AFGHANISTAN’S TEST DEBUT
Afghanistan struggled at the start but ended the day with six wickets in their kitty © AFP
It’s Rashid Khan’s fourth over in Test cricket. He’s been hit for two fours and a six already. Off the final ball, the stocky Ahmad Shahzad leaps to his right at slip to grab a catch that is awe-inducing. They’re appealing for LBW as well. Rashid pushes his captain for it. But the review is turned down. Rashid has his hands on his hips by the side of the pitch and keeps shaking his head. He stands there until the rest of the team is ready for the next over and then walks off slowly, still shaking his head. He’s gone for 34 in his first four overs, it’s more than what he usually concedes in a T20. Test cricket was definitely not as rosy.
Ten overs before, Mohammad Shahzad pushed for a caught behind appeal against Dhawan. The captain though is looking at the first slip fielder, Mohammad Nabi and the bowler Wafadar. Nabi is the only fielder around the bat, not convinced. And Stanikzai goes with him. The replays show that Dhawan had actually edged it. He was on 23, and yet to break fully into whirlwind mode. Between overs, Shahzad finds out that he was right and runs towards Nabi with the out signal. But Shahzad doesn’t take this to heart.
He’s proving to be the energiser on the field, and keeps the mood light even when everything is going wrong for Afghanistan. After his slip duties, Shahzad is put near the boundary and he cannot help himself but interact with the crowd. He raises both his arms and the crowd roars. He soaks it in with a smile. He is constantly chirping and talking to the batsmen when he’s fielding close-in, even while Dhawan smashes a hundred inside the first session. But it is always with a smile.
Meanwhile, Rashid lets rip a googly, the batsman plays it comfortably but Rashid already has his arms halfway up in anticipation of a wicket. It doesn’t come. He puts it down slowly, brushes the hair off his forehead and gets back. It’s a feature that he’s had on repeat mode through the mammoth opening wicket partnership. But he has to wait on.
Wafadar pings Vijay, arms raised, with a ball moving in. The umpire gives it out after a vociferous appeal. But the joy of his first Test wicket is subdued. It was overboard when Afghanistan earned their first in Tests, through Ahmadzai a while earlier. But now Wafadar just gets his arms down and looks back. Vijay is going for the review. His celebrations will have to wait. The team is still unsure of what will happen, their relationship with DRS so far has been as fickle as the day’s weather.
Ajinkya Rahane does not score off the first ten balls he faces. India have just lost two wickets in the space of three balls in the final session. This has been Afghanistan’s best period of play brought to them by their pacers – Wafadar and Ahmadzai. They’ve strung together 17 dot balls in a row after without losing their line or length. Ahmadzai has been practicing spells lasting close to an hour in the nets in the days leading up to their debut Test. This is his 10th over of the day. But the last ball of the over is short and wide, which Rahane cuts away for a boundary. The pressure is off. His captain walks past him without a word but the wicket-keeper runs across for some chat.
Ahmadzai is better in his next over, and comes back to bowl a maiden to Rahane next over. Not one is short of a length. It is not until his next over, again to Rahane, that he bowls short. But this time it’s intentional, a bouncer that rises up on Rahane and hits him on the shoulder. The umpire thinks it is out. Rahane reviews. Ahmadzai has already gone flying past Rahane in celebrations, but now winces as he turns back to bowl. DRS is still not going their way, but Rahane is feeling the heat again.
Stanikzai has already evinced his faith in his spinners with his words. But today they have received a caning. The pacers have fared fare better and have just put together a good spell, but are in need of some rest. There is no third seamer in the team. The first-day pitch has next to nothing in it for the spinners. The captain takes it upon himself to do the job but concedes three boundaries in his second over. The pressure is off again.
In the next over, Rashid Khan is brought back in for a fresh spell with the pacers taking a rest. He’s conceded 105 runs in his first 17 overs. His initiation into Test cricket has been horrendous. This time he bowls a maiden to Rahane, his first in Test cricket. Afghanistan are still managing to keep the pressure on Rahane. He’s got just six runs after 37 balls. But Mujeeb ur Rahman bowls a half-tracker that is put away by Rahane for a boundary. It’s the first boundary that feels hard-earned for India.
Two overs after that boundary, Rashid quickly walks up to the umpire to get on top of his bowling mark. The fielders are still ambling about in the changeover, the batsman are having a long chat, but Rashid is ready. Three balls into the over, he rips a leg break that resembles a googly to hit Rahane on the back pad. Rashid is convinced its out. He pushes his captain for the review. The replays is on the giant screen – was it too high? There is no edge but the wait is long. The ball-tracker shows two reds… and then then third, bringing a smile on Rashid’s face. There are no over-the-top celebrations. The bowling group has earned this wicket, Rashid has earned some respite. They are getting better at the ones they review.
“Yes there were some nerves,” admitted Ahmadzai at the end of the day. He reveals that the captain asked for the bowlers to stop trying too many things. They decided to become a little more defensive in their plans, he says.
The call was answered. The final session saw them earn respect.
The historic occasion doesn’t reflect in the crowd that’s turned up to watch the match. They are few in number. But there are pockets of Afghanistan fans. There are a few who have turned up from Afghanistan while quite a few are students in Bengaluru. They believe, even after the first session, that Afghanistan will fight back. One of them holds a signboard that says, ‘This is not a match, but the beginning of our friendship,’ They struggle to find someone who can paint the colors of the Afghanistan flag on their cheeks outside the gates. The vendor has only the colours of the Indian flag. They smile it away. Perhaps, like Afghanistan’s first day in Test cricket, that is bound to change too sometime. For this is just a start, and a hugely memorable one.