Bangalore: It isn’t just the path they’ve taken to Test status that makes Afghan cricket an anomaly. Most emerging nations could boast of one or two quality batsmen when they came on the scene. It was the bowling that invariably let them down. Ironically, given the reputation as no country for pace bowlers, it was India that bucked that trend when they played their first Test in England in 1932.
“He had a nice, easy action and before the shine had gone off the ball, he made it swing and at times break back alarmingly,” said the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack of Mohamed Nissar. “In point of actual skill, however, Amar Singh was probably the best bowler of the side. Exception might be taken to his run, which was far from smooth in its rhythm, but he was able to do such a lot with the ball that he not only looked, but actually proved to be, very difficult to play.
“He could make the ball swerve either way and at times cause it to dip, while his pace off the pitch was often phenomenal. Better bowling than his in the second innings of the Test match has not been seen for a long time and more than one famous old cricketer said afterwards that Amar Singh was the best bowler seen in England since the war.”
After partition in 1947, that fast-bowling tradition continued to be nurtured in Pakistan, while India largely became a nation of batsmen and spinners. The same was true of other sides that came along too. Long before Test status, Sri Lanka could point to the batting of Mahadevan Sathasivam and Derrick de Saram. There was Anura Tennekoon too, before Duleep Mendis and Roy Dias became their standout players in the early years as a Test nation.
Zimbabwe had Dave Houghton and Andy Flower, and also possessed enough bowling resources to win a Test series in Pakistan in 1998-99. Kenya, though they couldn’t build on their displays at the World Cups of 1996 and 2003, had Steve Tikolo, then the best batsman in the associates’ ranks.
When Ireland upset Pakistan to make it to the Super Eights at their first World Cup in 2007, Adrian Birrell, the South Africa who coached them at the time, spoke quite candidly about the challenges they faced. Several of their players were part-timers – teachers, travelling salesmen and the like. While they could hold their own and even excel in games against other associates, games against the cricket’s sharks threw up tests they had never confronted before.
“You just don’t face bowlers as quick as Shaun Tait or Brett Lee in associate cricket,” he told us one day. “Nor do you usually come across bowlers with the variations that someone like Brad Hogg has. There’s just no way you can prepare for that in the nets. You’ll only get better by playing against them as often as you can.”
Along with Ireland, Afghanistan dominated the associate scene for more than half a decade, paving the way for Test status to be granted last year. But while they had played ODIs and Twenty20s against the leading nations, the Intercontinental Cup represented pretty much the sum total of their first-class experience.
Against bowlers of lesser quality, you can take liberties and even get away with some sloppiness. At the Chinnaswamy Stadium, Afghanistan were up against Ishant Sharma, bowling as well as he’s ever done after a good county stint with Sussex, who came into this game on 234 Test wickets. The spell he’s most remembered for, against Ricky Ponting in Perth, was more than a decade ago. You can’t buy that kind of experience off a shelf.
Umesh Yadav, who shared the new ball and reached 100 Test wickets with the dismissal of Rahmat Shah, is very different from the scattergun of a few years ago. Against Australia in 2017, he was India’s best bowler, taking nearly twice as many wickets (17) as his more feted Aussie counterparts.
And after Ishant and Umesh had left the innings in ruins, Afghanistan had to deal with R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. Asghar Stanikzai and Phil Simmons may have talked up their own slow bowlers before the game, but the value of experience was all too clear the minute Ashwin came on.
It took Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman more than a session to locate the ideal length, by which time Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay and KL Rahul had batted India into a position of considerable strength. Ashwin was immaculate from ball one, looping it up and turning it sharply, and all from a length that left the batsmen chronically unsure of whether to come forward or play back.
Jadeja did as he always does, landing it on a spot and using subtle deviations to confuse the batsmen. Both took wickets while maintaining relentless pressure. There were no freebies. In Afghanistan’s first innings, only Mohammad Nabi (24 off 44 balls) and Hashmatullah Shahidi (11 off 24) faced more than 20 balls.
Mohammad Shahzad’s 18-ball 14 featured an outside edge, an inside edge, a superb wristy flick and the run-out courtesy Hardik Pandya. It made for a decent highlights package, but was rather out of sync with what his team needed after India had posted 474.
But a first Test isn’t the time or place to look for scapegoats. If this game has shown us anything, it’s the yawning gulf between the Intercontinental Cup and Test cricket. The only way the Afghan batsmen will come to grip with the unique rhythms of the five-day game is by playing more against opposition of this quality.
Since they’re already based in India, here’s an idea. The Duleep Trophy has steadily been devalued by tampering with its format and place in the calendar. Why not invite Afghanistan to play each season? With the established nations unlikely to schedule too many Tests against them in the immediate future, it’s one way to give them the exposure they need. Given the depth in Indian cricket at the moment, they’d end up pitting their wits against several players good enough to play for other countries.
Any Indian supporters being too snooty about this result would do well to remember their own Test journey. In the summer of 1952, a full two decades after playing their first Test, Alec Bedser, Fred Trueman and Tony Lock skittled India twice in a day at Old Trafford – 58 ball out (21.4 overs) and 82 all out (36.3 overs). And that was with four of Indian cricket’s batting greats – Vinoo Mankad, Vijay Hazare, Polly Umrigar and Vijay Manjrekar – in the XI.
Such things happen. For Afghanistan, this second day was a sobering reality check. But if the lessons are learned and acted on, it won’t have been in vain.
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