Little over twenty-four hours ago, suicide bombers struck a government building in Kabul, killing at least 17 people. As crude and desensitised as it may sound, that is just another day in Afghanistan.
So often does death and turmoil take centerstage that a day without bloodshed and mindless scurrying brings them as much relief as it does joy. Which should make you wonder just how significant a game of cricket is when weighed against the game of life? Even if the game in question is Afghanistan’s maiden Test against India at the M Chinnaswamy stadium in Bangalore from Thursday (June 14).
Rain has wreaked havoc with the training sessions for both teams, and it’s likely that the weather will hamper the historic game.
Weather reports indicate rain throughout the duration of the Test, but if the recent trend is anything to go by, teams will be able to get in a fair bit of action. On Wednesday too, the heavens opened up for a sharp spell for about 10 minutes before the sun peaked.
Despite not having enough time to prepare, R Sriram, the Karnataka State Cricket Association curator, and his groundsmen have created a seemingly dry surface, shaving off a considerable amount of grass over the last two days.
“When I played with them in Ireland, it was a little bit greener than this and it still turned,” said Phil Simmons, the Afghanistan coach, when asked if the visiting spinners will get enough purchase here. “I think the bowlers are experienced enough to turn on that. It looks a lot darker today than it did two days ago, so I think by the time tomorrow comes it will be dry enough to spin on it.”
The contest itself, no matter the result, makes little difference to directly changing the state of affairs in the war-torn nation, but sport has always had the ability to lift spirits when all else fails. It gives those in strife something to look forward to, something to cheer, something to lay their hopes on, something other than life itself to pray for, something to distract troubled minds. In that sense, it makes a difference.
Hence, when 11 men from Afghanistan line-up for the national anthem alongside Ajinkya Rahane and his men, it will not only be the greatest advertisement of resilience and persistence in the world of cricket, it will also be the ultimate tale for their successors and many others around the world to draw inspiration from when nothing else is going their way.
Of course, Asghar Stanikzai’s men could simply take pride in the fact that they have come this far and not fantasise about toppling India, the No.1 ranked Test side in the world, but then again, they are athletes who are every bit as competitive as anyone else at the level, so expect them to give it their everything.
It obviously helps that they have little to lose. Win, the story will be heralded for generations to come. Lose, their journey to Test cricket and the heroics shown on the biggest stage will anyway be lauded. It’s a position of privilege, one that India will be wary of because often times it is those who are brazen that turn things upside down.
Take for instance the last two times teams made their Test debuts against India. Zimbabwe played their maiden Test in Harare in October 1992 and managed to draw the game. Bangladesh opened their account with a shining display before losing by nine wickets in Dhaka in 2000. If those examples aren’t enough to inspire them, Afghanistan can look at Ireland’s case to garner a mental boost. Ireland, who were granted Test status along with Afghanistan in June 2017, gave Pakistan a run for their money last month before wilting. In all these cases, the greenhorns managed to tick at least few sessions – more in some cases – to their name, and that should be Afghanistan’s base-goal as well.
Afghanistan: Ashgar Stanikzai (capt), Mohammed Shahzad (wk), Javed Ahmadi, Rahmat Shah, Ihsanullah Janat, Nasir Jamal, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Afsar Zazai, Mohammed Nabi, Rashid Khan, Zahir Khan, Amir Hamza Hotak, Sayed Ahmad Shirzad, Yamin Ahmadzai Wafadar, Mujeeb Ur Rahman.
India: Ajinkya Rahane (capt), Shikhar Dhawan, M Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Karun Nair, Dinesh Karthik (wk), R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Umesh Yadav, Navdeep Saini, Hardik Pandya, Ishant Sharma, Shardul Thakur.
The end goal, of course, would be to go all the way, but with a batting unit as fickle as Bangalore’s weather this time of the year, there’s little hope. The pace department doesn’t exude confidence either, meaning even that slim chance of success rests on shoulders of Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman.
Rashid, considered by many as the world’s best in the shortest format of the game, remains an unknown prospect with the red-ball so it’ll be interesting to see how the 19-year-old fares. His partner will be a 17-year-old, who hasn’t yet played a first-class game, with the reputation of slaying big names with his wily finger spin. While the duo plying their wares together would send a chill through teams featuring in Twenty20s, it is tough to see them operating long spells with nearly as much of an impact. Which is why Stanikzai’s comment on Afghanistan possessing a better spin attack than India raised eyebrows and some chuckles too.
R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja have scalped 476 wickets between them! There’s also Kuldeep Yadav in the squad and even the newest spinner in the ranks has played more first-class cricket than all the spinners in Afghanistan’s ranks. Experience isn’t Afghanistan’s strong suit but they could make up for that and hopefully more with passion.
Though passion and free spirit have made them one of the most beloved and successful teams in recent times, those traits alone won’t be enough to stop the juggernaut that is India.
The hosts are without Virat Kohli, their star skipper who opted out of the Test, but they still have more than enough firepower to blow Afghanistan away inside five days. That being said, this is as good a chance as any for those on a bus to England to prepare ahead of the upcoming five-match series. India will have their strategy in place, not only keeping their immediate opponents in mind but also with England in sight. That’s just what great teams do. Afghanistan aren’t in a position to look too far ahead of 14-6-2018. Fortunately, they are so programmed to living in the moment that they won’t even try.