Afghanistan will become the 12th Test-playing nation when they face India in their inaugural Test at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium from June 14. Rashid Khan, the biggest name in Afghanistan cricket and currently playing for Sunrisers Hyderabad in the Indian Premier League, shared his views on what attaining Test status meant for the players and the nation, the team’s preparations ahead of the big occasion, the first-class cricket structure back home, spin-bowling riches, and more. Excerpts:
What does this Test mean to Afghanistan as a cricket team and as a nation?
Playing Test cricket is a dream for every country and every player. It is a big honour for us to play Test cricket. (We are) really waiting for that, can’t wait to be called Test cricketers. Right now, we are having a 30-member practice camp at Greater Noida. Everyone is keenly waiting for the match. Now we have to show our skills in Test cricket, where we will be really tested how good we are and are we good enough to play Test cricket. It is a big challenge for the whole team. But the way the guys are working hard in the camp, I am hopeful that we will do well and give India a tough fight.
For the nation, it is a proud thing because we have got Test status in just 13-14 years since we entered cricket. It will be a big day for Afghanistan to play Test cricket against India. I think there will be no one who will not be watching it back home. They love cricket. Whether it is Test cricket or One-Day Internationals or T20, they watch it, if it is not live, they follow it online. People in Afghanistan are crazy about cricket.
What are your expectations from the first Test, given that India will be without Virat Kohli?
We don’t have anything in mind. We are just focussed on playing good cricket. We are not thinking that this class player is not there, so we should be a little relaxed. In Test cricket, anyone can give you a tough time. In Test cricket, you should take even a fast bowler (seriously), he can make a hundred against you because he has got a lot of time to bat for a session, for a day. So that’s where Test cricket is different. The full focus is on playing good cricket and to prove that we are deserving of Test status.
What do you consider Afghanistan’s biggest strength and weakness?
Afghanistan has the best spin bowling attack in the world. Because of that, we have won a lot of matches. Now we have been working hard on the fast bowling and batting departments, which are key for us. Hopefully, this Test match will be interesting and the batsmen will step up and show their class. That’s the only thing which might be a little bit of a weakness.
“For the nation, it is a proud thing because we have got Test status in just 13-14 years since we entered cricket. It will be a big day for Afghanistan to play Test cricket against India.”
Do you have a backup plan if the Bangalore pitch doesn’t help spinners?
The kind of spinners we have, like me and Mujeeb (Ur Rahman), I think we should be able to deliver on any wicket. If the wicket is helpful for spinners, every spinner can bowl well. But if the wicket is not good for spinners, we have to show our skills, we have to show our variations. Indian batsmen are very good against spin and if they are playing you well even on a helpful wicket, then it’s useless to have a turning track.
However, if the wicket is not good enough for spinners, we have to work hard and learn how to bowl on such a wicket because in future, you will play in Australia, in England, in New Zealand where you won’t get a spinning track. If you see Shane Warne, he has got success in Australia, England even if the wickets there do not help spinners. You have to use your variations then.
We have a good fast bowling attack as well. We have like 15-20 fast bowlers who are now busy in the camp for the last one month. Hopefully, we can find two-three good fast bowlers and if the wicket is not working for us, hopefully, they can deliver.
So far, you have played only in the limited-overs formats internationally. How hard do you think it would be to bowl longer spells in Test cricket?
Recently, I played against England A in Abu Dhabi where I bowled 35 consecutive overs. My captain then asked me if I was tired. I said no, I am okay, I can bowl more. Then he looked at the screen and said, ‘But you have already bowled 35 overs’. He was surprised when I said I can still bowl 15-20 overs more.
I think it’s all about bowling a lot in the net sessions. I bowl for two hours, three hours in nets. Whenever we practice, I bowl to all the batsman from No. 1 to No. 10. That makes it really easy for me to bowl longer spells. I don’t think it will be a problem for me in Test cricket.
Are you working on something specific to extend your white-ball success to Test cricket?
I am working with different grips and more variations which I haven’t used in any games yet. I am planning to use those in Test matches. I have discussed this with Muttiah Muralitharan, who is the bowling coach at Sunrisers Hyderabad. He said, ‘Don’t change your action or speed. That’s your strength. That’s why you’re taking wickets, that’s why you’re going forward. Just be relaxed. Sometimes you won’t get a wicket in 30 overs, sometimes you will get five in five overs. That’s all Test cricket is about. You have to be relaxed and calm. Stay focused and enjoy every moment. Nothing different to be done in the test cricket. Just go and do the basics right. Bowl in the good length area. Irrespective of the fact that you are bowling quick or slow, if you are troubling the batsman that’s fine’.
“I am working with different grips and more variations which I haven’t used in any games yet. I am planning to use those in Test matches. I have discussed this with Muttiah Muralitharan.”
What is the reason for Afghanistan producing so many good spinners?
If you see, in India you will find a lot of good batsmen. Same is the case in overseas countries where you find fast bowlers. A similar thing is happening with Afghanistan, where lots of spinners are coming up just naturally. You don’t have any kind of facilities, academies or coaches where they can train. I think it’s all natural talent which just needs some polishing, motivation and encouragement. We have five-six really good spinners. You will see them in the near future. There is one legspinner, Qais Ahmad, who has been selected for the Caribbean Premier League. There is one Chinaman bowler named Waqar who is involved in the camp with the national team.
Last year when I went back from the IPL, I was invited by one of the academies. When I went there, they told me that during the IPL, they had got 126 legspinners. In fact, even 5-10 fast bowlers switched to legspin.
The four-day format started only last year in Afghanistan and now you are going to play a Test match. What is the domestic structure back home?
We had three-day cricket before four-day. For the last five-six years, three-day cricket was on in Afghanistan. Even ODI cricket was there but we didn’t have first-class status that time. But now we are focusing a lot on the longer format, especially in domestic cricket. We have to play a lot of four-day cricket, a lot of ODI cricket. There are five first-class teams and each team has to play two games against every other team. So every player gets to play around eight to ten four-day games in a year. Right now, we are not playing T20 cricket a lot in Afghanistan.
The facilities are getting better day by day. We have like four-five grounds where first-class is being played right now. It’s improving day by day and hopefully, in the next two-three years, we will get even better facilities and grounds.
How do you spot talent in Afghanistan?
We are also surprised with the amount of talent coming up from Afghanistan. Whenever we have a new league or a four-day competition, a new talent shows up. Just like in the IPL, you find a new talent every season. That’s the same case in Afghanistan. Whenever we have a new tournament, the talent comes up, even we don’t know from where it comes. It’s natural. Everyone has the talent, they just need to come and deliver.
“We are surprised with the amount of talent coming up from Afghanistan. Whenever we have a new league or a four-day competition, a new talent shows up.”
How are you preparing the younger lot for the big stage?
The six-seven youngsters we just found in U-19 cricket, we just called them. There are busy in the camp right now. If we see someone who has talent, who can show he is good enough to play against any good team, we just call them and bring them to the national side. Players who did well in first-class cricket, we are calling them to the camp. We have like 30-40 players in the camp right now. Whoever performs, in U-19 or domestic, we are just calling them to the national side because right now we badly need the talent to come up in Afghanistan. If you see the U-19 team, they qualified for the semifinal in the World Cup. It means they have something, they have the talent, they just need some polishing, some experience and some motivation. We don’t have any kind of NCA in Afghanistan. We don’t have such a good coaching staff there that could work with them. The only thing we can do is just bring them to the national side and see how good they are and see how they can be much better than that.
How hopeful are you of playing more matches in future against big teams?
We are hoping to get more games against the big teams. And have long series, not like one ODI or two ODIs. We can say that the real cricket has started now. It will be a tough challenge for us to play against the good teams, Australia, New Zealand, England. Next year, we have the World Cup where we’ll play against the best sides. As I said before, the batting will be the key for us. If we bat well, we can trouble any side. The focus is on the batting department and hopefully, that will get better and we can perform well against any team, anywhere.