In November 2000, Bangladesh took Test cricket to double-digits by becoming the tenth nation to enter the fold in the oldest format of the game, a decade-and-a-half after their introduction to limited overs cricket. As far as debuts go, it was a quite spirited one – Bangladesh posted 400 in the first innings, and had India in trouble at 190/5, before the jitters came in and the contest was given away.
While the Tigers were beginning to carve their name into cricket’s origin story, Afghanistan were still searching for an identity. A year out from being recognized as an affiliate member of the ICC, the Afghans had only recently passed a major internal hurdle – that of the Taliban, who only eased their stance on cricket in early 2000 (all other sports were banned).
In the two decades that have followed, both the sub-continental countries have traversed an equally varied path. Bangladesh have now played over 100 Tests, in addition to becoming a force in ODIs good enough to be considered second-best in Asia; Afghanistan have gone from being in the wilderness to breaching the ‘old boys' club’, taking up the mantle of biggest heart-warmers in the sport.
Beating them at their own game
But whichever way you look at it, and whatever yardsticks you use for comparison, there isn’t enough in terms of adjectives to describe what Afghanistan achieved on Monday, 9 September – fashioning a massive 224-run win in a dramatic finish to the only Test on their tour of Bangladesh, at Chattogram.
Much like their ‘seniors’ 19 years ago, Afghanistan too had taken their first steps in five-day cricket against India, in June 2018. But where Bangladesh had given a glimpse of belonging by staying ahead of the game for two-and-a-half days, the Afghans were blown away by an innings inside two days, despite India having batted for the first 104 overs of the clash.
For all the warmth attached to their sudden elevation into the international conscience, the abject capitulation at Bengaluru led even their firmer supporters to question if the propulsion to Test cricket had come a bit too soon for their own good.
All of 15 months and two matches later, those doubts lie dispelled; Afghanistan have now ventured away from 'home', played on foreign soil, and come out as outright victors despite coming up against a game-plan that had successfully accounted for both England and Australia the last time they visited these shores.
It is no trade secret that Bangladesh’s home game is built on a combination of dust-bowls and an assembly line of turning tweakers, and at Chattogram this week, they took it to a higher plane – fielding four full-time spinners, three part-time spinners, and zero fast bowlers.
It was a tactic that had trumped the oldest Test-playing nations in just the last three years, but Test cricket’s newest arrivals were not to be undone; if anything, Afghanistan’s own line of fire – in particular the key differential, going by the name of Rashid Khan – outdid the Tigers’ otherwise best-laid plans.
A contrast in preparation
It wasn’t a victory built on a few days of extraordinary cricket; Afghanistan worked their way to this historic triumph on the back of proper planning.
Rashid, who was leading his side out for the first time – who became the youngest-ever captain to win a Test – credited the pre-tour camp the visiting Afghans had taken. “The camp we had in Abu Dhabi was in the hottest weather I have ever been and then you come here; compared to that, it looked easier out here,” he remarked.
It wasn’t just about getting a hold on the weather, either. To ensure there was no alienation to conditions, an Afghanistan ‘A’ tour to Bangladesh had been arranged two months ahead of the senior team’s travels. The Afghan second-line dominated that tour, winning the only unofficial Test and settling for a 2-2 draw in the one-dayers, where the hosts were only saved by rain.
Four players out of the 19-member party from that ‘A’ tour were in the XI at Chattogram – Ibrahim Zadran, Afsar Zazai, Zahir Khan and Qais Ahmed. Their senior pros might have been the headliners of this win – Rashid with his virtuoso one-man act, Rahmat Shah with Afghanistan’s first Test century, and Asghar Afghan with twin half-centuries – but all four of these relative newcomers played their part on the road to history.
In the opposition camp, meanwhile, there is an impending inquiry which doesn’t feel like it belongs to a team entering its third decade in the format.
BCB president Nazmul Hasan cut a figure of rage at the end of the fourth day of the Test. “Do I explain to them how to play Tests? How they prepared themselves, the way they planned, there must have been something wrong there. I feel the plan wasn't correct. We have to sit with the coach, the captain and the operations chairman (former captain Akram Khan) to understand why these things happened.”
The blame-game isn’t new at all to Bangladesh cricket, as pointed out by captain-again Shakib al Hasan. “There is room for huge planning, and it is a long process. Whenever we play badly, we talk about these things. When we win, we don't talk about it. It is important to find the right balance.”
A contrast of systems
While a systemic rot has existed through the highs and lows of the last 20 years in Bangladesh cricket, what will pinch the egos no end is that this newest (read: lowest) low came against a team battling its own system, which is arguably, would have appeared to be in a greater mess on the eve of the Chattogram contest.
This is the same Afghanistan, remember, whose World Cup promises had been sabotaged by off-field drama that could have been at home in a TV soap. They changed their captain on the eve of the event, alienated their own senior players, found themselves in a pool of indiscipline, lost their coach (Phil Simmons) in the aftermath, and had to put their chief selector (Andy Moles) in a dual role to find a temporary replacement.
Even still, at the end of five forgettable days for Bangladesh, they are coming out much the worse as far as problems within the system go. The blame-game didn’t end at the difference of opinion regarding the preparations for this Test between captain and board president.
BCB chief Nazmul took a dig at certain players he felt did not belong at the Test level. “Soumya Sarkar, Liton Das and Sabbir Rahman are not Test player; we play them for specific reasons,” he said. “I don't even want them to be Test players. Then what would happen to my T20 and ODI teams? We have Mominul [Haque] and Shadman [Islam], but we need more Test players in the side.”
Skipper Shakib, too, was quite critical of his side’s shortcomings – in technique, mind and heart.
“We have both technical and mental shortcomings. We are not used to playing any kind of wrist-spin, although we planned and prepared against our leg-spinners in the nets. When you are fearful, your execution doesn't quite come off. We end up taking so much pressure on ourselves, we make performing harder. And when we can't perform, the pressure increases.”
One star rises, another in freefall
What is most baffling about the Bangladesh situation – particularly their uncertainty as far as Test cricket goes – is that this is a unit which seemed headed in the right direction until very recently.
In the period between October 2016 and August 2017, the Tigers had notched up three wins in seven Tests, defeating England and Australia at home, and Sri Lanka away, in a span of ten months.
In 14 Tests ever since, Bangladesh have just three more wins under their belt – two over West Indies, one over Zimbabwe. But they’ve also managed to lose at home to Zimbabwe, before the Afghanistan drubbing. And they’ve got worryingly used to not turning up altogether in their whites; five of their ten defeats in this time-period have been by a margin over 150 runs, while another four have been innings losses.
Afghanistan, on the other hand, followed up their bashing at Bengaluru with a victory over fellow new entrants Ireland in Dehradun, before this big conquest at Chattogram.
As a result, they’re now the joint-fastest to two wins in Test history, equaling Australia’s mark of doing so in their first three matches. To put things in perspective, India needed 30 games to register two Test wins, New Zealand 55. Bangladesh? They took 60 Tests.
Live it up, Afghanistan. Time to buck up, Bangladesh.