In the build-up to Afghanistan’s maiden Test against India, there has been a sense of bonhomie between the sides. A great number of pleasant things have been said by either party, both praising talent and generally appreciating being part of the historic Test.
One statement, however, has pricked the Indians, and each of their representatives over the last three days at press conferences has made no secret of that. Karun Nair, Dinesh Karthik and Ajinkya Rahane, the stand-in skipper, looked bemused when one particular statement made by Asghar Stanikzai, the Afghanistan captain, was brought to their notice.
Implausible as it may seem in this day and age of social media, they behaved as if unaware that only a few days ago, Stanikzai had said Afghanistan’s spinners were better than their Indian counterparts.
Karthik and Nair scoffed at the opinion after the initial shock, saying there was no reason to make a big deal about it. Rahane came up with an equally generic answer.
“Every member of a team always believes their team is good, that their bowling attack and their batting is better. But for us, it’s important that we – we all know the stats – don’t focus on stats,” he explained.
“It is important that you do your best all the time. And our spinners, Kuldeep (Yadav), (R) Ashwin or (Ravindra) Jadeja, they are all experienced, they are quality spinners, they back each other, they enjoy bowling with each other even in the nets and in the match. Yes, as I mentioned, every member of a team feels their team is much better, but on that given day, it’s important what your mindset is and how to handle pressure.”
Deflection is the name of the game. The Indians, for obvious reasons, are confident that their spinners are on top of their game, but the Afghanis have good reason to believe they are better than their opponents.
A good portion of that confidence is derived from what Rashid Khan has done over the last couple of years. Leg-break at breakneck speeds is as good a way to describe Rashid as any. A hint of Anil Kumble and Shahid Afridi – legends Rashid attributes learning his craft from – only with more turn. He has changed the face of limited-overs cricket, especially Twenty20 cricket. with an economy of less than six and 57 wickets from 33 games. In One-Day Internationals, he has 100 wickets – the fastest to the three-figure mark – from 44 games at an economy of 3.96.
While his stints at the international level have inspired awe, it’s his performances in the Indian Premier League that have played a big part in the legend of Rashid. Mujeeb Ur Rahman too carved a niche for himself with his finger spin in the world’s biggest T20 league. Zahir Khan’s Chinaman, although untested on an international stage of any kind, too is being spoken of highly.
With such varying talent at your disposal, it’s easy to see why Stanikzai would be disillusioned into saying what he did. A hint of humour accompanied Phil Simmons, the Afghanistan coach, when he seconded his skipper’s view. “My captain knows what he is talking about,” the former West Indian opener laughed. “When you look at it, all spinners in this contest will be excellent. We know that right now, Rashid is the most difficult spinner to play.”
Simmons, however, was a bit more reserved on how well Rashid will perform in the longest format given his lack of experience. “Rashid has not played Test cricket so we have to see what happens. His professionalism will help him adjust and I’m sure he will come out well but there’s always that element of doubt when you’re doing something you haven’t done before,” said Simmons.
Experience, clearly, will play a big role in how Afghanistan play over the next few days. That the pitch isn’t as green as it was only a couple of days ago will come as a relief to the men looking to turn the tables on the No. 1-ranked side in the world. Ashwin and Jadeja, who by the way have picked up 476 wickets between them in Test cricket, too will be licking their lips so, if nothing else, the contest between the spinners will be one to look forward to.