In the past year Afghanistan’s reputation has grown and an increasing number of Afghan cricketers have gained prominence.
Afghanistan Prepares For Historic Cricket Test Match
When Afghanistan plays its inaugural cricket test match against top-ranked India starting Thursday, it's an event that has been 17 years in the making.
Afghanistan was made an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) back in 2001 and despite the war, the strength of the team has continued to grow.
In fact, the war led to the rise of players like national-team captain Asghar Stanikzai, all-rounder Mohammad Nabi, hard-hitting wicketkeeper-batsman Mohammad Shahzad and pacer Shapoor Zadran.
All of them learned to play in the dusty outskirts of Peshawar, the home in exile of Afghan cricket, and these players are now preparing to step into the limelight of a five-day test match for the first time.
"It's a great moment for us as we embark on our test journey. To be playing our first test against India is a great honor and we hope to give a good account of ourselves," Stanikzai said in an interview with Associated Press this week.
"To be competing against the best on the test rankings table is something to be proud of and we will try to do our best in whatever chances we get and exhibit the skills the players possess individually as well as collectively as a team."
In the past year or so, Afghanistan's reputation has grown as they played at Lord's in London against an MCC XI led by Brendon McCullum, drew an ODI series in West Indies, beat Ireland and Zimbabwe away, and then came back from the brink to win the ICC 2019 ODI World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe. Consequentially, an increasing number of Afghan cricketers have gained prominence.
Among the biggest stars is Rashid Khan, the 19-year-old leg-spin bowler who is one of the world's most sought-after players in the shorter Twenty20 form of the game.
"There is immense happiness back home (regarding the rise of Afghanistan’s cricket). Our players are doing well in the IPL and everywhere across the world. It shows the Afghanistan cricket team is slowly rising through the ranks," Khan told Associated Press in an interview last year. "Ultimately, the goal is to play test cricket. Maybe, I will get to play Afghanistan's first-ever test. Hopefully that day isn't far away."
In fact “that day” arrives this week.
Feeling confident about the historic match, Stanikzai has boldly claimed that his side's spinners are better than star Indian duo Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.
However, India’s Virat Kohli will be on the sidelines, but India will be able to call on spinners Jadeja and Ashwin, the world's fourth and fifth-ranked Test bowlers respectively, who have taken more than 400 wickets between them in Tests in Asia at an average of 22.
Ashwin and Jadeja are the world's top-ranked spinners.
The Afghans have selected a spin battery of their own led by star leggie Rashid Khan, teenager Mujeeb Zadran and veteran allrounder Mohammad Nabi. Stanikzai has claimed his bowlers can more than match the proven Indian duo.
"The whole world knows that (we have good spinners like) Rashid Khan, Mujeeb, Nabi, Rahmat (Shah), Zahir (Khan)," Stanikzai told ESPN.
"In Afghanistan, the brilliant thing is that a lot of the young talent that is coming through are spinners, because they all follow Rashid, they follow Nabi, so because of that our spin department is very strong from below.
"In my opinion, we have good spinners, better spinners than India," Stanikzai said.
Rashid, the ICC's top-ranked T20 bowler and No.2 in ODIs, is a superstar in white-ball cricket but has played just four first-class matches, albeit with a stunning record of 35 wickets in just four games.
Seventeen-year-old Mujeeb, meanwhile, who starred in this year's Indian Premier League, is yet to play any cricket at first-class level and left-armer Zahir has played just seven matches, boasting a staggering record of 34 wickets at 13.
Afghanistan's Trinidadian coach Phil Simmons played down talk that his spinners were better than their opponents, but backed Rashid to overcome his inexperience at first-class level.
"I don't know about better than India," Simmons said.
"I think Rashid is at a different level now, if he keeps improving, but we haven't seen him that much in Test cricket. Well, we haven't seen him at all in Test cricket, but in four-day cricket we haven't seen him that much. So it's a new frontier for him.
"I'm sure he will conquer it, but whether he will conquer it in the first game, we'll have to see."
The one-off Test gets underway at the Chinnaswamy Stadium on Thursday.
India: Ajinkya Rahane (c), Shikhar Dhawan, M Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Karun Nair, Dinesh Karthik (wk), R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Hardik Pandya, Ishant Sharma, Shardul Thakur
Afghanistan: Asghar Stanikzai (c), Mohammad Shahzad (wk), Javed Ahmadi, Ihsanullah Jannat, Rahmat Shah, Nasir Jamal, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Afsar Zazai, Mohammad Nabi, Rashid Khan, Zahir Khan, Hamza Hotak, Syed Ahmad Sherzad, Yamin Ahmadzai, Wafadar Momand, Mujeeb ur Rahman