Close-In: Old Wine And The New Bottle
Afghanistan will become part of the Test playing nations and join the big boys of world cricket after their maiden Test starting June 14

The big day for Afghanistan cricket will be on June 14. They will play India in their inaugural cricket match in Bengaluru. A historic landmark for them, as they become a part of the 12 Test playing nations and join the big boys of world cricket.

Afghanistan cricket is one of the most remarkable success stories to emerge in modern cricket. The country has been in the thick of political instability. It has bare minimum facilities and structure for cricket and the development is way behind any of the other cricket playing countries. Since becoming an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 2001, just 17 years ago, they have risen to becoming a full-fledged member as well a cricket team to be reckoned with.

Their rise to the top hierarchy of world cricket has been phenomenal. The Afghans have always been fierce warriors and one

can assume that the players who have been part of their cricketing growth must therefore have the same qualities that exemplified their ancestors of yore.

The Afghanistan players seem to have a good grip on the 20-20 format of the game of cricket. Their victory against Bangladesh in Dehradun last week, established the fact that with experience they could become one of the top sides in the game. The players appear to have the fitness, body strength and die-hard attitude that one requires to be winners in the shorter format of the game. The interesting issue will be as to how Afghanistan fares in the conventional longer version of the game, Test cricket.

Unfortunately, they have to play the number one Test side in the world, India, in their very first encounter and that too at home. A very difficult task even for the more established Test playing countries. However, being thrown into the deep end of the pool, one still gets an uncanny feeling that the Afghanistan side will not be a push-over.

India will not be at full strength as they will be without their captain and star batsman, Virat Kohli and their two in-form pacers, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah. They however, have a plethora of established proven players, who should on paper at least be a handful for the debutants.

Test cricket needs a team to take 20 wickets. The star leg spin and googly bowler from Afghanistan, Rashid Khan, will be their main weapon to get them success. Although they do have a few finger spinners, they should play Zahir Khan, their googly and chinaman bowler. The batsmen these days do seem to have problems with wrist spinners and a two-pronged wrist spin attack on the Indian batting by the Afghans may be the only way they could trouble them.

The areas where Afg­ha­nistan will have problems, will be in batting. Their batsmen will need to play long, patient innings. They do lack experience solely because they do not play the longer version of the game. The bowlers will also need to bowl much longer spells and keep a consistent length and line. Furthermore, field placing, planning and right changes in bowling could prove to be an arduous task for their captain, Asghar Stanikzai. He will need to think far more differently from what he is used to in the limited over version. Getting wickets is the only way to win in Test cricket and a lot will depend on how he strategises his bowling and field placements to be effective.

The Indian team being led by Ajinkya Rahane, on the other hand, is a well-oiled outfit. The Test match against Afghanistan for them is a precursor to the grinding tour that they will be undertaking later in the month to England. A big score or a pocket full of wickets will definitely boost their players confidence and ensure them a place in the Indian Test side for the tour.

The problem that India faces will be in the selection of the playing eleven. A very healthy position to be in, especially with so many brilliant players to choose from. It truly augurs well for Indian cricket. My feel is that India will go for 5 specialist batsmen -- Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay, K L Rahul, Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara. Dinesh Karthik the wicketkeeper and the in-form batsman, will fill in the sixth batsman’s position and Hardik Pandya the all-rounder at number seven. Ravindra Ashwin and Kuldeep Yadav will be the two spinners along with the two fast bowlers, Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav.

However, India still have a problem in the area of close-in fielding. The Chinnaswamy Stadium wicket in Bengaluru should be good for batting and India will need to catch well and convert the half chances as well. The time is approaching when players need to bring-in that extra value through close fielding. It has become very difficult to differentiate through a cricketers batting skill. Each one, on their day in the past, have played match winning innings. A batsman will need to bring something more to the field and if not, keeping one’s place will always be a challenge. Fielding close will, to me, become the differentiator.

Afghanistan is known as a country that is “unconquerable” and a “Grave yard

for empires”. They have shown how they have risen so quickly in world cricket. The Indian cricket team should ensu­re that they do not take them lightly, after all, cricket can be an unpredictable game at times.

(The writer is a former India cricketer)

Yajurvindra Singh