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After blanking Bangladesh in the T20 series in Dehradun, Afghanistan is set to play their first ever Test match at Bengaluru against India. This historic moment is yet another marker of the team’s progress and, at the same time, a wonderful opportunity for the players to test themselves against elite opposition. The news of their country’s cricket team doing well would have, no doubt, brought a lot of joy to their supporters.
Over the last few years, the Afghanistan cricket team has gone from strength to strength. In 2013, they qualified for the 2015 ODI World Cup in Australia (they made the cut for the 2019 edition against all odds in the recent ICC qualifiers). It was in 2015 that they won their first-ever series against a full member (Zimbabwe); a year later, they beat the eventual champions, the West Indies, in the World T20. Over the last few years, their progress has been nothing short of meteoric: not only have they beaten Zimbabwe and Ireland, but they have also recorded a win against the West Indies on Caribbean shores; and now, they have whitewashed Bangladesh.
The star of the team has been undoubtedly been Rashid Khan, the young leggie who has hoodwinked batsmen the world over with his delightful wrist spin. What’s more, he has also proved his mettle against some of the world’s leading players, playing pivotal roles for several T20 franchises that have availed his services. And this is what multi-national, professional T20 competitions have done — they have given these opportunities (where a player can test, evaluate and improve themselves amongst other international cricketers) to players like Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman.
On the other hand, Test cricket is an exclusive club, with an extremely high entry barrier. The Test arena is where newer teams have traditionally floundered due to a lack of early exposure. A case in point is the Test cricketing record of Bangladesh. They made their Test debut in 2000 (against India), but it took them over a 100 Test matches to win against England, the game’s ultimate establishment team. But this victory should also be be seen in context; they achieved this result against a nation which had a 200-year-old history in first-class cricket.
In fact, if one were to compare the records of Bangladesh and India in their first 100-odd Test matches, they are eerily similar. Before Bangladesh, India was perhaps the incumbent underachiever in Test cricket. In the first 116 matches that India played, it won only 15 (3 of them abroad against a weak New Zealand team). Present-day Bangladesh have won 9 matches in their first 100 Tests, four of them abroad — against West Indies, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka. This is not a one-off example. New Zealand’s first win against an establishment team (England/Australia) came in its 113th Test match; similarly, Sri Lanka’s inaugural victory was achieved in its 45th Test outing. So, Ireland’s showing in its first Test was certainly admirable, even though they lost to Pakistan.
The basic issue that new teams face is the lack of competitive fixtures and a patronising attitude from the establishment. Back in the day, English star cricketers would refuse to travel to India without an inducement of a guaranteed purse. The situation hasn’t changed much even today — why, Australia cancelled its Bangladesh tour recently. Authorities continue to groan about how new teams aren’t competitive, but without a chance to face the big boys, it is daft to expect the new teams to do any different compared to what their predecessors have done in the absence of the requisite exposure. In short, Test cricket suffers from a massive chicken-and-egg problem, which can be seen in the disparity between the fixtures of a team in their infancy and England’s calendar.
On the other end of the spectrum is a team like India with superstar players, fantastic feeder structure, a retinue of specialist coaches, analysts and so on. In spite of all this, they weren’t able to win the series in South Africa. While it is true that this has been an era of home dominance, the truth is that they didn’t give themselves the best chance to compete on even ground.
Firstly, there wasn’t much gap between the Sri Lanka series and the South Africa one, but that could have been mitigated by sending Test specialists earlier to South Africa in order to facilitate better acclimatisation (incidentally, a fellow thREAD contributor wrote about this recently). Secondly, India dropped its only tour game ahead of the first Test, citing a need for a higher intensity . With the series lost, Ravi Shastri talked about how an additional ten days would have made a difference to the Indian team. Great insight, Einstein.
Better late than never though; the Indian team management has taken note of this, and players like Pujara and Ishant are currently playing county cricket (Kohli will be missing his stint due to injury) ahead of the series against England.
But truth be told, Kohli and co. weren’t entirely off the mark with some of their concerns regarding warm-up games. These largely feature experimental sides with almost everyone getting a chance to bowl and bat. A 2- or 3-day fixture against a lightweight provincial side neither serves as a proving ground nor replicates the seriousness of a Test match. Also, to keep the mystery intact, teams often dish out unrepresentative pitches to the touring sides while holding back their top bowlers. The warm-up fixtures are rarely telecast thanks to a combination of these factors.
Is there a way the two needs can be resolved? How about putting two and two together?
One obvious solution to address this demand-supply problem is to pencil in the newbie sides for full Test fixtures against touring established sides. To elaborate, while it is great that Afghanistan are getting a match against India, this serves only one purpose — competitive exposure. India would not be getting much out of this fixture given that the match is in India, especially when they are due to play England on English shores right after. One can expect history to repeat itself if India doesn’t learn from the mistakes of its tour of South Africa. Imagine, for instance, India facing Ireland on English shores in a Test match prior to the England series (similar to what Pakistan did; incidentally, they beat England in the first Test before reverting to type in the second). A Test match like this will serve the dual purposes of practice and vital exposure to conditions. To ease Ireland (or Afghanistan or any other new team) in, it would be great if they were made to play a few first-class fixtures of their own to hone their own skills in the host country.
In order to make the logistics smooth, it is best to anchor these fixtures on the basis of geography and the traditional home season of the local host. The sub-continent can thus serve as a base for Afghanistan, where they can travel to India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and UAE to play matches against various sides; England can be Ireland’s base; South Africa would be the obvious choice for Zimbabwe’s. Right now, there are no teams of similar aptitude around Australia and West Indies (some would argue that West Indies themselves are at that level now), but that shouldn’t be the basis for denying the present teams in dire need of competitive fixtures.
Of course, this idea hasn’t yet addressed the issue of the extent to which the international calendar should yield to this but, by a rough estimate, it would probably be in the range of 1-2 weeks given that every big team plays two away tours on an average per year. And the newbie teams would be exposed to at least 2-3 Test matches a year against top-class opposition, apart from Test matches between themselves and first-class fixtures, which should fast-track their initiation into Test cricket. Also, as a sweetener, a full Test match would probably yield much more viewership compared to a warm-up fixture for the aspirant broadcasters of the visiting teams.
Unfortunately, the cricketing administrators and boards missed this trick when they came up with the latest Future Tours Programme (FTP). As a result, these fixtures are conspicuous by their absence. Hopefully, with the World Test championship coming into play , this issue will be sorted out.