After blanking Bangladesh in the T20 series in Dehradun, Afghanistan is set to play their first ever test match at Bengaluru against India. This historic moment is yet another marker of the team’s progress, and at the same time, a wonderful opportunity for the players to test themselves against elite opposition. The news of their country’s cricket team doing well would have no doubt brought a lot of joy to their supporters.
Over the last few years, the Afghanistan cricket team has gone from strength to strength. In 2013, they qualified for the 2015 ODI World Cup in Australia (they made the cut for the 2019 edition against all odds in the recent ICC qualifiers). It was in 2015 that they won their first ever series against a full member (Zimbabwe); a year later, they beat the eventual champions, the West Indies, in the World T20. Over the last few years, their progress has been nothing short of meteoric: not only have they beaten Zimbabwe and Ireland, but they have also recorded a win against the West Indies on Caribbean shores; and now, they have whitewashed Bangladesh.
The star of the team has been undoubtedly been Rashid Khan, the young leggie who has hoodwinked batsmen world over with his delightful wrist spin. What is more, he has also proved his mettle against some of the world’s leading players, playing pivotal roles for several T20 franchises that availed his services. And this is what multi-national, professional T20 competitions have done—they have given these opportunities (where a player can test, evaluate and improve themselves) to players like Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman.
On the other hand, Test cricket is an exclusive club, with an extremely high entry barrier. The test arena is where newer teams have traditionally floundered due to a lack of early exposure. A case in point is the test cricketing record of Bangladesh. They made their test debut in 2000 (against India), but it took them over a 100 test matches in total to win against England, the game’s ultimate establishment team. But this victory should also be been in context; they achieved this result against a nation which had a 200 year old history of first class cricket.
In fact, if one were to compare the records of Bangladesh and India in their first 100 odd test matches, they are eerily similar. Before Bangladesh, India was perhaps the underachiever in test cricket. In the first 116 matches that India played, it won only 15 matches (3 of them abroad against a weak New Zealand team). Present-day Bangladesh have won 9 matches in their first 100 tests, four of them abroad—against West Indies, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka. This is not a one off example. New Zealand’s first win against an establishment team (England/Australia) came in its 113th test match; similarly, Sri Lanka’s inaugural victory was achieved in its 45th test outing. So, Ireland’s showing in its first test was certainly admirable, even though they lost to Pakistan.
The basic issue that new teams face is the lack of competitive fixtures and a patronizing attitude from the establishment. Back in the day, English star cricketers would refuse to travel to India without an inducement of a guaranteed purse. The situation hasn’t changed much even today— why, Australia cancelled its Bangladesh tour recently. Authorities continue to groan about how new teams aren’t competitive, but without a chance to face the big boys, it is daft to expect the new teams to do any different compared to what their predecessors have done in the absence of requisite exposure. In short, test cricket suffers from a massive chicken-and-egg problem, which can be seen in the disparity between the fixtures of a team in their infancy and England’s calendar.
|Team||Year of debut||Number of test matches played in 15 years since debut||Number of test matches played by England in the 15 year period|
On the other end of the spectrum is a team like India with superstar players, fantastic feeder structure, a retinue of specialist coaches, analysts and so on. In spite of all this, they weren’t able to win the series in South Africa. While it is true that this has been an era of home dominance, the truth is that they didn’t give themselves the best chance to compete on even ground.
Firstly, there wasn’t much gap between the Sri Lanka series and the South Africa one, but that could have been mitigated by sending test specialists earlier to South Africa in order to facilitate better acclimatising (incidentally, a fellow thREAD contributor wrote about this recently). Secondly, India dropped its only tour game ahead of the first test, citing a need for a higher intensity. With the series lost, Ravi Shastri talked about how an additional ten days would have made a difference to the Indian team. Great insight, Einstein!
Better late than never though; the Indian team management has taken note of this, and players like Pujara and Ishant are currently playing county cricket (Kohli will be missing his stint due to injury) ahead of the series against England.
But truth be told, Kohli and co. weren’t entirely off about some of the concerns regarding warm-up games. These largely feature experimental sides with almost everyone getting a chance to bowl and bat. A 2 or 3 day fixture against a lightweight provincial side neither serves as a proving ground nor replicates the seriousness of a test match. Also, to keep the mystery intact, teams often dish out unrepresentative pitches to the touring sides while holding back their top bowlers. The warm-up fixtures are never telecast due to a combination of these factors as well.
Is there a way the two needs can be resolved? How about putting two and two together?
One obvious solution to address this demand-supply problem is to pencil in the newbie sides for full test fixtures against touring established sides. To elaborate, while it is great that Afghanistan are getting a match against India, this serves only one purpose of competitive exposure. India would not be getting much out of this fixture given that the match is in India, especially when they are due to play England on English shores following this match. One can expect history to repeat itself if India don’t learn from the mistakes of the South African tour. Imagine, for instance, India facing Ireland on English shores in a test match prior to the England series (similar to what Pakistan did, and, incidentally they beat England in the first test before reverting to type in the second). A test match like this will serve the dual purposes of practice and vital competitive exposure. To ease Ireland (or Afghanistan or any other new team) in, it would be great if they play a few first class fixtures of their own in order in the local host country to hone their own skills.
In order to make the logistics smooth, it is best to anchor these fixtures on the basis of geography and the traditional home season of the local host. The sub-continent can thus serve as a base for Afghanistan, where they can travel to India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and UAE to play matches against various sides; England can be Ireland’s base; South Africa would be the obvious choice for Zimbabwe’s. Right now, there are no teams of similar aptitude around Australia and West Indies (some would argue that West Indies themselves are at that level now), but that shouldn’t be the basis for denying the present teams in dire need of competitive fixtures.
Of course, this idea hasn’t yet addressed how much the international calendar should yield to this, but on a rough estimate, it would probably be in the range of 1-2 weeks given 2 away tours on an average per big team per year. And the newbie teams would be exposed to at least 2-3 test matches a year against top class opposition, apart from test matches between themselves and first class fixtures, which should fast-track their initiation to test cricket. Also, as a sweetener, a full test match would probably yield much more viewership compared to a warm-up fixture for the aspirant broadcasters of the visiting teams.
Unfortunately, the cricketing administrators and boards missed this trick when they came up with the latest Future tours program (FTP). As a result, these fixtures are conspicuous by their absence. This no doubt reeks of the same exclusivist mindset, further perpetuating entrenched attitudes. Hopefully, with the World test championship coming into play, this issue will be sorted out.
Disclaimer: The image used in this article is not the property of this blog. It has been used for representational purposes only. The copyright, if any, rests with the respective owners.