This is the first time these two sides play each other in Tests, but in many ways, this could become the most likely fixture going forward in the format. When, in an act of surprising munificence for a governing body that famously prefers its club as exclusive as possible, the ICC-accorded Full Member – and as a result Test – status, to Afghanistan and Ireland in June 2017, the only worry was whether the two would actually get to play five-day cricket.
Thus far, that concern remains naggingly pertinent. Both Afghanistan and Ireland are due to play just their second Test match in the 21 months since that approval. Ireland were the first to open their account when Pakistan played a one-off Test in May last year, before India hosted Afghanistan for their first game the following month.
This may become the new Zimbabwe vs Bangladesh. In an ever more condensed FTP (Future Tours Programme), not to mention the explosion of T20 leagues across the globe, it is unlikely too many of the traditional Full Members will be allocating much time in their calendars to take on one of these two in the longest format. It simply isn’t lucrative enough, or – some of the bigger boys may believe – challenging enough to make it worth their while.
But let there be no doubt about it, this is a huge fixture in the context of Test cricket. Barring the possibility of a draw, one of these teams will become the first new Test match winners since 2005, and the joint-quickest to their first Test win besides Australia in the first ever Test in 1877.
Playing at “home” in Dehradun, India, Afghanistan will feel it must surely be their time. The squad comprises a young team – six players in the squad are under 21 – but some of the stalwarts of the first global generation of Afghan cricket are still around. Asghar Afghan is captain, while Mohammad Shahzad and Mohammad Nabi are also part of the side.
Ireland ran Pakistan uncomfortably close in their first Test, and but for a few moments on the final day, they may already have come into this fixture with a Test win under their belt. This tour, however, didn’t begin nearly as auspiciously as to suggest it would end with a Test win, but following on from a record-breaking demolition in the T20I series, they have begun to get into this tour just as the all-important final fixture of the tour rolls around. They came from behind twice to level the ODI series 2-2, and will feel they have enough momentum and confidence to not simply be the stepping stone for an Afghan celebration.
In the spotlight
There is a particular moment when a Test nation must finally undo its safety harness and move on. For Afghanistan, that moment may arrive after Mohammad Nabi decides to hang up his gloves. The 34-year old has been ever-present in Afghanistan’s side since the 2010 World T20 that first allowed the country an international cricketing forum, and the two-day Test match against India was hardly any introduction a cricketer of his commitment deserved. With a more realistic shot at salvation approaching, Nabi’s form is timed especially well. No Afghan player will have envisioned this game in their mind more often than him, or put in the work to help ensure it even happens. If there is any justice in world cricket (and you’d be brave to argue for the motion), then expect Nabi to play a starring role in the Test starting Friday.
The lush green fields of Malahide and the dark grey skies above in the place where Pakistan were given such an almighty scare is a world removed from the challenges they will need to neuter in Dehradun. Fast bowlers Tim Murtagh Boyd Rankin, and Stuart Thompson took every Pakistan wicket that fell to a bowler in Malahide, but here, the spinners will have a far more important role to play.
But where Afghanistan have arguably the world’s hottest young spinner among their ranks in Rashid Khan, there simply isn’t enough evidence Ireland have the spin threat to provide appropriate competition in that department. It may mean the quicker bowlers have a daunting few days of work ahead of them, and whether they have the fitness and the heart to put their bodies on the line may go a long way to deciding the ultimate outcome of the Test.
Afghanistan’s 14-member squad has several members who played the Test against India. Mujeeb ur Rehman, however, is a notable absentee. Left-arm wristspinner Zahir Khan and left-arm seam bowler Sayed Shirzad have been added to the squad. Their ace spinner Rashid Khan is nursing an injured right middle-finger, but will play despite it. On Thursday, he batted and then went to the physio and only had a short stint with the ball, all the while being cautious. Even when he went off, he walked off with the finger in ice.
Afghanistan (squad): Asghar Afghan (capt), Mohammad Shahzad, Ihsanullah Janat, Javed Ahmadi, Rahmat Shah, Nasir Jamal, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Ikram Alikhail, Mohammad Nabi, Rashid Khan, Wafadar Momand, Yamin Ahmadzai, Sharafudin Ashraf, Waqar Salamkhail, Zahir Khan, Sayed Shirzad.
The sense that the first rebuild of the squad is already here for Ireland after their first Test is palpable. Ed Joyce and Niall O’Brien have retired, while Gary Wilson is still out of the side with a condition that affects his vision.
Ireland (squad): William Porterfield (capt), Andy Balbirnie, James Cameron Dow, George Dockrell, Andy McBrine, Barry McCarthy, James Mccollum, Tim Murtagh, Kevin O’Brien, Stuart Poynter (wk), Boyd Rankin, Simi Singh, Paul Stirling, Stuart Thompson, Lorcan Tucker
Pitch and conditions
The conditions over the next five days seem ideal for Test cricket, with plenty of sunshine. Inclement weather should not interrupt this match.
Stats and trivia
Once this Test gets underway, all 12 Test nations will have played at least one home and away Test. Afghanistan, however, will play this “home” Test in the same country as the one where they played their only away Test: India
Londonderry-born Boyd Rankin has played as many Tests for England as he has for his native country – one. While with Ireland, he ran Pakistan close in the most recent one, his debut with England was more of a lopsided contest, with Australia bowling England away by 281 runs to complete a 5-0 Ashes clean sweep in 2014
“It is a moment of pride that Afghanistan hosts its first Test match and it carries a lot of meaning for us. Although, we lost our inaugural Test match to India last year, we will aim to play in the upcoming Test match with full strength.”
Afghanistan captain Asghar Afghan
“First and foremost, it will be completely different conditions [in the Test match] – our first Test match against Pakistan was a home game in Malahide in May whereas we are in Dehradun here in India in March. We will see how the pitch is in the next couple of days and expect it not to be very different.”
Ireland captain William Porterfield had said two days before the match