Afghan players celebrate the fall of an Indian wicket in Bengaluru
On June 14, around 9.35 am, Yamin Ahmadzai made cricketing history in Bengaluru. He became the first Afghanistan cricketer to bowl in Test cricket.
By the end of the first day’s play, as India finished with six down for 374 runs, Ahmadzai, with 2-32, was already his country’s highest wicket-taker.
“This was a dream come true for our nation. Getting a Test cap is the most important thing in the life of a cricketer,” said Ahmadzai.
It was a dream 17 years in the making, after Afghanistan’s initiation as an International Cricket Council affiliate member back in 2001.
A story as fascinating as this one has many facets to it. Not many are aware that in the late 1990s, cricket was the only sport in Afghanistan approved by the Taliban regime. Of course, after the events of September 2001 as the region turned into a war-ravaged zone, sport was no longer a priority. But somehow the game survived amongst the Afghan people, many of whom by then lived in refugee camps by the Pakistan border. Later, Peshawar would become the spiritual home of the sport for them.
The rise of the likes of Afghanistan’s first Test skipper Asghar Stanikzai, all-rounder Mohammad Nabi, hard-hitting wicketkeeper-batsman Mohammad Shahzad and pacer Shapoor Zadran is the stuff folklores are made of. All of them came through those dusty camps, at some point or the other, breaking ranks in terms of both life and cricket.
Stanikzai has been associated with Afghanistan cricket since 2009. His has been a meteoric rise through different levels of international cricket. “We are excited and the people back home are excited that we are playing the Number One ranked team, India, in our first Test,” Stanikzai said in the lead-up to the historic match. “The support back home has grown over the years as they have seen us to do well in the shorter formats. Our fans expect us to do similarly well in Test cricket as well.”
What about nerves though? “Are we nervous? Not at all. This is the first time I have heard this word,” Stanikzai said, flashing his trademark smile.
There is a certain chutzpah about the Afghan cricketers, and perhaps it applies most to their captain. It is but natural when you overcome every obstacle life has thrown at you. Nothing fazes you anymore, surely not the prospect of bowling to the likes of Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane, or indeed facing Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja on their turf.
The more striking aspect though is that there is no effort to project themselves as different, or indeed as new entrants into Test cricket. Sample this statement from Stanikzai ahead of this match. “Our spinners are better than India’s spinners,” he had proclaimed in an interview with ESPN-Cricinfo, setting the cat among the pigeons.
It is an astonishing comparison whichever way you look at it. Between Afghanistan’s two frontline spinners in this maiden Test, leg spinner Rashid Khan had played only four first-class matches previously, while mystery spinner Mujeeb Ur Rahman had never featured in a red-ball cricket game. Meanwhile, Ashwin-Jadeja together boast of 476 wickets in 92 Tests, and are among the five top-ranked bowlers in ICC’s Test rankings.
Afghanistan’s cricketers have benefitted immensely from playing in India, with Noida and Dehradun playing host during their limited-overs’ series against Ireland and Bangladesh. Additionally, there has been an increased participation of Afghan cricketers in the Indian Premier League (IPL) since 2017. If Peshawar is where they learnt to play, India — as their adoptive home — is where they began their journey to becoming prospective world-beaters. There is an assurance about each one of these Afghan cricketers that they will get there, eventually. And it is best encapsulated in the story of Rashid Khan, Afghanistan’s first star cricketer. At 19, the leg spin sensation is already the world’s most sought-after T20 cricketer, and has played a starring role in every major T20 league over the last few years.
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Khan’s story could well be the grand Afghan story itself — a fairy tale, if you are still looking for one. Born in Nangarhar (eastern Afghanistan) in 1998, his family moved base to Pakistan to survive the war, and returned to Jalalabad a few years later. In between these migrations, Khan sharpened his leg breaks and googlies, playing with his six siblings, and later advanced enough to represent Afghanistan on the international stage in October 2015 (ODI debut against Zimbabwe), a month after his 17th birthday.
In January 2018, the IPL franchise Sunrisers Hyderabad paid a whopping Rs 90 million to reclaim him in the high-profile player auctions. Only a year earlier, in the 2017 auctions, Khan had become the first associate cricketer in the IPL. The Sunrisers had paid Rs 40 million for him then.
Nicknamed the “Afghan Afridi” for his wicket-taking celebrations that mirror those of Pakistan’s mercurial all-rounder Shahid Afridi, Khan has taken world cricket by storm, and his 2018 IPL bid price was only an indicator of this. Moving from IPL to the Caribbean Premier League, to the Big Bash, to figures of 7-18 in his maiden ODI against West Indies, Khan was named 2017 ICC Associate Cricketer of the Year. The white ball brought him unprecedented fame and riches. Even so, his eye was firmly fixated on red-ball cricket.
“Playing in the IPL has been a cause of immense happiness for my family back home. At the same time, it has given impetus to the rise of Afghan cricket,” he had told this writer during the 2017 IPL.
Since that conversation, Afghanistan played at Lord’s against an MCC XI led by former New Zealand skipper Brendon McCullum. Then, they drew an ODI series in West Indies, beat Ireland and Zimbabwe in their den, and then came back from the brink to win the ICC 2019 ODI World Cup Qualifier (in Zimbabwe). It will be their second World Cup appearance after the 2015 World Cup in Australia-New Zealand.
Consequentially, an increasing number of Afghan cricketers have gained prominence. Rahman, the 17-year-old mystery spinner who has modelled himself on Ashwin and West Indies’ Sunil Narine, is a prime example. He played for Kings XI Punjab in the 2018 IPL and for the first half of the tournament, spearheaded their attack.
Leg-spinner Rashid Khan appeals for an LBW
Just over a year later, both he and Rahman were among those 11 individuals who received their golden-red first-Test caps on a sunny morning in Bengaluru.
The going wasn’t easy though. Khan, who averages 3.96 runs/over in ODIs and 5.93 in T20s, went for 13 runs in his first over. In his first 10 overs, he had conceded 75, and leaked 100 runs off just 99 balls. Playing with the SG ball for the first time in anger, maybe it was to do with his lack of experience or grip, or both.
The highlight of the day, however, came forth in the final session. India lost five wickets for 54 runs as Khan bowled a nine-over spell inclusive of two maidens and returned 1-15. It was an exhibition of control and guile in flight that had been talked up.
More importantly, it was indicative of the steep learning curve that Afghan cricketers have had to endure at every step. After being hit around in the first two sessions, they came back to peg the world’s top-ranked Test side in the final hour on June 14.
That singular passage of play captures the essence of their journey. To have come this far is a victory in itself.