Inexperience is one big stumbling block in Afghanistan’s further progress

Afghanistan is often seen through the prism of varied stereotypes: jagged mountains; rugged Pathans; and of people emerging from the scars inflicted by the Cold War and the Taliban. The outside world’s fixed viewpoints slowly broadened, first, with the emergence of Khaled Hosseini’s evocative novel The Kite Runner in 2003 and later with the emergence of the national cricket team.

 The squad’s tentative steps have offered cheer to a proud race that is slowly embracing freedom. Sport dispelling pathos is one of the most beautiful vignettes of life and Nawroz Mangal’s men have done enough over the last few years to pep up the denizens from Kabul to Kandahar.

 Qualifying for two successive ICC World Twenty20s — in the West Indies’ 2010 and the current one in Sri Lanka — is no mean achievement. Yet, the tricks, the cricketers have learnt right from the days of playing in refugee camps at Peshawar in Pakistan, will be inadequate while countering India with M.S. Dhoni’s men starting as the overwhelming favourite to win their opening Group A fixture at the R. Premadasa Stadium here on Wednesday night.

Even in the last edition in the West Indies, India opened its campaign with the match against Afghanistan and the verdict was a facile seven-wicket triumph for the ‘Men in Blue’. There may still be an air of mystery about the rival but Dhoni pointed towards that triumph at St. Lucia as evidence of India’s awareness about cricketers beyond the Khyber Pass. Incidentally seven players of that Afghanistan team are part of the current bunch. 

Having played a meagre 23 ODIs and 11 Twenty20s so far, inexperience is one big stumbling block in Afghanistan’s further progress. Asghar Stanikzai, who scored a gutsy 66 that went in vain against Australia in an ODI, this August, remains a key batsman and in its warm-up ties, Afghanistan defeated Sri Lanka ‘A’ and lost to the West Indies.

Wednesday’s contest might seem as an easy appetiser for India ahead of the tougher battles that will start with Sunday’s clash against England but Dhoni and the rest of the Indian think-tank will have to crystallise the balance within the team.

Right now, India continues to build its legacy upon batting muscle and the skipper spoke about fielding a ‘seven batsmen and four bowlers’ combination.

The pounding that Pakistan’s Kamran Akmal subjected the Indian attack to in the warm-up game does not augur well but Dhoni has no intentions about bolstering the attack with an extra bowler. Harbhajan Singh and L. Balaji are in a toss-up for the fourth bowler’s slot though indications are that the seamer might just be preferred ahead of the spinner.        

 The mood, during the optional nets at the picturesque Nondescripts Cricket Club, was upbeat but the fact remains that India has a few flaws that need to be ironed out fast. Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir are still searching for the aura that has slipped away from their combine in recent times while men like Yuvraj Singh and Rohit Sharma are slowly finding their feet after their respective illness and form issues.

 A lot still hinges on Virat Kohli at one-drop and upon Dhoni to roar in the slog but the benign nature of the pitches here should strengthen the team’s collective batting might. An Indian victory may now be a foregone conclusion but the guarded remarks of Dhoni in the pre-match press-conference hint that complacence has been kept at bay.

It is better that way because in the past, India has suffered the ‘stepping-on-banana-peels’ moments against teams like Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.   

The teams (from):

India: M.S. Dhoni (capt.), G. Gambhir, V. Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, S. Raina, V. Kohli, Rohit Sharma, M. Tiwary, Zaheer Khan, L. Balaji, Irfan Pathan, A. Dinda, Harbhajan Singh, R. Ashwin and P. Chawla.

Afghanistan:  N. Mangal (capt.), A. Stanikzai, D. Zadran, G. Naib, H. Hassan, I. Dawlatzai, J. Ahmadi, K. Sadiq, M. Nabi, M. Shahzad, N. Zadran, M. Nasim Baras, S. Shenwari, Shafiqullah and S. Zadran.

Umpires: Asad Rauf and Simon Taufel; Third umpire: Aleem Dar; Match referee: Ranjan Madugalle.

Match starts at 7.30 p.m.

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