Asghar Stanikzai was asked about “nerves” as he arrived for his first official press conference as Test captain. “I’m hearing this for the first time,” he shot back, setting the tone for the next 15 minutes during which he and coach Phil Simmons talked all things Test cricket and the build-up to their inaugural Test.
It was in Bengaluru seven years ago that Simmons truly left his imprint as a coach, when Ireland upset England at the 2011 World Cup. Now, he returns to the venue of that famous triumph in charge of another side, who he just helped qualify for the 2019 World Cup two months ago.
Having witnessed the turmoil West Indies went through towards the end of his career, Simmons is aware of the immediate challenge to channel Afghanistan’s white-ball temperament to the longest format.
“I was with Ireland for a long time, but they haven’t produced the amount of youngsters in the last four-five years like Afghanistan have,” he said. “The batting is a little bit less but the bowling, you will see a young fast bowler in this Test match hopefully. It shows that they have young talent coming up. And exciting prospects for the future.”
Preparation wise, Afghanistan picked two vastly different squads for the T20Is against Bangladesh and their inaugural Test. Only Stanikzai, Mohammad Shahzad, Mohammad Nabi, Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman featured in their 3-0 T20I whitewash of Bangladesh in Dehrarun earlier this month. This decision of allowing players time to prepare for the Test by monitoring their training schedules was a conscious one.
“Our preparation has been good. We still had 12-13 players training with red ball,” Simmons said. “Fortunately the three fast bowlers (Wafadar, Sayed Shirzad and Yamin Ahmadzai) were not in T20I squad and they have been concentrating on Test preparation. The two senior spinners Nabi and Rashid am sure will be able to adjust themselves.”
Afghanistan are under no illusion about how the pitch will behave and expect India’s three spinners to come hard at them. Having two wristspinners themselves – Rashid and Zahir Khan – along with Mujeeb Ur Rahman’s variations should help cope to an extent.
“You prepare for what you expect. We expected Jadeja, Ashwin, Kuldeep,” Simmons said. “We have had our own Kuldeep in young Zahir. We have bowlers of similar ilk and they have been bowling at the batsmen. My feeling is that I can’t tell you how to prepare for a particular player. When you practice it against a spinner you learn how to play him. So we have put that in front of them and I think they have worked hard enough to be put out there.”
Simmons cracked up when asked about “grass on the surface” for this Test. “When I played with them (Afghanistan) in Ireland, it was a little more greener than this and it still turned,” he said. “I think our bowlers are experienced enough to turn on that. It looks a lot darker today than it did two days ago, so I think by the time tomorrow (Thursday) comes it will be dry enough to spin on it.”
The surface aside, it was also inevitable Simmons was going to be asked about Stanikzai’s remarks of Afghanistan’s spinners being better than India’s. My captain knows what he is talking about,” Simmons laughed with Stanikzai also grinning beside him. “When you look at it, all spinners in this contest will be excellent.
“We know that right now, Rashid is the most difficult spinner to play around. 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.”
Afghanistan have trained in India regularly since making Greater Noida their home base last year. Access to different training wickets and modern facilities has been maximised so much that Simmons downplayed the prospect of being undercooked. He stressed more on the temperament needed to succeed and hoped the team had learnt from experience.
“The mental part comes from the way you train, how long you bat and how long you bowl and train in the nets,” Simmons said. “That’s the only way you prepare mentally because when you get out there then you understand what it takes. They have played four-day cricket so they have a fair idea…the good thing about it is that they learn quickly.”
The press conference was lit up further when Simmons was asked about Virat Kohli’s unavailability. His answer elicited laughter among those in attendance.
“I think there will always be a bit of disappointment in the players not to be on the same field as Virat, but at the same time we look at it as win the Test match and beat India, we don’t beat Virat,” he said. “So we are disappointed he is not playing, but 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.”
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
ESPN Sports Media Ltd.