Afghanistan's first ever test match, and where to from here

It was never going to be about the result. Even when it was announced that captain Virat Kohli would miss Afghanistan’s first ever test match to play county cricket, no one thought the newcomers would get close to the world’s number one team. Even when there were rumours that as much as half of India’s first XI would potentially not lineup for the game, the result was still viewed as a given. So when India named their side for the historic test match and Kohli was the only absentee of note, the outcome of the match was effectively a foregone conclusion.

And, it turns out, the pre-game estimations were spot on. Aside from a 50 over period of play stretching from late in Day 1 through to the start of Day 2, Afghanistan were comprehensively beaten. In fact, comprehensively probably doesn’t even cover it. They were smashed. Destroyed. 

As they should have been. This is a nation that, less than two decades ago, wasn’t allowed to play cricket in their own country. A team that ten years ago wasn’t able to make the ODI World Cup, and which prior to this game, had never played a game of five day cricket before.

And it showed. At 1/280 after 51 overs on Day 1, India were making light work of the Afghanistan bowling lineup. The bowlers responded to roll the Indians for 474, but unfortunately the batsmen couldn’t stretch the game out for any reasonable stretch of time. They were bowled out twice in a day, first for 109 runs inside 28 overs, and then for 103 inside 39 overs after they were asked to follow on.

To Afghanistan’s credit, they have come out on the front foot and refused to defend the innings and 262 run thrashing. While understanding of the challenges his players faced in their first ever Test match, coach Phil Simmons said that some of the shots played by his batsmen need some explanation, and that his spinners are ‘by no means happy with how they performed’.

There’s no doubt that this is true. The players will be disappointed that, though a loss was inevitable, they couldn’t at least force the game into a third day, and show a little more fight. That is not, however, to say that this test was a failure. The overwhelming feeling to come out of the game should be positivity that Afghanistan have earned themselves the opportunity, and an understanding that each game like this takes them a step closer to being able to compete against the best players and teams in the world.

Of course they are nowhere near as good as a side like India. They have less experience, less coaching, and probably less skill. With each passing test, however, no matter how comprehensively they are beaten, at least one of these factors becomes less relevant. The experience the players gain from clinical performances like this one from India are invaluable, and will fast track their development as players.

That isn’t to say that they’ll be matching it with the likes of India, Australia and South Africa with a few more outings. They’ll probably be on the end of a lot more thumpings like this one, but each one will signal a small step towards being competitive on the world stage. Maybe it won’t be with this team - in fact almost certainly it won’t. The younger players in Afghanistan, however, fuelled by their nation’s growing presence in world cricket, will likely be the ones to benefit in years to come.

Coach Simmons said as much after the game. According to Simmons, the players under 18 need to play a lot more cricket against the England’s and India’s of the world. This, he feels, is ‘the best way for us to close this gap’. 

Stand-in Indian captain Ajinkya Rahane also noted the benefits which will come with experience, and not necessarily just with future players. Rahane said that ‘four-day games and Tests will help them a lot’, as will ‘practising with red ball regularly’. According to him, ‘the have got some good bowlers’, and that from a batting perspective they will be well off if they can ‘get mentally tough and find their technique’.

There is, of course, a plethora of work to be done to transform Afghanistan into a worthy adversary on the world stage. They will have plenty of lessons to take away from their first ever Test match, and will certainly benefit from these even in the absence of more matches, but it’s important that they are continually exposed to these kind of situations in order to best allow them to improve. For the time being, they have no more Test matches scheduled, but they have been promised the opportunity to play in matches against sides touring India by the BCCI. It is incumbent upon the BCCI to ensure this opportunity comes to fruition, and for other test nations to demonstrate a willingness to play against them.

It isn’t a mouthwatering prospect for an established cricket playing nation to play against a side which they know they are far, far superior to, aside from giving them the ability to pad their stats a little bit. For Afghanistan cricket, however, it is imperative, and is the only way that they will be able to, as Simmons said, close the gap. 

The ICC Test Championship kicks off next year, and Afghanistan will not be a part of it. That means they won’t automatically be given the opportunity to play games, and any Test matches they do take part in against the nine teams involved in the tournament will be done so outside of what will be the major focus for these teams. Hopefully, they are still able to consistently find opportunities to compete against these teams, and even if it’s against significantly weakened lineups, it will still be exposure to players of a caliber which they have rarely competed against in the past.

Test match number one for Afghanistan didn’t go so well, and they appear to be owning what was a disappointing performance. Good for them, but realistically, the performance was inevitable. The result, however, is not the primary focus, and probably won’t be for a long time. With repeated exposure to high level, high pressure cricket, and continual development in the youth ranks, they will improve. It will be a long process, but this week’s Test match was a pivotal first step.

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