Dileep Premachandran in Bengaluru: Just under 15 months ago, with Virat Kohli nursing an injured shoulder, it was Ajinkya Rahane that led India to a series victory over Australia in Dharamsala. One of the catalysts for that success was a debutant. Kuldeep Yadav’s contentious selection may or may not have contributed to Anil Kumble losing the coaching job, but there’s every chance that the Rahane-Kuldeep combination will once again be seen at the Chinnaswamy Stadium on Thursday for a Test that marks Afghanistan’s entry into the big league.
Rahane himself has had a tumultuous year. Dropped for the first two Tests against South Africa in January after a dismal home series against Sri Lanka, he was recalled only for The Wanderers, by which time the series was already lost. The 48 he made on that spiteful pitch may have shut the door on Rohit Sharma’s Test career for the foreseeable future, and Kohli’s recent birthday wish on social media suggested that India wouldn’t make the mistake of jettisoning Rahane for an overseas Test again any time soon.
With injury once again sidelining Kohli, it will be fascinating to see how Rahane approaches this assignment. Like Cheteshwar Pujara, who had a shocking county season – 100 runs in eight innings for Yorkshire – he is now a one-format player. After this game, while most jet off for the limited-overs leg in the UK, Rahane will be left to his own devices to prepare for the five-Test series that starts on August 1.
For the moment, the focus is very much on Bengaluru, and a landmark occasion. “It’s an honour for all of us to be part of this Test match,” said Rahane. “A big moment for Afghan cricket as well. Playing a Test match is always special. It’s an honour for me as well to be captain in this match.”
Asghar Stanikzai, who will head out for the toss of the coin with him, had stirred the pot a few days ago by suggesting that his team had the more accomplished spinners. But Rahane had no interest in getting into a public debate on the matter. “Every member of a team, they always believe their team is good, that their bowling attack and their batting is better,” he said, the very acme of diplomacy. “We all know the stats, but we don’t focus on stats. In Test cricket, every session matters a lot. It is important that you do your best all the time.
Our spinners – Kuldeep, Ashwin or Jadeja – they are all experienced. They are quality spinners, they back each other, they enjoy bowling with each other even in the nets and in the match. On that given day, it’s important what is your mindset and how to handle pressure.”
Phil Simmons, the Afghanistan coach, certainly didn’t try to contradict his captain. If anything, he only reinforced the message. “My captain knows what he is talking about,” he said with a laugh. “When you look at it, all spinners in this contest will be excellent. We know that right now, Rashid [Khan] is the most difficult spinner to play. He has not played Test cricket. We have to look and see what happens. but his professionalism will help him to adjust and am sure he will come out well.”
Stanikzai said he wouldn’t know what ‘nervous’ meant and stressed on the structures that Afghanistan have put in place to produce far more talent than most emerging nations.
“We have different tournaments, four-day first-class tournaments, University T20 tournaments,” he said. “So, there are players you can't hide when they do well in domestic cricket. Most of our matches are live on social media so they are coming through. We have limited players from different provinces but when they perform we give them a chance in our teams like A team and development squad. They are coming through to the national team.”
Mohammad Shahzad returns to the fray after missing some of the Intercontinental Cup campaign because of a drug-related ban, but Afzar Zazai is set to keep his place behind the stumps. Shahzad, whose admiration for Dhoni is second to none, will play as a specialist batsman and field close in. Afghanistan are likely to play three specialist spinners, and Mohammad Nabi, with the exciting 18-year-old Wafadar taking the new ball.
India have a couple of selection conundrums to sort out before they step on to the park. The pitch, which has been prepared under cloudy skies and with plenty of rain in the air, has a fair smattering of grass, but also comes with a reputation for assisting the slow bowlers. Ashwin and Jadeja both played crucial roles in India’s stunning come-from-behind victory against Australia here in March 2017, and the temptation will be overwhelming to add Kuldeep’s wristy, left-arm variations to the mix.
If that happens, Karun Nair, who had been expected to make a Test comeback, could be the one to miss out. There’s also the question of which two to pick from Murali Vijay, KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan. Dhawan was dropped in South Africa, where the conditions didn’t suit his brand of swash and buckle, but Rahul didn’t make runs either. Vijay too was disappointing. Rahul was in prime form in the IPL, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if India took a punt on him, just as England recently did with Jos Buttler.
With Mohammed Shami again sidelined, the pace bowlers pick themselves. Umesh Yadav was hugely impressive in that 2017 series against Australia, while Ishant Sharma has had a fine stint with Sussex in the county championship. For Navdeep Saini, this Test has probably come too soon, but we’ll be seeing and hearing a lot more of him.
“Over the last three days, the focus has been on tuning our minds, especially because we’re coming in after two months of the IPL,” said Rahane. “Skill-wise, it won’t make a difference, but our attitude [towards training] matters, if you have to make a quick switch in terms of our mindset from T20s to Test cricket. Talking about Afghanistan, we won’t take them lightly. From our side, we will play like how we approach any other team. Our attitude will remain the same on the field.”
“It is itself history that we are playing the inaugural and historic Test match against the number-one team in the world,” said Stanikzai, reflecting on what lies ahead. “The mood back home is that they are very positive and supportive and looking forward for the best performance. They expect us to perform well because recently Afghanistan performed really well in the T20s and ODIs. Their expectation will be the same from us.”
Along with the anticipation, there will also be a twinge of regret, mixed with some relief. “I think there will always be a bit of disappointment in the players not to be on the same field as Virat,” said Simmons. “But at the same time, we look at it as win the Test match and beat India. We don't beat Virat. We are disappointed he is not playing, but a little bit happy that we are not going to bowl to him all the time. We are happy to be here and playing India. Virat is not India.”
India (likely XI): Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane (capt), Dinesh Karthik (wk), Hardik Pandya, R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma.
Afghanistan (likely XI): Javed Ahmadi, Mohammad Shahzad, Rahmat Shah, Asghar Stanikzai (capt), Mohammad Nabi, Afzar Zazai (wk), Rashid Khan, Yamin Ahmadzai, Zahir Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Wafadar.
Watch out for: R Ashwin. The exile from the white-ball squads has hurt his pride, and some worry that it might dent his confidence in Tests as well. But in home conditions, Ashwin has usually been peerless. In his last outing in Bangalore, he wrecked Australia’s fourth-innings chase with a five-wicket haul. With so much focus on Rashid and his recent exploits, Ashwin will be especially eager to prove he’s still king of the spin-bowling castle.
Mohammad Nabi: One of the original bunch that played against Mike Gatting and the MCC in Mumbai 12 years ago, Nabi lends both experience and poise to the middle order. And his off-spin is invariably tidy and effective. Stanikzai will lean on him heavily if Afghanistan are pushed into a corner.