Their journey with cricket, that has its origins in the 19th century, is finally about to reach its destination. A 16-man squad that may vary intensely as individuals and boast of diverse skills are about to realise the common dream of putting their country on the map and represent it in the premier cricket format. The Pashtuns, Pathans, Tajik, Hazaras, Gujjars and Arabs will all sit together and forget their worries atleast momentarily because the Afghan men will be donning the Whites.

They may, perhaps, never play a game at home but that thought will be background noise when they take field against the No. 1 Test team, India. And when that happens, the world will collectively be hoping that the sounds of bombs and bullets will be silenced forever as cheers and roars for Asghar Stanikzai’s men echo.

“It brings peace to every tribe,” said Mohammad Nabi in Tim Wigmore’s essay in a book titled Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts. In an ideal world, cricket would be a uniting factor in a country torn because of war and violence and bring respite to every individual. But in the ideal world, war and violence may not exist at all. However, there is the glimmering hope that this could still bring a distraction and relief to the people who have more issues to deal with every day than most of us do in our entire lives.

Special because it’s happening in India

The fact that this is set to happen on June 14, against India, makes it all the more special. BCCI, interestingly, has been very supportive of the development of Afghanistan cricket in the last few years. Ofcourse, the inclusion of two T20 specialists, Rashid Khan and Nabi, in the Indian Premier League helped a lot but they have been extremely encouraging beyond that too. They permitted the use of the Shahid Vijay Singh Pathik Sports Complex in Noida as the home ground for Afghanistan cricket team.

That helped the team particularly because the conditions suited them better. It is also worth noting that other teams are easily persuaded to play when the games happen in India. Afghanistan Cricket Board CEO Shafiq Stanikzai admitted that it also helped them financially because it proved to be far more cost effective in comparison to playing in UAE. The ACB is also close to getting a second home ground in India, most likely in Dehradun. It is also in talks with the BCCI for facilitating junior tours.

Ahead of the build up to the historic inaugural Test, it was announced that all international teams touring India will now play one practice game against Afghanistan, an arrangement which will constantly provide international exposure to the team from strife-torn nation. And a testament to how strongly the two cricketing boards are working to forge an excellent bilateral cricketing relations between the two countries.

Chinnaswamy and spin

For anybody who has been following Indian Premier League in the last couple of years, they would be aware about the changed nature of the pitch at the M. Chinnaswamy stadium, Bengaluru after it was re- laid. For very long, the local franchise Royal Challengers Bangalore found out that their own “fortress” had become a hindrance in their campaign in 2017. Following that, the pitch has rarely been a batsman’s paradise as it was in all the years in the past. While it still remains a nightmare for bowlers because of its short boundaries, the opportunity is not the same for batsmen anymore.

Interestingly, the case of the pitch being a hindrance wasn’t just confined to the IPL, the ICC rated the pitch poor after it hosted in the second Test between Australia and India in March 2017. While the outfield in Bengaluru was rated as "very good", it was understood that one of the main factors in the appraisal of the pitch was the variable bounce. In contrast to the series opener in Pune, which ended within three days, the second Test was low-scoring thriller that went into the final session of the fourth day. A rough patch outside the right-hand batsmen's off stump offered turn and bounce to Nathan Lyon, who took eight wickets on the first day. In fact, in the match, a staggering 26 wickets fell to spinners.

So, what can we expect from the pitch this year? In all probability, it will be spin friendly.

A kind of pitch that is expected along with the fact that Afghanistan have gone in with a heavyweight attack of four spinners in their squad makes for a spicy combination. We have seen how well Rashid Khan and Mujeeb-ur-Rahman fared on Indian pitches, even those without assistance for spinners. In the form of Zahir Khan, they have a left arm chinaman who will be returning after a finger injury; in the form of Amir Hamza Hotak, they have the leading wicket-taker in their domestic first class competition. Their spin contingent is so diverse that it is hard to predict which one will be losing out in the playing XI. It is most likely to include Rashid, Mujeeb and Zahir but this is a good headache to have for the management as they are spoilt for choices.

Do the T20 stars have the ability to excel in all formats?

Even before Afghanistan have started playing all the formats, they have been stereotyped as a team that specializes in producing T20 specialists, particularly hard-hitters of the ball and leg spinners. Be it Mohammad Shahzad, Mohammad Nabi, Rashid, Mujeeb or Zahir, they are all now labelled as players fit for the T20 format.

However, watching Mohammad Shahzad attempting to fit in his innovative shots in the longest format will be a sight. It will also be particularly exciting to watch Nabi’s all-round skills with the hope that he can provide his team with the same balance and cushion that they have been providing in the limited overs set-up.

Asghar Stanikzai, the second most capped player for Afghanistan, will be leading the side. With 1608 runs in ODIs and 907 runs in T20is, he is their most reliable batsman. In the inaugural test, we will know how ow he does individually in the longer format and if he continues to be their most reliable batsman in this format as well.

Rashid Khan is highly rated all across the world after his successful stints at the IPL and Big Bash League, apart from his exploits in the national team. That he is the best spinner in modern cricket is a widely held notion. However, there is another school of thought that argues that there is a certain chink in his armour which will be exposed when he faces quality batsmen for longer durations in the Test format. It will lead the batsmen to read his nearly unplayable googlies at the moment and also negate with his pace when he flights the ball.

It’s almost time Rashid displays that he is the man for all formats. Interestingly, we also saw a glimpse of his otherwise suppressed batting skills during IPL against Kolkata Knight Riders where he scored an unbeaten 34 in 10 balls. The guy can bat. With this Test, the journey for Afghanistan begins but what also begins is Rashid’s own journey of becoming a multi-dimensional cricketer. One that can not only bowl and field well but also be very useful with the bat.

A Ramzan to remember

This is perhaps the most grueling month the Afghan cricketers have gone through. They are training for two extreme formats, Tests and T20 simultaneously in the heat of Hyderabad. Before they cross the hurdle of the maiden Test against India as visitors, they will be hosting Bangladesh in India for the three- match-T20i series at Dehradun.

The entire team is observing the holy month of Ramzan even as they train for both formats for almost eight hours a day. The Test will actually be played in the middle of the last week of Ramzan. Acquaintance with the Afghan and Islamic culture suggests that Ramzan is one of the most special times for Muslims. In the case of this team, it becomes all the more special because they are about to experience what they have put years of hard work, practice and dedication in.

Character, Afghans – same thing

As a team in the ODI format too, Afghanistan has reaped varied success. They were crowned Champions of the ICC World Qualifier 2018 after a miraculous comeback in the tournament. The format may differ but the one thing that remains common is the character of the team and how its players are high on belief in their skills. Talks about Test cricket dying will fade out if teams continue to showcase that belief in the premier format, consistently.

After Ireland played Pakistan in their inaugural Test, the talking point remained how competitive the two teams were even though Pakistan won by 5 wickets. The contest was hard fought and Ireland gave their all. Dreams were realized when Kevin O’Brien scored a Man of the Match worthy century in his maiden test. Pakistan’s win did not come easily as Ireland showed that they had other plans the moment Pakistan started to emerge as favourites to win.

The spirited Afghans know a thing or two about bouncing back, giving it their all and backing their belief so it’s going to be an emotional moment not just for people back in Afghanistan but every cricket fan who realizes what it takes to toil, fight and reach where these cricketers have reached now after going through adversity at home. I won’t be surprised if many fans of the Indian cricket team confess their hopes for a win from Afghanistan because that will truly add another chapter in the fairy-tale like story for Afghanistan cricket.