Ireland and Afghanistan played their first-ever Test matches a month apart to take the number of Test-playing nations to a dozen. It is only natural to compare the performances of the two new entrants. Ireland played their Test against Pakistan at home last month and Afghanistan played theirs in Bengaluru during the week gone by.
Soon after the one-off Test, the Indians got busy preparing for the tougher tours of Ireland and England in different climatic conditions. The much touted Yo-Yo fitness test — Anil Kumble’s one big contribution to Indian cricket during his short span as coach — left two in-form players out of the senior and India A squads. Ireland put up a terrific fight against Pakistan. Actually, it was Pakistan who had to fight back to win the Test by five wickets, whereas Afghanistan folded up in two days, bowled out twice in two sessions to lose by an innings. It is still to be seen how Ireland will fare playing overseas outside their familiar English conditions just as Afghanistan will have to punch above their known strength outside the subcontinental conditions. Come to think of it, Ireland made a big statement by beating Pakistan by three wickets in the 2007 World Cup. That paved the way for first professional contracts two years on, leading to the starting of a domestic competition in 2013.
The Irish went on to play in the 2011 and 2015 World Cups and also qualified for the 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2014 World Twenty20 competitions. So they are far more experienced than the Afghans. Historically, Ireland spent long years on cricket parks than the Afghans, thanks to their proximity to England and also playing most visiting international sides before or after their tours to England. Afghanistan, on the other hand, played much of their cricket in the refugee colonies in Pakistan and on return home in the last couple of decades. In the run up to their first Test in Bengaluru, Afghanistan played a Twenty20 series against Bangladesh in Dehradun, which they now consider their second home. They won all three matches to raise hopes of a much better performance than what they actually did in their first-ever Test.
By the stumps on the first day, Afghan bowlers did well to force India to bat right down to the last man on the second morning even if they had allowed the home team to amass 474 despite a middle-order collapse. With a better cricket intelligence they could have restricted India to a much lower total as all their five mainline bowlers were among the wickets, even if their highly-rated leg-spinner Rashid Khan disappointed, like Shane Warne in his first Test against India. Totals of 109 and 103 in the two innings clearly show that their batsmen have a long way to go at the Test level. With not much to crow about the two-day Test win, the Indians were straightaway put through the Yo-Yo tests. When one looks at the test, it appears all too simple for anyone to clear. But not so easy as Mohammad Shami, Ambati Rayudu and Sanju Samson realized. What is more intriguing and shocking is that both Rayudu and Samson were brilliant in the outfield and took some marvellous catches, unless the argument is that the two made simple catches look spectacular! They did not look all that sloppy even while batting even though both were victims of run-outs. Rayudu, in particular, scored 602 runs for Chennai Super Kings in the Indian Premier League to force his way back into the India squad for the limited-overs tournaments and was replaced by Suresh Raina, who had himself failed the test twice a year and half ago. There is no confirmation whether Shami cleared the fitness regimen within a week after failing to miss the Afghanistan Test. If fitness is as much an issue as batting and bowling, then why is Manish Pandey, the fittest of the players touching 18 when the required parameter is 16.1, not picked? The Yo-Yo test is a variation of the good old beep test and it is developed as part of a series of endurance tests by Danish football physiologist Jens Bangsbo. One of the various tests sees a player shuttling between two cones set 20 metres apart. He starts on a beep and has to get to the cone at the other end before the beep goes again before turning back to return to the starting cone beating the third beep. Some experts feel the player failing the test should be given another chance at least a week later, instead of chucking him out summarily. Ask the Indian stalwarts of yesteryears and they will say that every player in their time knew the amount of fitness he needed to perform at his best and they never believed in these fitness tests which are now applied universally. But then Ravi Shastri of that vintage era and Virat Kohli are paranoid about Yo-Yo, the players are haunted by it, even if they don’t detest it.