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Posted at: Jun 14, 2018, 1:49 AM; last updated: Jun 14, 2018, 1:49 AM (IST)

Afghan’s brave new world

The war-torn nation set for Test debut against No. 1 India in historic one-off Test
Afghan’s brave new world
Mohammad Nabi, Mohammad Shahzad and Yamin Ahmadzai during a training session. AFP

Rohit Mahajan

Tribune News Service

Bengaluru, June 13

Every nation needs something to be proud of itself — Afghanistan, racked by war and strife for a long part of its violent history, used to pride itself for being unconquerable. In the modern world, though, being successful in the murderous business of war is not considered very honourable; economic, scientific and sporting success are creators of a nation’s pride.

Today, as they prepared for their inaugural Test match, the Afghanistan cricketers were aware of the sense of pride they were giving their compatriots back home, and across the world.

Cricket in Afghanistan is a modern miracle. Afghanistan is the only high-level cricket-playing country in the world where the sport wasn’t planted by the British colonialists. The British, in fact, failed to colonise Afghanistan.

But two Cold War era superpowers, USA and USSR, did indirectly help plant cricket in Afghanistan. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the US-backed war against it, displaced millions of Afghans, and they escaped across the border to Pakistan. In cricket-mad Pakistan, the refugees picked up cricket. When the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, they banned all sport — in 2000, though, they unbanned cricket.

It’s incredible that eighteen years ago, there was no Afghan national team; within 12 years, though, Afghanistan were playing in their first senior World Cup, the T20 version; in 2015, they played the 50-over World Cup.

Now they’re on the Test scene. It’s a most amazing story — steeped in violence, redemption, personal tragedies for the cricketers, their relatives, their friends.

Amazing players

The team is full of characters — the biggest is the portly Mohammad Shahzad, 31 years old, who idolises Mahendera Singh Dhoni and aspires to play like him; he fondly talks about how Dhoni has been so very nice to him. “Apney haath se chai bana kar pilaya thha,” he said of an early meeting with Dhoni. “He has also gifted me gloves and equipment.” Shahzad is a wicketkeeper and wants to be called MS, and signs autographs with a distinct MS, in tribute to MS Dhoni. Like Dhoni, he’s had a difficult life — but to an extreme level of difficulty. He was born in a refugee camp in Peshawar and learnt to play cricket with sticks as bat and stones as balls. Mujeeb Ur Rahman, 17, belongs to the crop of youngsters who learnt cricket in Afghanistan; Rahman learnt the art of off-spin, and how to bowl the carom ball, by watching videos of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ajantha Mendis. In this year’s IPL auction, he was bought by Kings XI Punjab for Rs 4 crore!

There is the teen spin sensation Rashid Khan, who has taken 100 ODI wickets in fewest-ever matches; he’s seen as Afghanistan’s trump card. The team has some strange crossovers. Mohammad Nabi, 33, started playing in Peshawar, Pakistan, but made his debut for the Marylebone Cricket Club. Rahmat Shah, a 24-year-old allrounder, made his List A debut for Faisalabad and Rawalpindi against Afghanistan! The movement of the players across borders and seas mirrors the displacement of the Afghan people due to the fight among world’s superpowers.

The cricket!

Now they face a cricket superpower, India — the world’s No. 1 Test team, which is without its regular captain, the injured Virat Kohli. Regular wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha and fast Mohammed Shami are also out with injuries. Will that reduce the gap? How will Afghanistan fare? Their captain, Asghar Stanikzai, was quite gung-ho about the team’s chances today. But the step-up to Test cricket won’t be simple. Afghan cricketers have made a name for themselves in T20I cricket — it’s the version in which the batsmen play against the grammar of classical cricket and “throw” away their wickets. In Tests, Rashid Khan would have to prise the batsmen out. It’s a higher challenge. Similarly, to bat for two full days is antithetical to T20’s spirit. Will the Afghan batsmen rise to the challenge?

Whichever way they play, it’s likely to be fun and fearless and, hopefully, entertaining. Three cheers for Afghanistan, Test cricket’s newest team!

Rain forecast 

  • Rain or thundershowers have been forecast over the next few days, and the pitch may remain damp — which means Afghanistan’s spinners may not get the assistance they’re hoping for
  • The all-Muslim Afghan team observed the Ramazan fast even on match-days in the recent T20I series against Bangladesh. For the physically draining Test, though, the players won’t be fasting

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