Afghans await dawn of new era

Afghans await dawn of new era

Afghan players during a practice session ahead of the maiden cricket test match between India and Afghanistan, in Bengaluru on Tuesday. (PTI Photo/Shailendra Bhojak)

The packed media conference hall at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium, on the eve of Afghanistan’s inaugural Test match against India, aptly mirrored the significance of the moment. The match, at least on paper, maybe between the two unequals – one the No 1 team in the world and the other yet to get the taste of red-ball cricket at the highest level – but the magnitude of the occasion wasn’t lost on anyone.

On the verge of becoming the youngest Test team, Afghanistan’s excitement is naturally laced with some amount anxiety. The most improved limited-overs team in the last couple of years, the Asian minnows are stepping into untested waters and they couldn’t have asked for a bigger challenge than India even without their regular skipper and best batsman -- Virat Kohli.

While for India the Test is no more than an opportunity to get into a Test groove after lengthy limited-overs engagements, including the just-concluded Indian Premier League, for Afghanistan, it’s one of the most important chapters in their sporting history. However, the road to becoming the 12th Test nation in the world hasn’t been devoid of obstacles. For a country where the gun-totting extremists outnumber willow-wielding batsmen and grenade-hurling ultras outnumber kids on the streets with cricket balls in their hands, it’s been as fascinating a journey to cricket's elite arena as it’s been difficult.               

The love for the game among Afghans was ignited in the refugee camps -- inhabited by people who settled there to escape the bloody sectarian battle in their country—along the Pakistan border about four decades. These people took the game back to Afghanistan, helping it spread across the country.

“I think playing Test cricket is the dream of every country and every player,” said Afghan star player and leg-spinner Rashid Khan recently. “I think it is a big honour to play Test cricket and achieving this in such a short time is a proud thing for the whole nation because this Test status we have got it in 13-14 years. It will be a big day for cricket in Afghanistan to play against India. Can’t wait to be called a Test cricketer. That means a lot to us,” he explained.

Indeed, Afghanistan’s progress as a cricketing nation has been meteoric. And the excitement is all too pervasive, both among players and their countrymen who look to the national team to provide some succour from the daily blood-shed.            

“I think there will be no one who will not be watching (this Test on television) back home,” emphasised Rashid. “Whether it is Test cricket or ODI or T20, they watch it. If it is not live they follow it online. People in Afghanistan are crazy about cricket. It is amazing.”

While Afghanistan’s tryst with cricket began in Pakistan, not by design but by circumstances, it’s India that has hand-held them in their journey in the last few years. They have provided a base to them in their Greater Noida facilities and recently helped them host their T20I series against Bangladesh in Dehradun. And it’s only apt that their maiden Test match is against a country that is helping them get a foothold in international cricket.       

“We had a 30-member team practising at Greater Noida,” Rashid pointed out. “So, everyone is very keenly waiting for the Test match to be played. That is the thing we have to show ourselves, our skills. We will be tested on how good we are. Are we good enough to play Test cricket? It is a big challenge for us, for the whole team. I think, the way the boys are doing the hard work for this, it is very good. I hope they will do well in the match and we give a tough fight to India,” he hoped.

Irrespective of how they fare in the match, it will be a dawn of new era insofar as Afghanistan’s cricket is concerned.