If Afghanistan thought they could continue their fairytale journey in international cricket, they were in for a rude shock in their very first session in Test cricket. Their bowlers, particularly the much-hyped spinners, were taken to the cleaners in a rollicking opening session that would have dented quite a bit of their pride.
Shikhar Dhawan, who had spent the best part of the last two and a half months with his Sunrisers Hyderabad teammate Rashid Khan, demonstrated to the hugely successful IPL mystery spinner that Test cricket was an entirely different cup of tea. Dhawan, who would have batted against the wily spinner a lot of times in the SRH nets, had tucked away enough knowledge of the leg spinner’s repertoire, deception and mindset. This came in handy on Thursday as he simply waded into the Afghan bowling attack.
Rashid and fellow spinner Mujeeb Ur Rahman were expected to be the main threats. But a combination of brilliant batting by Dhawan, Murali Vijay and KL Rahul and poor grasp of the demands of Test cricket destroyed the two spinners' poise in the pre-lunch session.
It was naive of the Afghanistan skipper to expose his spinners in the very first session when the pitch had nothing to offer for their wares. The fast bowlers were getting the ball to swing and seam but lacked the experience to build an over and plot the downfall of the batsmen.
This, however, in no way could condone the manner in which the spinners were thrown to the wolves on a surface that was not to their advantage.
The three spinners — Rashid, Mujeeb and Mohammed Nabi were inexplicably utilised for 15 of the 27 overs sent down in the first session of the Test. This was a period when the crying need was for extended bowling by the seamers. Instead, captain Asghar Stanikzai threw the ball to the spinners and compounded the error by giving them needlessly aggressive fields. No wonder then that the spinners were carved up for 105 runs in their 15 overs before lunch.
In the process, Dhawan raced to a coveted century before lunch (107; 96 balls, 19x4, 3x6).
Without taking anything away from the Delhi southpaw’s brilliant exhibition of power batting, it must be pointed out that Afghanistan did not have a clue about field placements. They kept aggressive field positions through the day even though the bowlers were leaking runs from both ends.
Rashid Khan for instance had no fielders in the deep, particularly for the pull and cut shots. Dhawan, who flawlessly read the direction of Rashid’s spin, cut, swept and pulled the bowler ruthlessly to exploit the yawning gaps. He knew he had to only beat the in-field for the ball to race away to the fence and he did this time and again. Stubbornly, the Afghanistan skipper refused to deploy boundary-saving fielders in the deep.
Suddenly Rashid looked only as menacing as the batsmen would permit. On the day he surely would have learnt that Test cricket was not a bed of roses. On a pitch where the ball did not come on to the bat, he was cut, swept and pulled far too often.
The visitors’ spinners were also guilty of trying too many variations. This ensured that they could not bowl to a packed off side or leg side field. A split 5-4 field was never going to work on a first day’s Test pitch and so it was proved. Right through the first two sessions of play the scoring rate was above five runs an over.
It was only the ill-advised move to send Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara to bat together that enabled Afghanistan to catch their breath. Both batted far too slowly when they should have been busy driving home the advantage given by Dhawan, Vijay (105; 153b, 15x4, 1x6) and Rahul (54; 64 b, 8x4).
Rahane scratched around for 45 deliveries to make unconvincing 10 runs while Pujara was only marginally better. Both fell to spinners, Rashid and Mujeeb respectively, late in the evening.
However, the first two sessions of play undoubtedly belonged to India. A tea break score of 248 for 1 was staggering. But Afghanistan clawed their way back in the final session which was extended to make up for time lost due to rain interruptions.
India lost five wickets in the post-tea session and these would undoubtedly have put Afghanistan in a better frame of mind. Certainly, the bowlers could now look forward to wrapping up the innings early on the morrow.
For India, centuries from openers Dhawan and Vijay was a huge boost. It set the tone for a run feast as the day’s final score of 347 for 6 from 78 overs indicates. A run-rate in excess of four runs an over is brilliant in the context of Test cricket.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan can ponder over their rude introduction to Test cricket. But they can take heart that the day ended well for them. The late strike by the bowlers would have given them hope for the morrow. Meantime their coaching staff and seniors would do well to dwell on tactics in Test cricket.