Cricket Captain 2018: Afghan Dreams Can Come True!

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When I accepted the challenge of performing the dual role of National Selector and Coach, ultimately being Team Manager for the Afghanistan Men’s National Cricket team, though I knew that a new dawn was about to commence, little did I envisage that the players would be writing history on such a grand scale so early in our relationship.

Having lost a competitive T20I series against Bangladesh 2-1, even if the deciding match looked a little one sided, we headed to India for my adopted nation’s first ever Test match. When a Kohliless India won the toss and chose to bat on the first morning, the following eleven men became Afganistan’s first ever Test cricket team:

Ashgar Stanikzai (c), Mohammad Shahzad, Usman Ghani, Noor Ali Zadran, Rahmat Shah, Mohammad Nabi, Haji Murad (w), Hamza Hotak, Dawlat Zadran, Fareem Ahmad, Hameed Hassan

By the time India neared 100 without loss on the first day, romance had been replaced by reality on our Test debut. With the score on 97 however, Shikhar Dhawan was run out for fifty exactly. That leaves a tricky quiz question regarding who took Afghanistan’s first ever Test wicket. When Cheteshwar Pujara perished for 91, the second wicket to fall, it was left-arm quick Fareem Ahmad who claimed the honour of being the first Afghanistan bowler to take a wicket.

India closed the day on 268-3 and though we lacked penetration, we had contained our hosts and not yet allowed them to amass a terribly imposing total. On the second day, India progressed to 326-3 before Ahmad (3-127) led the fightback to restrict them to 444 all out. As well as Pujara’s 91 and Dhawan’s 50, Murali Vijay contributed a determined 90.

Our batsmen were not to be intimidated however. Mohammad Shahzad (29) and Usman Ghani (60) put on 83 for our first ever Test partnership. Rahmat Shah, who didn’t feature in the Bangladesh matches, followed Dhawan’s example by scoring 50 exactly. Making India bat again had looked a certainty but a little middle order wobble caused concern. It was left to 29-year-old debutant wicketkeeper Haji Murad to come to the rescue. Before the match, I’d decided that it was far too much to ask even a player as talented as Mohammad Shahzad to both open the batting and keep wicket. I didn’t want him wasted down the order though, so I insisted that he reside at the top of the order. That left a difficult choice as to who to select behind the stumps. There was some reticence when I selected an uncapped (In all international formats) nearly thirty-year-old to gatecrash the big occasion. Oh how it turned out though! Murad made an assured 45 alongside Dawlat Zadran (53) in a magnificent partnership of 90 for the eighth wicket to help us avoid the follow-on. Zadran had been disappointed not to play in the T20Is against Bangladesh and responded by making vital contributions throughout his country’s first ever Test match. His attacking 53, which included seven fours and a six, was his highest score at any level while Ravi Ashwin claimed strong figures of 5-97 for India.

India then wasted a promising start for the second time in the match when 213-3 became 296 all out. Shikhar Dhawan top scored with 89 while Ajinkya Rahane made 52. There were contributions from all our bowlers including part-time spinner Rahmat Shah. Shah claimed a crestfallen Karun Nair for just 8 to the last ball of the day in his first over. Perhaps the most crucial wicket to fall however would be that of Umesh Yadav. Yadav was forced to retire hurt first ball and would not be able to bowl when we came to bat second time around.

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We were set 413 to win, just five short of the highest run chase in Test history. Rahane surprisingly opened the bowling but was ineffectual alongside an expensive Ishant Sharma. Sharma (18-0-92-0) conceded his runs at in excess of five an over. Mohammad Shahzad (148) and Usman Ghani (83) put on 163 for the first wicket. Shahzad also compiled 106 with Noor Ali Zadran to take us to 269-1 and make the entire cricket world turn their heads and believe in the impossible. Even a cricketer as exuberant as Shahzad was restrained in his celebrations upon scoring his country’s first ever Test match hundred. He knew that although his innings was special, it could yet be part of something incredible. There was a wobble as India opened the door. 304-2 became 373-7 resulting in a nervy tea for our boys on the fifth and final day.

Debutant Haji Murad (21) played his part again but it would be captain Ashgar Stanikzai (57 not out) who would write the script. He put on an unbroken 41 with Zadran and had the honour of hitting the winning cover drive for four to seal an earth-shattering victory that sent shockwaves throughout the cricket world and announced Afghanistan on the Test stage.

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Credit to India for their grace in defeat. The absence of their captain and of a member of their bowling attack in our second innings proved fatal but for Ravi Jadeja to bowl only eight overs in the entire match was criminal. I take little credit for this victory. I have been with the boys for only a short time and they are a truly talented bunch. It is they who performed and etched their place in cricketing history. Their names and their exploits will be spoken about in a hundred years time. Whatever happens in their careers from this point forth, they will always have the first Test against India to reflect upon with immeasurable pride.

Disclaimer: Don’t ask me how Dhawan robbed Shahzad of Man of the Match!

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