There is something about Afghanistan cricket. In this modern and professional PR driven era of cricket journalism, covering Afghanistan is like a breath of fresh air. With their passion, raw emotions and the never say die attitude; the “Blue Tigers” add a unique flavour to the game making them a fascinating team to follow.
A little less than nine months ago, in their inaugural Test at Bengaluru, the Afghanistan were blown away within six sessions by a Virat Kohli-less Indian team. Cut to Dehradun and on March 18, 2019 – Mohammad Shahzad trying to do a “Baahubali” with the winning trophy following their historic triumph in the one-off Test against Ireland.
Yes, as an opponent, Ireland are a no match to the Indian team that Afghans faced last year, but purely on First Class exposure, the Irish boys are far more experienced than the Afghanistan side. Almost all the members of Ireland’s Test side play county cricket in England. Tim Murtagh, credited with 761 First-Class wickets, is a veteran for Middlesex. Others like William Porterfield, Paul Stirling, George Dockrell are all renowned names in the English domestic circuit.
Having beaten Afghanistan twice in the ODI series prior to the five-day assignment, the tourists had some sort of momentum coming into this game. In contrary, none of the Afghan players had played a single First-Class game between their two Tests.
So, the Asghar Afghan-led side had a point to prove in their first “home” Test, and they delivered in style, showing their ability of not only sustaining but thriving in the longer format.
Afghanistan's players are often branded as specialists in white-ball cricket. The Rashids, the Shahzads, the Nabis are household names in India, only because of their heroics in the T20s (especially IPL) and ODIs. But here comes Rahmat Shah. A cool, composed and old-fashioned No. 3, who likes to go about his business like Cheteshwar Pujara. He has the penchant for batting long hours without taking much risk, as he did in Dehradun during his match winning knocks of 98 and 76 in respective innings.
Ireland, having made a below-par 172 in their first-innings, came out hard on the Afghan batting in the third session of the opening day. The hosts lost both their openers with just 33 on the board. Any more wickets there could have opened the floodgates.
But Rahmat, along with young Hashmatullah Shahidi stood up and showed the world that Afghanistan batsmen can play the waiting game as well. Their instrumental 130-run third wicket partnership ensured the Irish bowlers were unable to conjure a comeback, as hosts secured a significant lead of 142 runs, which eventually turned out to be decisive.
On a slow-low track Ireland was bowling wicket-to-wicket keeping close in fielders interested. In fact, someone like Murtagh was bowling so straight that Rahmat must have felt he was batting against a bowling machine. But he never let his guard drop.
“Their field setting suggested that they wanted to bowl dots,” Rahmat said. “That was the game. They wanted to bowl dots. Ki yeh tangh ho jaye aur kharab shot khele [They wanted to frustrate me into playing a loose shot.] But I showed patience and stayed at the wicket, and got this score.”
Though he narrowly missed the opportunity to become Afghanistan’s first-ever Test centurion, but his 98 under trying circumstances laid the foundation of substantial first-innings lead for Afghanistan.
Comparatively, the task was much easier in the second innings, as they were chasing only 147, but Rahmat made his presence felt once again. Also the efforts of other batsmen like skipper Asghar Afghan, Ihsanullah Janat and Shahidi deserve a lot credit.
However, the biggest positive to come out from Afghanistan’s batting effort in this game was Shahzad taking time early to get his eye in. He took 19 balls in the first innings to open his account, whereas in the second innings the flamboyant opener was seen playing just before close of play, blocking 30-odd deliveries.
With the ball, Rashid Khan with his 7 for 102 (2 for 20 in the first innings and 5 for 82 in the next) was Afghanistan’s best bowler. Even with an injured finger, he bowled 46 overs in match. On third day, during Ireland's second innings when Andy Balbirnie and James McCollum stitched a resistance and Rashid was taken for some runs, his confidence remained high.
Following the lunch interval he along with Waqar Salamkheil broke the backbone of Ireland batting with four wickets within a freakish 30 minutes of play. That phase of play sealed the fate of the Test.
"It was tough to grip the new ball because I had a finger injury and tough for me to pitch it on the right length as it was paining a lot. Once the ball gets older and the seam has gone (softer) so it was more comfortable for me to bowl,” said Rashid after becoming the first Afghan bowler to claim a five-for in Tests.
In the past decade Afghanistan may have achieved a lot of white-ball success, but ask any member of their team and they will tell you why this victory is special. Despite losing the toss on a dry pitch, the way they went ahead with their business to record glory, underlines their fighting spirits.
With this win, the Afghans have truly announced their arrival in the pinnacle format of the game.
“When you win then team will tell you to come and play with them,” said Nabi. “Nobody plays a weak team. They might think that Afghanistan is weak but not so much that we can't fight them. We have world's best spinners and we try to concentrate on our batting line-up. If we can put up a good score on board then we are confident of beating any team in the world.”
Afghanistan are likely to play another Test this year. Windies are expected to come down to Dehradun in November to play an one-off fixture. If Afghanistan can put up a team effort akin to the performance against Ireland, Jason Holder and company are in for tough time.
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