AFGHANISTAN FIGHT BACK AFTER NIGHT­MARE START TO FIRST TEST

The National - News - - SPORT - PAUL RADLEY

The very first ball of Afghanistan’s new life as a fully paidup mem­ber of cricket’s most ex­clu­sive club told a story.

Yamin Ah­madzai bounded in, full of en­thu­si­asm and ex­pec­ta­tion. Then, with a few strides still to run, he bailed out, los­ing his bear­ings, and opted against let­ting the ball go. He needed to reload.

Sorry, ev­ery­one. Can I have an­other go at this, please?

Mid­way through a chas­ten­ing first day as a Test out­fit, the Afghan side might be wish­ing they could do the same.

Shikhar Dhawan made a cen­tury be­fore lunch. His open­ing part­ner, Murali Vi­jay, also made it to three-fig­ures – the ninth time both In­dia’s open­ers have made hun­dreds in the same Test in­nings. It was bru­tal.

If Afghanistan made his­tory just by turn­ing up, their hosts quickly warmed to the theme, too.

Ahead of the start, the at­mos­phere had been rent with joy, as well as a fair dose of nerves. The pre­miers of both coun­tries had been moved to send warm mes­sages of con­grat­u­la­tion.

“As Pres­i­dent of the Is­lamic Repub­lic of Afghanistan I wel­come Afghanistan’s maiden Test match against In­dia,” Ashraf Ghani wrote.

“I’m proud of the men who cham­pi­oned cricket in Afghanistan [and] will play against the best in the world. To­day is that his­toric day.

“On be­half of all Afghans I pay trib­ute to their con­tri­bu­tion to the game of cricket, and hon­our them for be­ing a source of pride to the na­tion. In­dia, and now Afghanistan are two ma­jor Asian cricket forces.”

Naren­dra Modi, the In­dian prime min­is­ter, was sim­i­larly minded.

“I con­grat­u­late the peo­ple of Afghanistan as their cricket team plays their first in­ter­na­tional Test match,” he wrote.

“Glad that they have cho­sen to play the his­toric match with In­dia. May sports con­tinue to bring our peo­ple closer and strengthen ties.”

The cer­e­mo­nial feel con­tin­ued on the field be­fore play be­gan. Salim Du­rani, the for­mer In­dia Test player who was born in Kabul, was pre­sented to the two sides ahead as a guest of hon­our. Then the Afghan play­ers were each gifted newly-com­mis­sioned red caps, along with com­mem­o­ra­tive pre­sen­ta­tion cases.

As wor­thy and no­ble all it was, it jarred slightly. Afghanistan’s on-field suc­cesses since they started out 17 years ago have been char­ac­terised by the play­ers be­ing glo­ri­ously un­sen­ti­men­tal. They have just wanted to play.

They have ex­celled most when they have ei­ther been un­known, or writ­ten off, giv­ing them scope to show what they have got.

They are at their best when punchy and bullish, not feted.

They ap­peared un­nerved by all the pomp and cer­e­mony. Be­ing cel­e­brated with­out ac­tu­ally hav­ing done any­thing as yet, does not fit their style.

It showed in their play. As­ghar Stanikzai, the cap­tain who had been one of the Orig­i­nals from 2001, had said his side were not feel­ing nerves ahead of the game.

Well, if not nerves, then they were just plain bad at the start. In­dia’s hun­dred was up within 20 overs, Dhawan bring­ing it up with a six off his Sun­ris­ers Hyderabad team­mate Rashid Khan.

After four overs – which would equate to his full ra­tion in an In­dian Premier League match – the vaunted Rashid had no wicket for 34.

He had a bet­ter re­turn than that in the vast ma­jor­ity of his IPL matches this sea­son. By his 17th over, he had con­ceded 100 runs.

In­dia were rac­ing away with it. Then, two heavy rain storms hit Bengaluru, and Afghanistan had a chance to re­group and re­mind them­selves of what got them here.

Shortly after the show­ers had gone for the day, the home team were 280-1. Afghanistan sal­vaged the day, though, by tak­ing 5-67 be­fore the close.

A bit like on the first ball of the day, when Yamin re­lo­cated his run up. He bowled a fine in-swinger that chal­lenged Vi­jay, and all the Afghan field­ers swarmed on the ball.

He showed that he was, in fact, ready for this – and by stumps, with In­dia on 347-6, his team had proved the same.

They ap­peared un­nerved by all the pomp and cer­e­mony. Well, if not nerves, they were just plain bad at the start

AP

Afghanistan leg-spin­ner Rashid Khan, right, ap­peals un­suc­cess­fully for the wicket of In­dian bats­man Di­nesh Karthik

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