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Five Afghan players to watch out for in their inaugural Test

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Afghanistan_Test_CricketHaving already proved themselves a limited-overs force to reckon with – what with their recent T20I whitewash of Bangladesh and their incredible come-from-behind campaign at the World Cup Qualifier in March, which culminated in a facile seven-wicket win against the West Indies in the final – Afghanistan now face their sternest challenge yet. They gear up to face India, the world’s top-ranked team, in their first ever Test match, set to begin in Bangalore on Thursday.

With this historic maiden appearance at the highest level, Afghanistan will become only the twelfth Test nation in the game’s 141-year history – a massive achievement for a team that was in Division Five of the World Cricket League just a decade ago. While India start as firm favorites, they would do well to not take the resolute Afghans lightly. As a new chapter begins in the Afghan cricket story, here are five players worth keeping an eye on in the next few days.

Rashid Khan

All eyes will be on Rashid Khan Arman, and for good reason. The leg-spinner has been in red-hot form of late, spearheading Sunrisers Hyderabad’s run into the Indian Premier League final with 21 wickets at an average of 21.80, and following it up with eight wickets at just 6.12 apiece in the T20Is against Bangladesh. His career numbers – 100 ODI wickets at 14.40 and 57 T20I wickets at 13.01 – are nothing short of astounding, especially considering that he is yet to turn 20.

By his own admission, Rashid is more of a finger spinner, rather than a wrist spinner, given that he primarily uses the strength of his fingers to confound the batsman. Armed with a wrong’un that has put the best of the willow wielders in a quandary, Rashid has been pivotal to Afghanistan’s rapid surge, and there is a great sense of anticipation about how he responds to the rigours of Test cricket. After all, multi-day cricket is a completely different ball game.

While Rashid will not have it easy in the Test arena, in his short first-class career he has shown that his prowess is not confined to the limited-overs game. In four first-class matches thus far, Rashid has collected 35 wickets, including a haul of 12/122 (4/48 and 8/74) on debut, in a losing cause against the England Lions in 2016-17. It remains to be seen whether he can add yet another bright feather in his cap by weaving his magic at Bangalore.

Mohammad Shahzad

Brimming with spunk and audacity, the portly Mohammad Shahzad brings with him a lot of experience that augurs well for Afghanistan ahead of the Test. Generally known for his exploits while opening in the shorter formats, Shahzad also boasts of an impressive first-class record, having first played in the Intercontinental Cup back in 2009. In 20 matches till date, he has accumulated 1,582 runs at an excellent average of 54.55, including four hundreds and nine fifties.

Shahzad’s best effort came against Canada at Sharjah in the 2009-10 Intercontinental Cup. Batting at number three, he struck 214* to help Afghanistan, who had a first-innings deficit of 302, chase down a mammoth 494 for a six-wicket win. While he also kept wickets in that game, it is likely that he will play purely as a batsman in the Test, in which case Afsar Zazai will don the gloves. If he gets settled, Shahzad is capable of snatching the game away from his opponents.

Rahmat Shah

It would not be an overstatement to say that Rahmat Shah is the most dependable batsman in the Afghan side. With his composed approach at the crease, the 24-year-old provides a sense of stability to his team’s batting line-up, which can often be prone to sudden collapses. In 13 first-class matches, Rahmat, who thrives batting at the crucial number three position, has scored 741 runs at 49.40. He also bowls handy leg-spin, good enough to fetch 15 first-class wickets at 28.73.

Rahmat has proved to be equally effective in ODIs, and currently averages 38.38 in the format, the highest for an Afghan batsman. He scored half-centuries in each of Afghanistan’s two games against the West Indies in the World Cup Qualifier, and another in a narrow defeat to Zimbabwe. If Afghanistan hope to dig deep with the bat at Bangalore, Rahmat is their best bet to stand firm and deliver. Patience and discipline will be the keys to success, and he does not lack in either.

Mohammad Nabi

If India have Ravichandran Ashwin, Afghanistan have Mohammad Nabi. The off-spinning all-rounder has been around since 2007, when he made his first-class debut for the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) against Sri Lanka A at Arundel. He is the most capped first-class player in the Afghan Test squad, with 32 appearances, from which he has scored 1,251 runs at 26.61 and taken 86 wickets at 22.37. Needless to say, his rich experience will be worth its weight in gold.

Nabi, who led Afghanistan at their maiden World Cup in 2015, imparts great balance to the team formation, thanks to his game-changing ability with both bat and ball. He was Afghanistan’s leading run-scorer at the World Cup Qualifier and despite his reputation as a hard-hitting batsman, he possesses the temperament required to prosper at the Test level. Nabi’s off-spin, particularly in tandem with Rashid’s leg-spin, might just give the Indians a run for their money.

Yamin Ahmadzai

While the focus is expected to be on Afghanistan’s spinners, Yamin Ahmadzai is likely to be the spearhead on the pace front, in the absence of the injured Dawlat Zadran. The 25-year-old right-arm medium-fast bowler will particularly assume a fair share of the responsibility if India choose to neutralize the Afghan spin threat by rolling out a pace-friendly surface at Bangalore. In 22 first-class matches till date, Ahmadzai has scalped 67 wickets at a noteworthy average of 21.34.

Unlike Rashid and Nabi, Ahmadzai may not have the exposure of playing in myriad T20 leagues. However, besides playing first-class cricket for and in Afghanistan, he has also played in Pakistan’s Quaid-e-Azam Trophy (for Habib Bank in 2016-17), becoming only the third Afghan cricketer, after Nabi and Hamid Hassan, to do so. He had a commendable return in the latest edition of the Afghan first-class tournament, taking 16 wickets at 24.31 for Boost Region.

 

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Rustom Deboo is a cricket aficionado and freelance writer from Mumbai. He is an ardent devotee of T...

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