This is it for Afghanistan. Their ten-year journey since beating Jersey in the WCL Division Five final has been studded with miracles and pinnacles: they’ve been in multiple world tournaments, completed historic victories, created potential icons of the game, and will probably have the the largest, most diverse fan base a team has ever had on Test debut. Not bad for a team that consists of players who used broken helicopters as dressing rooms not long ago.
But perhaps their biggest achievement is that not even the No. 1 Test team, playing at home, will take the newcomers lightly.
Afghanistan have won more than they’ve lost in India. In limited-overs cricket, they’ve only lost five out of 18 matches across formats. While those numbers will mean little coming into a different format, what they signify is that at some point over five days, the conditions will be in their favour. And therein lies the danger for India, who have been more susceptible to spin in Tests lately than their traditional reputation would suggest.
Objectively, that is the only big problem India could come up against. They have a formidable batting line-up that is close to collapse-proof at home. With allrounders in Hardik Pandya, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, and further fortification of the middle order through Dinesh Karthik, the hosts won’t be easy to breach. It’s also likely that the pitch in Bengaluru will be suited to seam, given India’s upcoming England tour, which is another factor that tilts this fixture heavily in their favour.
Objectivity is something Afghanistan have barely bothered about, though. This is their big moment. A first ton, a first five-for, a first draw – even a first win – are all things that may or may not come in Bengaluru. But, two days after Kevin Pietersen’s cry for a more entertaining Test scene, Mohammad Shahzad will be screaming at fielders, jersey probably untucked by the second session, and Rashid Khan’s googly will be more subtle than his sending-off of the victim. Asghar Stanikzai, who led Afghanistan to a World Cup Qualifier title days after an appendicitis surgery, will look more a warrior than ever in Test whites. And in the midst of all these certainties, the newbies will draw standing ovations from the home crowd on more than one occasion. It’s going to be as good as a one-off Test can ever be.
IndiaWLLDW (completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Quite often, KL Rahul has looked like India’s best all-format batsman after Virat Kohli. He has also, often, been immensely frustrating as a Test player. Outside of the 14 innings in which has made 50-plus scores, Rahul has only scored 229 runs in 23 innings. That’s an average of under 10 in innings where he doesn’t make sizable contribution. Rahul went to South Africa having made eight fifties in his 10 previous Test innings, only to return with 30 runs from four innings. Perhaps the quest to master limited-overs batting had started to impede his game in Tests, but with the IPL season he has just had, he looks more assured in his strokeplay than ever. Could that security mean a more relaxed, more mature batsman in Tests? The fight to be India’s No. 1 opener in Tests is his to win.
Can they do it in Tests? Rashid, Mujeeb ur Rahman and Amir Hamza are likely to form the spin attack for Afghanistan along with Mohammed Nabi. Neither Rashid nor Mujeeb is older than 20 and the latter has never played a first-class match. Their captain thinks they’re better than India’s spinners. To top it all off, they’re expected to be Afghanistan’s big weapons against a strong batting line-up. It’s a diverse spin quartet, with each one offering a different variety of spin – something that has made Afghanistan a difficult team to beat in limited-overs cricket. But how easily can they transfer that effect to Test cricket, where sustained discipline is more rewarding than exaggerated variation?
On the eve of the Test, India had an optional training session that was attended by Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, Karun Nair, Karthik and Pandya. Dhawan had a session with the physios and appeared to be going through a fitness test. This could mean one of Dhawan and Vijay in the starting XI, allowing a straightforward slotting-in of Nair to replace Kohli.
Mohammed Shami’s exit from the squad might not mean too much for replacement Navdeep Saini, who has to beat an in-form Umesh Yadav to make it to the XI. Ahead of the game, Ishant Sharma looks the only fast bowler assured of a spot in a team that’s likely to use two spinners and Pandya as a third seamer.
India (possible): 1 M Vijay/Shikhar Dhawan, 2 KL Rahul, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Ajinkya Rahane (capt.), 5 Karun Nair, 6 Dinesh Karthik (wk), 7 Hardik Pandya, 8 R Ashwin, 9 Ravindra Jadeja, 10 Ishant Sharma, 11 Umesh Yadav
Afghanistan coach Phil Simmons said that while Shahzad’s fitness could be trusted in 50-over games, Tests are a completely different proposition. Shahzad is likely to play as a specialist batsman with Afsar Zazai taking up wicketkeeping duties.
Afghanistan (possible): 1 Mohammad Shahzad, 2 Javed Ahmadi, 3 Rahmat Shah, 4 Asghar Stanikzai (capt.), 5 Nasir Jamal/Hashmatullah Shahidi, 6 Mohammed Nabi, 7 Afsar Zazai (wk), 8 Rashid Khan, 9 Amir Hamza/Zahir Khan, 10 Yamin Ahmadzai, 11 Wafadar/Mujeeb ur Rahman
Pitch and conditions
On the eve of the match, Bengaluru had overcast skies and some areas were affected by a light drizzle. The pitch has a green tinge but a brown look overall. It’s expected to have some moisture early on, and take turn from the third day onwards.
Stats and trivia
Rashid Khan has taken a five-wicket haul in each of his four first-class matches before this one.
In 12 Tests since the start of 2017, Ajinkya Rahane has gone past fifty only four times and averages 33.94.
Since January 2013, India have failed to win only six (one loss, five draws) of their 26 Tests at home.