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Afghanistan on top after Ireland fold for 172


Afghanistan 90 for 2 (Shahzad 40, Rahmat 22*, Shahidi 13*, Cameron-Dow 2-35) trail Ireland 172 (Murtagh 54*, Dockrell 39, Nabi 3-36, Ahmadzai 3-41) by 82 runs

Afghanistan were utterly dominant for large parts of the opening day of the one-off Test against Ireland in Dehradun. So much so that a snooze for 25 overs in the second session didn’t cost them much.

They let Ireland recover from 69 for 8 to 172, with 37-year old Tim Murtagh becoming the second-oldest No. 11 to score a Test fifty; only South Africa’s Pat Symcox was older when he scored a half-century. The last-wicket pair of Murtagh and George Dockrell added 87 together to frustrate Afghanistan and give their bowlers some leeway, though not much.

Afghanistan shelved their firebrand approach to batting, which they displayed during a nervy Test debut nine months ago. Mohammad Shahzad kept lunging forward and defending, pottering to 6 off 35 deliveries as Ireland opened with pace and spin in trying to adopt the very methods that brought Afghanistan much success earlier in the day.

But where Afghanistan’s spin trio of Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi and Waqar Salamkheil got the ball to bite and zip off the pitch, Ireland were much more traditional, relying on the batsmen to make mistakes. The turn they extracted was slow and Shahzad adjusted nicely. Even then, the odd ball that was dropped short or bowled full was either cut, lofted over mid-on or paddled fine.

In the second hour of the final session, Ireland finally managed to induce a mistake as Shahzad stepped out and drilled one back down the pitch. It needed outstanding reflexes from offspinner James Cameron-Dow to move low to his left and pouch the catch to send the danger man back on 40. Cameron-Dow had earlier taken the first wicket when he trapped debutant Ihsanullah Janat with an arm-ball for 7.

Hashmatullah Shahidi and Rahmat Shah ensured there were no further hiccups as Afghanistan closed the day on 90 for 2, trailing Ireland by only 82.

As such, Ireland are not entirely out of it, and will be in business if they can strike early on Saturday. That they are in a slightly better position than looked likely after the first session where they were reduced to 69 for 7 was because of their lower-order defiance.

William Porterfield called right, but all the batting unit had to show in the first couple of hours was Paul Stirling’s aggressive 26 at the top, 24 off which came off fours, three of them in a single over off Yamin Ahmadzai, Afghanistan’s best fast bowler on the day with returns of 3 for 41. Ireland raced to 37 without loss in the ninth over, and at that stage Afghanistan were struggling, not having bowled a single maiden over.

The impressive Ahmadzai, who took the new ball, finally struck when he had Stirling after Afghanistan had strung together 20 dots. He bowled one that nibbled away to take the edge through to the keeper. Exactly six balls later, Porterfield was done in by drift, squared up by one that spun away sharply to be lbw off Nabi.

Andy Balbirne walked in at No. 3 and looked every bit a nervous wreck looking for his first Test runs. The debut against Pakistan was far from memorable as he had bagged a pair. Here, he managed just four off a thick outside edge before being done in by Ahmadzai’s nipbacker that sent the off-stump cartwheeling. Spin soon took over.

Rashid’s Test inception was forgettable. He was walloped for three fours in his first over by Shikhar Dhawan, and then smacked for two fours and a six off his fourth. Then, he kept over-bowling the googly, dropped short, and failed to have any control over the red ball like he does with the white ball. Here, he was on the money straightaway, picking up two wickets – James McCollum with a googly and Stuart Poynter with a dipping full toss that struck the batsman on the toe – off the first three deliveries.

At that stage, Ireland were in danger of being bowled out before lunch. But with Dockrell in the middle, they hobbled to 69 for 7 at the break, and after that Murtagh and Dockrell made sure to turn some of the tide Ireland’s way.

In the third ODI earlier on tour, Ireland scripted a remarkable turnaround to level the series, which went on to end 2-2. On that occasion, Dockrell had added 143 for the fifth wicket in a match-turning stand with Balbirnie. Here, with only the No. 11 for company, he batted with plenty of calm and tremendous application to negate Afghanistan’s spin threat.

Dockrell wasn’t concerned about farming strike, happy to give Murtagh the strike whenever singles were available – quite easily, because Afghanistan had gone on the defensive. Murtagh, who has solid experience of playing on trickier surfaces at Surrey, repaid that faith. His solidity and strokeplay belied his batting position, and his use of the crease and swift footwork to move forward or rock back to cut the spinners stood out.

What started off as a partnership with Dockrell looking the more accomplished batsman soon turned into a stand among equals. Murtagh’s expert reading of the spinners by picking lengths early was a practical lesson his mates in the dressing room would have done well to take note of.

Murtagh remained unbeaten at the end, looking good for much more, when Dockrell became Ahmadzai’s third and final wicket of the day.



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