"No matter what kind of cricket you have played before entering the Test arena, Test cricket is a different ball game... a totally different ball game.”
Habibul Bashar fires a warning even before I start the conversation about the challenges that new entrants Afghanistan and Ireland will face in Test cricket. Bashar played for Bangladesh in the nation's first-ever Test match and, just like his contemporaries, went through a whole range of emotions in his team's nascent stages.
The tenth day of November in 2000 was a landmark day for Bangladeshi cricket as the players strode out to the field at the vibrant Bangabandhu National Stadium in whites for the first time. Nerves were frayed and their spirit was laced with adrenaline. There had been sleepless nights. But, the wait was finally over and dreams were just about to take flight.
"I can remember every second and minute of that Test. But I don't know what I went through," Bashar tells Firstpost.
The Bangladesh roller-coaster had begun. Captain Naimur Rahman won the toss and elected to bat but six overs into their debut Test, Mehrab Hossain edged one to the keeper off Zaheer Khan and found himself walking back.
Amidst soaring tensions, Bashar walked out to the middle and calmed the nerves, steadying the ship with Shahriar Hossain at first, and then Aminul Islam.
"I scored a few runs but I really don't know how I scored those because it was pure instinct. I didn't prepare for any bowlers," he says.
Bashar departed for 71 after lunch but Aminul went on to score 145 to propel the hosts to 400 in their first innings. Bangladesh were on cloud nine within their first two days in the Test arena.
So that was it? All the hard work was done, the Bangladeshi minds thought. Bouts of insomnia made way for sound sleep. Test cricket isn't really so tough, is it?
The question was answered over the next two days as Bangladesh were left with a deep hangover. Sadagopan Ramesh, Sourav Ganguly and Sunil Joshi's fifties helped India take a 29-run lead. It got worse for Bangladesh as they succumbed to 91 all out in their second innings. India were left with a 63-run target and Bangladesh was stunned. The match finished inside four days. After posting 400, Bangladesh had come crashing down like a drunken partygoer getting out of a late-night taxi.
"After scoring 400 runs, we thought we had won the match," Bashar says. "We had no experience in Tests, and when we posted 400, we thought this is it!"
Harsh reality with a devilish smile had whispered into their ears with a soft tone: "Welcome to Test cricket, Bangladesh."
Yet this sort of reality check in their first match was crucial.
"That Test match gave us a bitter taste. We learned everything from that match. We weren't hurt, but this was a lesson in how difficult the Test road would be for us," says Bashar.
Bangladesh had started preparing for the special occasion six months prior. The focus was so intense that if a batsman used to play out consecutive dots or even a maiden in domestic limited-overs games, people would murmur "Oh! This guy is playing for the first Test and not the team."
All the hard work was undone inside two days. Bangladesh had learned the hard way.
For Afghanistan and Ireland, 22 June, 2017 was a historic day. After years of waiting, they were finally given Full Member status. Test cricket got new entrants after 17 years. "There is a lot of excitement especially for the older generation that has been around the squad a lot longer. It's been 10 years in the making for the guys like us and definitely there is a lot of excitement," Ireland batsman Andrew Balbirnie tells Firstpost. Former Afghanistan coach Lalchand Rajput described it as a 'great moment' for the passionate Afghans.
The excitement is palpable. The hard work over the years has paid off. Even before Afghanistan received their Test status, all-rounder Mohammad Nabi declared, "Inshallah! We are ready for Test cricket.” So now that they have achieved the Test status, what next? What is it like to be the newest entrants of Test cricket? Well, who better than Bangladesh to answer these questions.
"First things first, it's not going to be smooth for Afghanistan and Ireland," Bashar continues from where he left off about the challenges that the two new Test teams will face.
"We've been playing Test cricket for 17 years now. We have a good team and have improved a lot but we cannot say going into a Test that we will win this Test, which we can in ODIs. So you can understand how hard it was for us in the initial years. It was very difficult."
Test cricket is a different beast. An underprepared Bangladesh realised it soon and struggled to find their feet in the early years. It took them almost four years to register their first win in Tests, when they beat Zimbabwe at home in 2005. It was their first series win too. It took them 35 matches to break the deadlock, the second-most after New Zealand (44). Somehow, they didn't manage to adapt to the transition from limited-overs to the longer format.
"It will be a tough challenge adapting initially to playing Test cricket," says Ireland left-arm spinner George Dockrell, "It is the highest level of cricket you can play and therefore it's five days of extreme hard work. We have played so much ODI and T20 cricket against the best teams in the world but the challenge Test cricket will bring will be for us to put together five days of good cricket as opposed to 50 overs."
According to Bashar, Afghanistan and Ireland will need some time to understand the game which will happen by playing more Tests. Bangladesh's early struggles drew a lot of flak. "When we struggled, which was quite normal and natural, people started talking about us that we are not good enough, giving us Test status was wrong. It only added to the pressure," Bashar explains.
For the two new full members, the initial road will be bumpy, just like Bangladesh. However, amidst the cacophony of criticism, Bangladesh remained unflustered in fallow periods.
Former Bangladesh wicket-keeper batsman Khaled Mashud, who was also a member of his country’s first Test side, says that mental strength will be crucial for Afghanistan and Ireland. Mashud reckons that the two new entrants are "mentally more fit than we were 20 years ago". Afghanistan and Ireland have been continuously playing at the international level in limited-overs cricket that has made them battle-hardened — a privilege Bangladesh didn't have. Factor this: Afghanistan (144) and Ireland (184) have played a combined 328 international matches compared to Bangladesh's 41 before playing their first Test, a whopping 87.5 percent more.
"One good thing is they are playing international cricket quite often these days. When we got Test status, we hardly played international cricket. In those days, we played Test cricket just twice a year and two years later, we played the Asia Cup," says Bashar.
"They are playing in the World Cup and competing against great players. The players are also playing in the IPL, PSL, CPL and so on, so mentally they are very strong now," Mashud adds.
Nabi confirms the shift in mindset. "Earlier when we used to play, there was a sort of fear in our hearts that we are playing against international sides... whether or not we would win. There used to pressure. But 70 to 80 percent percent of that pressure has vanished now. We play with them, put up a fight, give them a tough time and sometimes end up winning too which gives us further motivation."
Apart from the mental strength, the realisation that there will be no fairy tale overnight success stories needs to arrive soon, something of which Dockrell is acutely aware.
"We will need to learn from other teams’ initial growth within Test cricket, but I think the most important thing we can take away is that it will take time initially before we are consistently successful," the Irish left-arm spinner says, "As long as we are learning and working hard, that will take care of itself and I'm confident the structures within Irish cricket will continue to grow to help us achieve that."
In spite of the early turbulent period, Bangladesh somehow hung on. Somewhere down the line, their rich cricketing culture helped. And with experience, the mindset changed. Bangladesh started focussing on individual performances. Yes, cricket is definitely a team game, but they took a different route. The next step was just to be competitive, regardless of the results. With the tendency of folding early, sometimes inside three or four days, their first goal was to stretch it to four or even five days. They wanted to make it interesting and competitive. The mentality had changed.
Mashud expects Afghanistan and Ireland to tread a similar path in the first few years.
"They should look to survive. Try and draw Test matches. They should be defensive to begin and then try and go for a win," Mashud says, "There will be times when results will be bad but they shouldn't lose hope. Their aim should be to stretch games out as long as possible."
What ailed Bangladesh in the early years was a lack of infrastructure and an almost non-existent domestic structure. Aminul, who scored 145 in the inaugural Test, was probably the best prepared for it as he practiced his leaves in the Southern Premier League in Hampshire that summer.
"By day four, we had all forgotten there were another 180 overs to go," Aminul told The Cricket Monthly.
"The only experience we had was the three-day matches against England A, Hyderabad Blues etc. We had no idea what a five-day match was. We played Tests like three-day matches. On the first three days, we were competitive. On the fourth and fifth days, we would lose out," Aminul added.
The club cricket-level was pretty high where a lot of quality foreign players used to take part. There were National Championships which were conducted for two days. However, those were well below the standards Test cricket demanded. In Bashar's words, "The cricket was not up to the mark in the domestic arena."
The 'A' tours were few and far between and the quality of opposition didn't quite imbue enthusiasm. Things started to change after Bangladesh achieved Test status. A first-class system was installed and the team started touring abroad.
"The best thing about the Associates getting Test status is that now they will benefit financially," says Bashar, "They can improve their domestic structure with this money. That's what Bangladesh has done. We struggled for the initial two or three years but during that time our domestic structure improved, standards got better and we worked really hard to get competitive. That worked for us."
Afghanistan and Ireland already have a First-Class system in place. Afghanistan have a four-day competition — the Ahmad Shah Abdali tournament — played by six teams over a period of four months. They also have a T20 tournament called the Shpageeza Cricket League. Television coverage is given precedence to inspire the nation’s youth. Their domestic competitions were awarded first-class and List A status by the ICC in February this year. Ireland's three-day competition -—the Hanley Energy Inter-Provincial Championship — consisting of three teams, was launched in 2013 and awarded First-Class status last year. Similarly, their 50-over and T20 tournaments built around the country's three main provinces, were also elevated to List A status by the ICC.
The domestic structure is in place, but there is a need for continuous improvement.
"Our infrastructure is still behind compared to a full nation. Other countries have a lot of cricket stadiums. We've got rugby, soccer and Gaelic games which are big over here, so we are competing with all of them," says Balbirnie.
"The new First-Class structure has a lot of potential. There are a lot of good young players coming through, who are getting exposure at that level. We could probably do with a couple of teams more, but that's down to the participants. It's going from strength to strength and hopefully for the younger guys playing at that level, when they step up to international cricket, it won't be as hard as it has been before."
Ireland doesn't have a four-day competition but Richard Holdsworth, Cricket Ireland’s performance director, told Firstpost that they are considering extending the three-day format to four days in the future and also increasing the number of teams in the 50-over format from three to four, now that the nation has attained Test status.
According to Holdsworth, the Ireland senior management are consulting with the board and players over the next few months to finalise the plans for future investment in structures, programmes and resources. The management conducted many discussions ahead of gaining full membership, but will not be rushed into changes. It is also likely that any new funding from the ICC will not commence until January 2018, so this leaves Ireland limited with regards to immediate expansion.
Ireland have four venues — two in Dublin and one each in Belfast and Bready — where international cricket is played. However, Balbirnie wants a permanent home for Ireland cricket.
"A lot of times we have had to put in temporary seating and make up a stadium. We have good grounds, lovely ones but no permanent stadium," says the all-rounder.
"It will give us a home, just like England has Lord's. It will give us identity. Over here we have Croke Park, a big stadium with an 80,000-person capacity, so having a similar one where people can come and watch the games and feel a part of the team (will be good). Our grounds are a bit like New Zealand with grass banks, lovely and picturesque, but if we need to go forward as a Test nation, I am not saying it needs to be like an MCG, but just something that can hold 15,000 people."
Afghanistan has already started the revamp process. There is a national academy set up in Kabul. There are stadiums being built in multiple provinces. The national cricket team shifted base from Sharjah to Greater Noida at the Shahid Vijay Singh Pathik Sports Complex where they can train and play matches.
"The infrastructure and facilities are very good (in Greater Noida)," Rajput says, "They've got a lot of practice wickets as well as a centre wicket. It's also an ICC-qualified ground."
Rajput reckons that Afghanistan require similar infrastructure back home along with quality coaches and support staff. While the infrastructure is at the development stage, safety concerns are a major hindrance. Not many coaches are willing to travel to Afghanistan which was one of the major reasons Rajput parted ways with the team. One way of solving the problem would be giving homegrown coaches priority and developing them by sending them abroad for various courses.
However, this isn't limited to coaches. In fact, Afghanistan finds itself in a unique situation that no other Test-playing nations (the possible exception being Pakistan to a certain extent) face: The country is blighted by terrorism and war. Players will inevitably face the difficult task of putting on their best performances, with one eye on their own personal safety.
Nevertheless, Nabi's idea of strengthening the First-Class structure is to have quality players playing in domestic cricket.
"To make it strong, you need strong players. There should be a strong competition with the national players participating along with the local team players," Nabi says, "When (international and experienced) players like us play with the teams from the five regions in the domestic competition, they will improve further and the experience that we share will make the First-Class structure stronger.”
So what's the other way of making players stronger? Sending them abroad regularly to gain valuable experience is a popular belief. Also the conveyor belt of young upcoming talent shouldn't halt, something that has impeded Ireland's progress with a lack of quality in reserve and the golden generation waning. Mashud suggests a two-point plan for solution.
"The short term plan is, now that they have got the Test status, they should look to survive for the first two years," says the former Bangladesh wicket-keeper batsman, "The long term plan should be based around the upcoming youngsters. The 'A' teams and U-19 youngsters should regularly tour other countries so that they are ready in time."
"The main team should play the 'A' teams of every Test nation each year as the big nations will have jam-packed calendars. The 'A' teams are also very strong. There won't be much media coverage and hence less pressure and they will get to practice with quality players. In between they should play a one-off Test with every nation so that they get the feel of Test match cricket."
Balbirnie is of the opinion that the Ireland 'A' teams need to play against the first-class sides of India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, to get used to subcontinental conditions, during the winter months.
County cricket is another source of valuable experience. Ireland have around six players plying their trade in England, while Afghanistan's Rashid Khan had reportedly attracted interest from a couple of county teams. Rajput opines that now that Afghanistan have got Test status, more teams will be willing to play against them.
Kenya's decline in international cricket was as dramatic as its rise. From reaching the 2003 World Cup semi-final to losing ODI status in 2014, the Kenyan side — that was once earmarked to be the next Test-playing nation by Michael Holding — is lost in oblivion. Zimbabwe cricket is right now standing at the edge of a precipice, nervously looking down at an infinite abyss. The country that defeated the likes of India and Pakistan in 1998-99 never achieved stability after its ‘golden generation’ moved away. These two nations suffered not because of a lack of talent but mainly due to internal board politics, corruption and poor planning.
"I played against some brilliant players like Heath Streak, (Andy) Blignaut, Andy Flower, Grant Flower. What players they were! Zimbabwe's rise was amazing. They even beat Pakistan in Pakistan. But they had problems in the background and that hurt them," says Mashud.
As Afghanistan and Ireland enter the Test field, the real challenge is not just seeing off the initial tough period but it's about achieving consistency over a longer period of time. So what do they need to do to ensure they don't suffer the same fate as Kenya and Zimbabwe?
Mashud asserts that cricket boards have delved too much into the business side which has shifted the focus away from cricket. The ICC needs to continuously monitor the boards for proper financial management and avoid corruption.
However, there is a need to strike the right balance.
"The board should have proper planning and a good mix of people who can market well and those who love sports. Because, money is important too. If you have a dream and no money then it's of no use. There is nothing that can be done." adds Mashud.
Another need is to regulate money distribution in the domestic circuit. The gulf in income between T20s and First-Class cricket should be reduced, which in turn will motivate the players to play multi-day cricket. Getting more youngsters to play First-Class cricket is the need of the hour.
"We are witnessing that the West Indies are very good in T20s but their Test credentials are going down. They are not looking to the future. This is where long term planning becomes crucial. The players need to have strong basics which will come from First-Class and 'A' matches. The boards should take the initiative," Mashud says.
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Just like Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Ireland will be feeling excitement and nervousness having entered the toughest stage. But now, the important thing will to be to start off well. Afghanistan have been in blistering form in the T20s, but they lack experience in the longer format having played just 24 First-Class games. Ireland, in comparison have played 164, but they have gone speedily downhill in the last couple of years with 27 losses and just 12 wins from 41 matches in internationals. The added pressure of expectation to perform will definitely be there, especially at the start.
So how do they ensure that unlike Bangladesh, their entry is smooth?
"I think our first couple of years' fixtures will be very important. If we are going to play India, Australia or England away, it's going to be very tough for any country to do that," says Balbirnie. "So I think it's important that we play Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, West Indies, teams against whom we will be able to compete in the first two years and get used to Test cricket. But in saying that, we will play anyone, because we just want to play Test cricket. We need to learn at some stage. We need to get out and play in that environment and see how we do. However, I think it is important that we play teams that are around ours and the bottom half of the rankings," says Balbirnie.
There is a point to his words considering that Bangladesh played the likes of India, Zimbabwe’s golden generation, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Pakistan South Africa and West Indies in their first couple of years of Test cricket.
Support from the rest of the boards is also of paramount importance. "The kind of support we want from the Test nations is that we should get more chances to play against them, which will help us improve and the young talent will be instilled with energy considering that our team is playing against big nations. And the fan base will only increase," Nabi says.
Bangladesh's historic win over Australia and earlier England, was probably the first step in their transition from perennial losers to world-beaters. It was a testament to their hard work, vision, learning and perseverance over the years. The loss in that first Test back in 2000 didn't hurt them but instead acted as a catalyst for motivation.
There will be days when Afghanistan and Ireland go through sheer agony. There will be days when they will absolutely struggle to break the deadlock. There will be days when nothing will go right. There will be days when they will be clueless. Yes, Test cricket provides those days on a consistent basis. Those will be the days when that harsh reality with a devilish smile will whisper into their ears with a soft tone, "Welcome to Test cricket."
And this is when Afghanistan and Ireland will need to remain patient and, more importantly, the rest of the cricketing world too.
With stat inputs from Umang Pabari
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