“So many people worked so hard to bring us to this point” - Stanikzai. © AFP

“So many people worked so hard to bring us to this point” – Stanikzai. © AFP

The first time Afghanistan played India in any format was a World Twenty20 contest in 2010. India pummeled the then Associates by seven wickets, but instead of sulking on the sidelines after the game, a beaming bunch of Afghanis lined up to take pictures with the Indian team till the floodlights dimmed.

There was a repeat in the 2012 edition of the same tournament, only this time their attention was mostly on one man: Virat Kohli. Kohli, who made his Twenty20 International debut a month after the opening tie between the sides, was spoken to with starstruck eyes and numerous pictures made their way to the media, a time before selfies became the rage.

“Kohli is a big deal in Afghanistan. People love how he plays and generally, he has a big fan following,” Mohammad Shahzad had said when asked about their infatuation with the future Indian skipper.

Since that meeting, India have played Afghanistan in one One-Day International during the Asia Cup in Dhaka in 2014, and Kohli wasn’t available for that game. But when it was announced that Afghanistan will take on India for their maiden Test, the dream of playing against Kohli would have passed their mind after the initial high of getting a chance to play a five-day game simmered. Sadly, Kohli opted to play county cricket instead to acclimatise for the upcoming series against England and eventually called off that stint too due to a neck injury.

Asked if it was disappointing to not have Kohli playing the contest, Asghar Stanikzai, who was speaking with the help of a translator, shook his head in disappointment while Phil Simmons, the team’s coach, took over the microphone.

“I think there will always be a bit of disappointment for the players not to be on the same field as Virat,” said the West Indian at the M Chinnaswamy stadium in Bangalore on Wednesday (June 13). “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.”

That comment drew some ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the large gathering of journalists, but the fact of the matter is that Afghanistan are here to compete and win. They aren’t here to bask in the moment and ignore the challenges that lie ahead, chief among which is to adapt to the longest format.

Afghanistan have shown tremendous growth and skill in limited-overs cricket, but this is their first step in Test cricket after gaining full-member status in June 2017, so no one knows what to expect of them.

“Our preparation has been very good. Only four players will be making the transition from white-ball cricket to red-ball cricket in a short span. The rest have been training with the red ball. Fortunately, the three fast bowlers were not in the T20 squad so they were concentrating on Test cricket,” explained Simmons.

“The mental part comes from the way to 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 that they have played four-day cricket so they have a fair idea… the good thing about it is that they learn quickly.”

Simmons also insisted that unlike Ireland and Zimbabwe, where he has enjoyed coaching stints, Afghanistan keep churning out quality talent.

“They don’t have too many batsmen but they have an abundance of bowlers. I don’t think many countries have generated as much talent over the last few years as Afghanistan has. They’re a very exciting prospect,” said Simmons.

Stanikzai cited a solid domestic structure for their ability to unearth talent on a regular basis. “We have such a good domestic structure that players can’t hide for too long. Also because most of our matches are televised and on social media, it’s easy to track the talent that’s coming through. We have limited players from different provinces but when they perform we give them chance in our teams like A team and development squad,” he revealed.

Stanikzai, who has been an integral part of Afghanistan’s journey since their maiden World T20 in 2010, thanked his predecessors for their contribution and reveled in the reaction back home.

“So many people worked so hard to bring us to this point,” he said. “It’s a wonderful effort. It’s a big moment for all of us and those who contributed should feel very proud.

“Back home, people are very positive and they’re very supportive of us. They expect us to do well because we have been doing well recently in ODIs and T20Is. It’s not the same format but they still expect us to do great things. We will obviously try and live up to their expectations.”