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Why a pacer-friendly wicket for the India-Afghanistan Test is such an enticing prospect

Fan waves an Indian flag
©REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

Team India is all set to lock horns with Afghanistan for the latter’s inaugural Test match. Emotions will certainly be running high as the Afghans don their maiden national jersey for the five-day format, beginning from the 14th June in Bangalore.

Contrary to the win-win situation for Afghanistan, the Ajinkya Rahane led Indian team finds itself in a dicey spot. Taking the field in the absence of regular Captain Virat Kohli and frontline pacers, they would have to face the soaring vigour of their distant neighbours. If the team wins, there will not be too many accolades in store as that would be par for the course; if it doesn’t, the ignominy of losing against a minnow will be complementary.

Audio interview Ajinkya Rahane

Ajinkya Rahane
©REUTERS/James Oatway

Of all things, one of the most talked about aspects of the match is the pitch at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium. The spin-heavy Afghanistan side has also thrown some new ingredients in the mix.

Many are of the opinion that the one-off Test presents an opportunity to prepare for the forthcoming overseas tours, but the team management would have lingering memories of the recent past.

Displeasing memories

November, 2017

India were coming off a glorious win in the limited overs leg against Australia and New Zealand after drubbing Sri Lanka on their home turf. It was supposed to be the off-season before the much-hyped tour of South Africa. However, following last-minute changes by BCCI – which did not go down well with the Indian cricketers – a three-match home Test series against Sri Lanka was squeezed in.

In the build up to the series, there was a lot of talk about curating ‘lively green-tops’. This was supposed to serve as practice for the upcoming overseas tours. However, as soon as the first ball was bowled, heads started turning.

In the first match of the series that was played at the iconic Eden Gardens, KL Rahul was subjected to a jaffer from Suranga Lakmal after India were put in to bat. And before anyone could realize what had transpired, Rahul was on his way back to the pavilion after edging the first ball of the match to keeper Niroshan Dickwella.

Indian players celebrate
©REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Sri Lanka’s premiere weapon Lakmal continued to wreak havoc on a damp pitch, equally assisted by the overcast conditions. As a result, India were left tottering at 50-5 with the likes of Kohli and Rahane already back in the hut. The team was ultimately bundled out for 172 in the first innings.

However, the fate of the Sri Lankan batsmen was no different. India scalped 17 Sri Lankan wickets in the match. Interestingly, all of them went to the pacers – Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav –  who bowled 99 overs between them. In fact, the famed spinning duo Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin got to bowl only a combined 10 overs.

Idea dropped

Opener KL Rahul validated the claims of the team management wanting green tops as part of their preparation for the coming overseas tours. "Obviously, it's very clear that we're preparing for the next two years that we're going to travel abroad and play a lot of cricket overseas, and we are going to find wickets like this, and it is going to be challenging for all of us, so we wanted to prepare in that was," the Karnataka lad said in the post-match press conference.

Although Kohli & Boys fought back – only to be denied a Test win by 3 wickets owing to bad light – the plan of preparing seaming wickets was dropped for the succeeding matches at Nagpur and Delhi, which turned out to be high scoring affairs.

Afghanistan’s spin quartet

This time around, instead of 3 Tests, there is only a solitary Test to experiment. Will the M Chinnaswamy Stadium turn out to be another guinea pig like the Eden Gardens?

What makes this idea more enticing is the richness of the Afghanistan spin attack. The side has four top-notch spinners, each of a different variety. While Rashid Khan is the most celebrated of them and has already left an indelible mark on the international circuit, others are no less.

Rashid Khan attempts to run out MCC's Shivnarine Chanderpau
©Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley

The 20-year-old leggie is known for his unconventional wrist spin which has made it a nightmare for batsmen all over the globe to decipher between his leg-spinners, googlies and top-spinners. Rashid currently holds the No 1 Test ranking and the No 2 ODI ranking and would be raring to prove his mettle in the longest format.

Mujeeb Ur Rahman is a mystery spinner who showed glimpses of his potential in the recently concluded IPL before missing out due to wrist injury. At the tender age of 17, Mujeeb is no less than a headache for batsmen with the front-of-the-hand carrom ball and the slider proving to be most destructive.

Afghanistan's Mohammad Nabi (2nd R) celebrates
©REUTERS/Adnan Abidi Picture Supplied by Action Images

Mohammad Nabi, on the other hand, is more of a conventional off spinner. He may not have a lot of variations up his sleeve but varies the pace with guile. The crafty spinner has become adept in imparting air to the ball with experience and uses flight and dip as his chief assets.

Zahir Khan in another young mystery spinner coming out of the strife-torn country. The 19-year old is part of a rare breed of left-arm chinaman bowlers. He was picked up by Rajasthan Royals in the 2018 IPL auctions but unfortunately missed the entire season due to injury.

Way too enticing

With intermittent rain in Bangalore for the last couple of weeks and the match scheduled in the middle of the monsoon, it would anyways be difficult to come up with a dustbowl. Last time the ground hosted a Test, it received a ‘below average’ ranking by the match referee. In the match played against Australia on a rank turner, India were bowled out for 189 in the first innings, with Nathan Lyon bagging 8 wickets.

However, it was the duo of Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav that brought India back in the match by bowling immaculate spells, session after session on Day 2. With Bhuvneshwar, Bumrah and Shami missing, if India do go with the option of a pitch with pace and bounce, which seems way too enticing to say the least, the onus will again be on Ishant and Umesh to invoke memories of their last encounter at the venue.

Afghanistan fans celebrate
©Reuters/John Sibley

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