“After the first Test match, they will know this level is so much higher and what they need to do to get to that level” © Getty
Test cricket is more strenuous than it promises to be. That’s what coach Phil Simmons is trying to drill into Afghanistan’s psyche before they make their historic debut against bigwigs India in Bengaluru on June 14.
“The biggest challenge is to make them understand what Test cricket is all about,” Simmons said. “It is different to four-day cricket in a massive way. It is getting them to understand the mindset around Test cricket, the patience, how hard it is to score runs. With them it is a little bit technical and a lot more mental. Because you got to have played to understand how mentally tough it is to play for five days.”
Afghanistan have won the ICC Intercontinental Cup (a four day competition) twice, in 2009-10 and 2015-17 – a feat only bettered by Ireland, who have won it four times. What makes Afghanistan stand out is the fact that they have been a two-time winner and a one-time runner-up in only the three editions they have contested in, which makes it kind of a big deal. Simmons, though, wants his side to know that Test cricket is an entirely different beast.
“The good thing is they have played four-day cricket. But it still doesn’t tell them how tough Test cricket is going to be. I don’t think that is something I can teach them. That is something they have to understand when they play.
“We have just tried to make sure that they understand that Test cricket is twice as difficult as an I-Cup game. After the first Test match, they will know this level is so much higher and what they need to do to get to that level,” Simmons added.
What worries Simmons is the quality of bowlers India have, and how they can render any pitch flat against a green Test side in its first ever Test. “All we can try is to make sure their technique is as tight as possible. It will be much tougher for the batsmen than the bowlers who do get a second chance after being hit for a boundary.”
Simmons, who’s been at the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in Dehradun for about two weeks to oversee preparations, first has a Twenty20 series against Bangladesh to contend with. The last of the three T20Is is scheduled on Thursday (June 7) in Dehradun, which means there’s only about a week for Afghanistan to travel and train themselves for red-ball cricket. It also means that there is no practice game before the all-important match against India.
“You are definitely right at that [about lack of practice games]. Especially, playing the best team in the world but that is how it is. I am not going to worry about. Though we did have a three-day practice match here,” Simmons said.
That said, Afghanistan, one could argue, don’t need a practice game in India, their proxy home for some time now. BCCI even announced that travelling teams would be playing a mandatory practice game against Afghanistan in a bid to develop the debuting Test side. It’s only fair that a side nurtured in India has spin as its main weaponry.
There’s 19-year-old Rashid Khan and 17-year-old Mujeeb Zadran for India to deal with. Simmons is confident that their spinners’ performances in the recently-concluded Indian Premier League will have a say.
“The boys who played IPL are exceptional professionals. They know how to get ready for the Test match.
“Rashid is all of nineteen but he has got the mind of a 30-year-old. He knows exactly what is expected of him. But yes, Mujeeb is younger but [and] we will have to see how he copes up with it.”
What will be different from T20s for the spinners is the long spells that will replace the four-over bursts. “It is about them [spinners] showing patience too along with our batsmen. Rashid did well against Ireland in four-day cricket last year. He got wickets. He played against [in] practice games against England and he got wickets,” an optimistic Simmons said.
“It has been difficult with the T20 and Test squads training at the same time. But it is getting a bit easier as we are coming up to the game. That is how tours are planned now. You usually have Test matches first and then limited-over series or vice versa. We just have to work around that.
“The reaction [from the players on playing their first Test] is still not there,” Simmons added. “It still has not sunk in yet. The emotion will hit them when they get to Bangalore. But I think they can handle the nerves. We have seen in the last 5 to 6 years that they have stepped up in every format that they have played.”