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Afghanistan and Ireland aim for a maiden Test victory


Afghanistan_Ireland_Test_CricketAfghanistan and Ireland, the two newest entrants in the Test club, are all set to lock horns in a one-off Test at the Rajiv Gandhi International Cricket Stadium in Dehradun – Afghanistan’s home ground – from today. Considering that the recently-concluded ODI series between the two teams ended at 2-2, a hard-fought encounter can be expected in the five-day format as well. As the much-awaited fixture gets underway, here is a lowdown on the teams and their key players.

Past Test experience

Both teams have played a Test each since being inducted as full members in June 2017. The Village in Malahide, around 16 kilometres north of Dublin, played host to Ireland’s first ever men’s Test in May 2018. The Irishmen, led by William Porterfield, faced Pakistan, and despite being made to follow on, gave enough evidence that they belong to the Test level. After the first day was washed out, Ireland’s seamers reduced Pakistan to 159/6, much to the joy of the crowd.

Debutant Faheem Ashraf (83) tilted the scales towards Pakistan, enabling a declaration at 310/9. In reply, Ireland could never really recover from a woeful position of 7/4, and were bowled out for 130. But they showed great resolve through a commendable fightback in the second attempt. Openers Ed Joyce and Porterfield put together 69, before a collapse saw the score stumble to 157/6. Kevin O’Brien, who had top-scored in the first innings with 40, stole the show thereafter.

O’Brien walked in at 95/4, and went on to become Ireland’s first Test centurion during a seventh-wicket stand of 114 with Stuart Thompson (53). His 118 pushed Ireland to 339, giving them a fighting chance. When Tim Murtagh and Boyd Rankin had Pakistan reeling at 14/3 in their 160-run chase, the unthinkable was very much on the cards. However, Imam-ul-Haq (also on debut) struck a calm 74*, and along with Babar Azam (59), steered them to a five-wicket win.

Just a month after Ireland’s inaugural Test match, Afghanistan were welcomed to the fold as well, taking the number of Test nations to 12. The fact that Afghanistan were in Division Five of the World Cricket League just a decade ago made their rise to Test status one of the most astonishing success stories in sporting history. Moreover, they were pitted against India, the top-ranked Test side, in the landmark game that was held at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore.

It turned out to be a lopsided affair that lasted two days. Shikhar Dhawan (107) became only the fifth batsman to score a Test hundred before lunch on the first day, and his opening stand of 168 with Murali Vijay (105) laid the base for India’s 474. Pacer Yamin Ahmadzai made quite an impression, taking 3/51 while also being the most economical bowler. Afghanistan underwent the ignominy of being dismissed twice in a day (for 109 and 103), but the margin mattered little.

Head-to-head first-class record

Afghanistan and Ireland have faced each other four times in first-class cricket thus far, with all the instances coming in the Intercontinental Cup. Their first meeting was at Dambulla in 2009-10, in which Afghanistan, playing their first first-class tournament, prevailed by seven wickets. Despite posting 405, defending champions Ireland ceded a lead of 69, before being dismissed for 202 in the second innings. Afghanistan went on to claim the title, defeating Scotland in the final.

The 2011-13 Intercontinental Cup saw Ireland host Afghanistan at Dublin’s Observatory Lane in 2012. After rain washed out the first two days, seamers Max Sorensen, Trent Johnston and Alex Cusack combined to roll Afghanistan over for 84. Ireland declared at 251/4 to bolster their winning chances, but Afghanistan hung on for a draw by finishing at 208/7. Ireland topped the league stage, while Afghanistan ended second, meaning that they met again in the final at Dubai.

The five-day final in December 2013 began promisingly for Afghanistan, what with Ireland getting reduced to 67/5. John Anderson’s gritty 55 pushed the total to 187, before the medium pace of John Mooney (5/45) eked out a five-run lead for Ireland. With the match now a second-dig shootout, Ed Joyce (78) and Niall O’Brien (87) helped set Afghanistan a challenging 347. Mooney starred again, taking 5/36 to seal Ireland’s 122-run win and fourth Intercontinental title.

A little over three years later, in March 2017, the big strides taken by Afghanistan were there for all to see, as they routed Ireland by an innings and 172 runs at Greater Noida in the fifth round of the 2015-17 Intercontinental Cup. Centuries from captain Asghar Afghan (145) and Afsar Zazai (103) powered the Afghans to 537/8, before the spinners condemned Ireland to 261 (Rashid Khan 5/99) and 104 (Mohammad Nabi 6/40) This win was pivotal to Afghanistan’s title triumph.

Players to watch out for

Afghanistan lasted just 66.3 overs across both innings against India last year, and they would thus be raring to prove a point on the batting front as they aim to emerge victorious in their first home Test. Central to their fortunes will be Rahmat Shah, who thrives batting at the crucial number three position. The 25-year-old has grown to be a dependable batsman for Afghanistan in the multi-day circuit, and can provide a sense of stability to a line-up often prone to collapses.

That Ireland could draw the ODI series with Afghanistan was largely due to Andy Balbirnie, who scored 145* and 68 in his team’s two wins, and was deservedly named Man of the Series. Out for a pair on Test debut against Pakistan, the 28-year-old will be looking to make amends by carrying his good form into the five-day arena. Balbirnie is expected to play a key role as Ireland spread their wings as a Test side, and his experience with Middlesex will hold him in good stead.

Rashid Khan may have been ordinary on his Test debut, but there is no denying that he poses as the biggest threat to the Irish batsmen. While he has played only five matches at first-class level, he has shown that his exploits are not just restricted to limited-overs cricket – he bamboozled the England Lions with a haul of 12/122 on first-class debut in 2016-17. The Test against Ireland presents the 20-year-old leg-spinner with a massive opportunity to add another feather in his cap.

Even at the age of 37, Tim Murtagh remains the leader of Ireland’s pace attack, with the experience of 218 first-class matches behind him – by far the most played by any player from either of the squads for the upcoming Test. The London-born veteran underlined his worth on Test debut, scalping six wickets in the match. Even though the pitch is likely to be spin-friendly, Murtagh, along with Boyd Rankin, will be banked upon to make the early inroads in the innings.

Full squads

Afghanistan: Asghar Afghan (captain), Mohammad Shahzad, Ihsanullah Janat, Javed Ahmadi, Rahmat Shah, Nasir Jamal, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Ikram Ali Khil, Mohammad Nabi, Rashid Khan, Wafadar Momand, Yamin Ahmadzai, Sharafuddin Ashraf, Waqar Salamkheil, Sayed Shirzad, Zahir Khan

Ireland: William Porterfield (captain), Andy Balbirnie, James Cameron-Dow, George Dockrell, Andy McBrine, Barry McCarthy, James McCollum, Tim Murtagh, Kevin O’Brien, Stuart Poynter, Boyd Rankin, Simi Singh, Paul Stirling, Stuart Thompson, Lorcan Tucker

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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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