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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 August 2018

A day of two halves for Afghanistan's cricketers in debut Test against India

Tourists make amends by reducing India to 347-6 after crushing centuries from Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay, writes Paul Radley from Bengaluru

Afghanistan's Yamin Ahmadzai, second left, was one of the better bowlers for the Test debutants in Bangalore on Thursday. Aijaz Rahi / AP Photo
Afghanistan's Yamin Ahmadzai, second left, was one of the better bowlers for the Test debutants in Bangalore on Thursday. Aijaz Rahi / AP Photo

The very first ball of Afghanistan’s new life as a fully-paid up member of cricket’s most exclusive club told a story.

Yamin Ahmadzai bounded in, full of enthusiasm and expectation. Then, with a few strides still to run, he bailed out, losing his bearings, and opted against letting the ball go. He needed to reload.

Sorry, everyone. Can I have another go at this, please?

Midway through a chastening first day as a Test outfit, the Afghan side might be wishing the same.

Shikhar Dhawan made a century before lunch. His opening partner, Murali Vijay, also made it to three-figures – the ninth time both India’s openers have made hundreds in the same Test innings. It was brutal.

If Afghanistan made history just by turning up, their hosts quickly warmed to the theme, too.

Ahead of the start, the atmosphere had been rent with joy, as well as a fair dose of nerves. The premiers of both countries had been moved to send warm messages of congratulation.

“As President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan I welcome Afghanistan's maiden Test match against India,” Ashraf Ghani wrote.

“I'm proud of the men who championed cricket in Afghanistan [and] will play against the best in the world. Today is that historic day.

“On behalf of all Afghans I pay tribute to their contribution to the game of cricket, and honour them for being a source of pride to the nation. India, and now Afghanistan are two major Asian cricket forces.”

Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, was similarly minded.

“I congratulate the people of Afghanistan as their cricket team plays their first international Test match,” he wrote.

“Glad that they have chosen to play the historic match with India. May sports continue to bring our people closer and strengthen ties.”

The ceremonial feel continued on the field before play began. Salim Durani, the former India Test player who was born in Kabul, was presented to the two sides ahead as a guest of honour.

Then the Afghan players were each gifted newly-commissioned red caps, along with commemorative presentation cases.

As worthy and noble all it was, it jarred slightly. Afghanistan’s on-field successes since they started out 17 years ago have been characterised by the players being gloriously unsentimental. They have just wanted to play.

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Paul Radley's Afghanistan cricket coverage:

Long read: From Afghanistan to Dubai via Scotland - cricket at centre of Ghazi's journey

Mike Gatting recalls trip to India when his MCC-led side were hammered by Afghanistan

Germany experiences huge spike in cricket's popularity since European migrant crisis

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They have excelled most when they have either been unknown, or written off, giving them scope to show what they have got. They are at their best when punchy and bullish, not feted.

They appeared unnerved by all the pomp and ceremony. Being celebrated without actually having done anything as yet does not fit their style.

It showed in their play. Asghar Stanikzai, the captain who had been one of the Originals from 2001, had said his side were not feeling nerves ahead of the game.

Well, if not nerves, then they were just plain bad at the start. India’s hundred was up within 20 overs, Dhawan bringing it up with a six off his Sunrisers Hyderabad teammate Rashid Khan.

After four overs – which would equate to his full ration in an Indian Premier League match – the vaunted Rashid had no wicket for 34. He had a better return than that in the vast majority of his IPL matches this season. By his 17th over, he had conceded 100 runs.

India opener Shikhar Dhawan gave Afghanistan cricketing lessons in the first session. Aijaz Rahi / AP Photo
India opener Shikhar Dhawan gave Afghanistan cricketing lessons in the first session. Aijaz Rahi / AP Photo

India were racing away with it. Then, two heavy rain storms hit Bengaluru, and Afghanistan had a chance to regroup and remind themselves of what got them here.

Shortly after the showers had gone for the day, the home team were 280-1. Afghanistan salvaged the day, though, by taking 5-67 before the close.

A bit like on the first ball of the day, when Yamin relocated his run up. He bowled a fine in-swinger that challenged Vijay, and all the Afghan fielders swarmed on the ball. He showed that he was, in fact, ready for this – and by stumps, with India on 347-6, his team had proved the same.

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