Afghanistan cricket team is in Bengaluru, almost 2,500 km away from Jalalabad, a city home to a lot of cricket clubs and known as the ‘Home of Cricket' in Afghanistan. This is where lies the Spinghar Cricket Ground.
Spinghar is the venue where a major tragedy hit Afghanistan cricket last month when a blast took away lives of eight, including cricketers, and injuring more than a dozen. It shook the cricketing world, for this was the first time that the sport was attacked in Afghanistan, a sport that has brought the whole nation together.
Cricket has been a major force in Afghanistan, helping bind its people with one emotion — love for the sport.
It was nine years ago when this war-torn nation first played an international game and on 14 June, their biggest dream will come true. A nation trying to fight violence and terror will come out in Test whites. White, the colour of peace. White, the colour Asghar Stanikzai and his team will be wearing at the M Chinnaswamy stadium. 28 days after this team lost its fellow cricketers in a terrorist attack, they will be out to tell those who don’t want cricket to prosper and disrupt peace back home that this game will go on. That the only battle they know is fought on a cricket field. That they have made their way out after hours and hours of hard work to live this day. They might not be playing this game in Jalalabad or Kabul, but the whole country back home will be glued to the TV sets, hoping that the boys give their best. It's a special occasion not just for Afghanistan cricket but for the entire nation.
The Afghan captain resonated the same feeling a day prior to the Test when he spoke to the reporters. He said, "Yes, some of the players who have not made into this squad have made a huge contribution to Afghanistan cricket. Tomorrow is a big moment. After ODI and T20 status, we have earned Test status. It is a big moment for all who have put in wonderful efforts to earn us Test status."
At the same time, Stanikzai knows that he has a huge responsibility on his shoulders. This is a dream come true for him and his boys. However, they have an uphill task ahead. Playing a number one Test side in the world is never an easy task. And this is no T20 cricket, a format which helped Afghans push their case in international cricket. This is a five-day Test match. And that is where the biggest challenge lies.
Captain Stanakzai, however, seemed confident ahead of the historic match. He told reporters on the eve of the Bengaluru Test, "All the three formats of the game, including T20s and ODIs, are different from each other. But we have played four-day games as well and succeeded in the past. We would like to put to good use our four-day match experience in the historic Test match."
The positive for Afghanistan is that they play their first Test in the country where they have played a good amount of cricket. Some of the players in the team know the grounds, conditions, pitches.
Their opponents, the Indian team, might not feature names like Virat Kohli, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah or Mohammed Shami, but they still are a force to reckon with.
India’s playing XI looks sorted. The only tussle could be a choice between Hardik Pandya and the one full-time bowler who might be selected on the merit of the pitch. Hardik was an instant choice in the playing XI with Wriddhiman Saha in the side. However, with Dinesh Karthik coming in place of injured Saha, India captain Ajinkya Rahane might opt to go for six batsman and five bowlers combination, knowing that Ashwin and Jadeja are no mug with the bat and Karthik's red-hot form brings balance to the side.
Speaking on the eve of the Test match, Rahane showed that he is willing to trust Karthik. "The way he (Karthik) batted in Asia Cup and IPL shows his form. His experience will definitely help us. He has played Test cricket for India. Coming back after such a long time is always special and it is good to have DK in our team," said Rahane.
The statement shows the trust Rahane has on Karthik's batting and if Hardik plays, one of the bowlers will have to sit out. But again, everything depends on the surface on offer. Rahane did mention that there is enough experience in the squad, but he has not decided on the playing XI yet.
Afghanistan, on the other hand, have four quality spinners in the side — Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi, Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Zahir Khan — and all of them barring Zahir have played in the Indian Premier League (IPL), and have a fair amount of idea of the conditions in India. In fact, Stanikzai went on to say earlier that their spin department is better than India's. On being asked to comment on the same, Rahane used his words wisely.
"As a Test team, we cannot take anyone for granted because cricket is a funny game. We want to go out there and be ruthless. Yes, we respect them as our opponents but it's important for us to go out there and give more than our 100 (percent)." the India captain said.
In the absence of paceman Dawlat Zadran, who was ruled out a few weeks before the Test, one can expect Afghanistan to back their strength, which is spin bowling, and play a spin-heavy side.
However, it is Afghanistan's batting which is a grey area. Their batting looks inexperienced and fragile. There is not much hope that one can derive out of the batting line-up, which revolves around their captain Stanikzai, who averages 44.44 in the 23 First-Class matches he has played thus far. Mohammad Shahzad is another batsman who will have to step up big time. He is aggressive and has a good First-Class average of 54.55, which sort of guarantees his place in the playing XI.
Afghanistan know that their strategy will have to revolve around Rashid, Stanikzai, Shahzad and Nabi. They are the key men who could make a difference. The others would look to take inspiration from them and step up on the big stage.
Afghanistan will be both nervous and excited about their debut Test. There will be a lot of advice coming their way. While it will be difficult against a side like India, they need to keep their calm and not panic.
"Enjoy it. You only make your debut once – so make the most of it. Don’t be nervous or daunted – you’ve worked hard to get where you are, and you deserve to be there," Ireland batsman Kevin O'Brien, who was the hero of Ireland's debut match against Pakistan, advised Afghanistan.
Yes, India do start off as favourites, but Afghanistan shouldn't be intimidated by the occasion and the opponent, all they need to do is enjoy the historic moment.
It will be interesting to see whether the pitch turns out to be seamer-friendly given the fact that Afghanistan spinners pose a major threat.
Rain threat: It rained for a while in the afternoon the day before the Test in Bengaluru. Locals say that this has been a trend in the last two to three days when it rains for a while and then sunshine returns. Both the teams will be hoping that the rain gods stay away during the course of the match.
India: Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane (c), Karun Nair, Dinesh Karthik (wk), Hardik Pandya, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Shikhar Dhawan, Kuldeep Yadav, Shardul Thakur, Navdeep Saini
Afghanistan: Mohammad Shahzad(w), Javed Ahmadi, Rahmat Shah, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Asghar Stanikzai(c), Nasir Jamal, Mohammad Nabi, Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Yamin Ahmadzai, Sayed Shirzad, Wafadar, Zahir Khan, Ihsanullah Janat, Amir Hamza, Afsar Zazai.