s rise as a cricket nation. “It’s been beautiful, isn’t it? It is one of the highlights for the ICC as well, to have a Test nation like Afghanistan. Their journey has been an inspiration for international cricket. Not many knew they play, but for them to come in through the qualifiers and secure a World Cup berth, do so well and compete with the other teams, I give them a lot of credit. Everyone knows it’s a tough place and the turmoil that they are going through, but inspite of that they are able to inspire people with their performances.”
A search on Google reveals that terrorist attacks have accounted for over 300 lives in Kabul alone this year so far. Last month, Jalalabad witnessed an attack on a cricket match, and eight deaths were reported. Rashid and company have risen above the adversity. They are ready for the ‘great game’.