PREVIEW: Focus on the contest, not the occasion, as Ireland, Afghanistan gear up for historic Test
March 14th 2019 by Ben Gardner, Wisden | International
Ireland may no longer be newbies in the longest format, but in almost every other way they find themselves in uncharted waters as they gear up to take on Afghanistan in their second-ever Test.
To start with, the Irish team will have at least four - and up to eight - players for whom this is their Test bow. For all but Boyd Rankin it will be their first Test overseas, and in conditions about as alien to those in which they made their debut as it is possible to get.
There is also a certain challenge of this not being the big occasion, perhaps a ‘tricky second Test syndrome’. Ireland had a lifetime building up to their maiden Test, and less than a year building up their second.
The good thing is, much the same can be said of their opponents, and this Test is also a first for both sides in that they go into it not as underdogs, but fully-fledged, closely-matched contestants.
If it was fitting that Ireland’s Test journey began against Pakistan, the same team who, in a way, sparked their ascent, on that magical St. Patrick’s Day in the 2007 World Cup, it is equally right that in their second they take on the side with whom their story and rise is inextricably linked, with whom they were granted Test status simultaneously, and with whom, rightly or wrongly, they will forever be compared.
Though their inaugural Tests both ended in defeat, they could hardly have been more different – Ireland pushing Pakistan close and Afghanistan hammered inside two days. But both were arguably more about the fact that they were finally playing Test cricket rather than the results themselves.
This game could be when reality sets in, the moment when playing Tests starts to become not the thing you’ve put everything towards, with all the baggage that entails, but part and parcel of playing in international cricket. After years of talking about the story, the backdrop, the future, this finally could be when the focus starts being firmly on the contest at hand.
Image: Ireland Men’s Test squad
Key battle – The spin challenge
Playing spin was always going to go a long way to defining this tour for Ireland. There is a certain amount of bombast in Afghanistan captain Asghar Afghan’s continued claims that his side’s twirlers are the best in the world, but a certain amount of truth too.
Rashid Khan, perhaps the world’s best leg-spinner, has now claimed 75 international wickets against Ireland at an average of 12.56. In Ireland’s final Intercontinental Cup game before being granted Test status, against Afghanistan at Greater Noida, 19 of 20 Irish wickets fell to spin in an innings defeat.
What has been perhaps unexpected, but certainly welcome, is how Ireland have dealt with the spin-friendly conditions, both in terms of batting against slow bowling and delivering it themselves.
A 2-2 ODI series result was testament to their growing proficiency in both respects. Andy Balbirnie’s series-shifting 145* was one of the most complete takedowns of Rashid international cricket has seen, and the calm manner in which he, Paul Stirling, and Kevin O’Brien chased down 217 suggested some of the mystique surrounding Afghanistan’s spin attack has been dispelled.
Even more encouraging were the performances of Andy McBrine, George Dockrell, James Cameron-Dow, and Simi Singh who combined for 22 wickets in the ODI series and seemed to grow in stature and confidence with each passing game.
The wrinkle is, none of that quartet played in Ireland’s maiden Test, so those selected will have to face up to the new challenges that brings. Whether those selected get to grips quickly could go a long way to determining the result of the game.
The forecast predicts not a drop of rain at Dehradun, which has hosted every game this series. The teams will now be familiar with surfaces which have aided spin, but also been true enough to allow batsmen from both sides to compile big hundreds.
“I don’t really expect too much difference with the red ball opposed to the white,” said Ireland seamer and tour leading wicket-taker Boyd Rankin. “It might swing early, but the ball will get soft quickly. So it will be hard for the seamers as the Test progresses, but we are hoping there might be some reverse-swing later in the innings with the wickets being pretty abrasive.”
Afghanistan: Asghar Afghan (c), Mohammad Shahzad (wk), 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
Ireland: William Porterfield (c), Andrew 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