On May 31, 2008, Afghanistan won the final of the ICC World Cricket League Division Five, the lowest division in the World Cricket League, and began their journey to the top. Their opponents were Jersey, a self-governing British state off the coast of Normandy in France, with a population of around 100,000.
Ten years later, on June 14th, 2018, the Afghans faced off against one of the giants of world cricket, India, in their first ever Test match. When Yamin Ahmadzai bowled the first ball in their inaugural Test against India, he created history, and highlighted the triumph of the human spirit.
Their story has been a remarkable one - from being raised in refugee camps in Pakistan, to playing on makeshift pitches and substandard gear, and threat to their life due to the war at home. But they’ve braved it all and impressed the cricket fraternity, who’ve cheered them on in every step of the way and reached the pinnacle of cricket - Test matches.
So, what makes this one-off Test match between India and Afghanistan special?
1. Afghanistan Becoming A Test-Playing Nation
In spite of the competition and popularity of T20 cricket, Test is still the premier format of the game among cricketers and the purists around the world.
But to attain Test match status is no easy task. Afghanistan are only one of the 12 teams to currently have Test match status, which they were awarded earlier this year, alongside Ireland.
Their ascent to the top of the sport has been magical and their recent success fully warranted as they won two of three ICC Intercontinental Cups (they were runners up in the 2011-2013 edition), which led to their promotion.
It is only fitting that India hosts the Afghans in their first Test match as the Afghans have been using two stadiums in India - the Rajiv Gandhi International Cricket Stadium in Dehradun and the Shahid Vijay Singh Pathik Sports Complex in Greater Noida, as their home stadiums, due to the inhospitable conditions in Afghanistan.
2. Players Who Will Be Phenomenal To Watch
The absence of Virat Kohli may be a big blow for India - and take the shine away from this momentous occasion, but the Indian side is brimming with talent, with the likes of Ajinkya Rahane - who will captain the side, KL Rahul, Hardik Pandya, Shikhar Dhawan, and Ravichandran Ashwin.
For the debutants, their star all-rounder Mohammad Nabi, is one of the most important players in the team and is the leading run-scorer and wicket-taker in ODIs. Mohammad Shahzad is one of the most enigmatic batsmen in the Afghan team, and always seems to have a smile on his face even when tonking the big ones out of the park, while captain Asghar Stanikzai brings the calmness to the team.
3. Afghanistan's Teen Spin Twins
… but the newcomers’ trump card is their two teen spin sensations - 19-year-old Rashid Khan, and 17-year-old Mujeeb Ur Rahman - who’ve both impressed in ODIs and T20s, and most recently in the IPL.
Rashid Khan, who is also the vice-captain of the Afghanistan team, first came to limelight in the 2017 edition of the IPL for the Sunrisers Hyderabad, where he ended the season with 17 wickets from 14 games - impressive numbers for the then 18-year-old who wasn’t used to playing in front of big crowds and huge pressure. Armed with a potent googly, and other variations, he has bamboozled the best in the world, including Indian captain Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni.
But what makes his story even more heartwarming is the hardship he had as a child, growing up in refugee camps in Pakistan to being the hero for many in his homeland, all at the age of just 19!
His spin twin, two years his junior, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, made his IPL debut for Kings XI Punjab in IPL 2018, becoming the youngest player to play in the tournament, and impressing everyone with 14 wickets from 11 matches.
The teenager has several weapons in his armoury and can destroy oppositions with his variety, and will hope to follow the path of Rashid in Afghan cricket. It is exciting to see such natural talent from little or no coaching.
4. The Beginning Of A New Era In Test Cricket
The International Cricket Council’s (ICC) decision to award Afghanistan and Ireland Test match status last year received praise from all quarters, as cricket fans and pundits have been screaming from the rooftops to expand the game and add more teams to the mix.
Afghanistan and Ireland’s performance in international cricket (and Scotland defeating England in a ODI recently) has shown that players improve when provided with an opportunity and cricket can develop in regions that hasn’t had many followers of the game.
Cricket has grown exponentially in Afghanistan in the last decade or so; and the country’s then finance minister, in 2012, after an ODI against Pakistan, declared that, “Nothing has ever brought us together like this” - such is the impact that cricket can have on communities.
23 years ago, in 1995, Taj Malik founded the Afghanistan Cricket Federation, which later became the Afghanistan Cricket Board. And it was truly appropriate that their opponents were India for their first Test match!