Category: _author:Dileep Premachandran

Premachandran: Harsher Bans For Ball Tampering…

In the summer of 2005, with Test cricket struggling to stay relevant in many parts of the world, England beat Australia in an epic Ashes series. It was their first success over the old enemy in a generation, and for a few weeks, cricket competed with football for headlines on the sports pages.

The narrative of that five-Test series was a compelling one. The expected Australian victory at Lord’s, Glenn McGrath’s freakish ankle injury, Andrew Flintoff’s all-round tour de force in an unforgettable Test at Edgbaston, Ricky Ponting’s Old Trafford defiance, England sneaking home by a hair’s breadth at Trent Bridge, Shane Warne’s colossal on-field displays even as his off-field shenanigans dominated tabloid coverage, and Kevin Pietersen’s series-sealing 158 at The Oval.

But throughout that summer, there was another key protagonist that didn’t get much by way of column inches – the humble Murray Mint. Marcus Trescothick, England’s ball-carer-in-chief, much to the dietician’s discomfort or otherwise, kept chewing on them, and the sticky coating applied to the ball resulted in devastating reverse swing for their quartet of pace bowlers. Australia’s much-vaunted batting line-up crumpled repeatedly against balls that tailed in at their shoelaces.

Exactly 13 years earlier, England had been on the receiving end, as Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis got boomerang-like swing to trigger middle and lower-order collapses in a series the visitors won 2-1. Of course, when they did it, it was ‘cheating’. In English hands a generation later, cheating metamorphosed into ‘skill’.

Down the years, few things have divided opinion among cricket aficionados quite like ball tampering. Quite a significant number are happy to overlook minor transgressions – a mint here, a long nail there – especially in a scenario where advances in bat technology and changes in pitch preparation have skewed the playing fields so much in the batsmen’s favour.

Where almost everyone draws the line is at blatant acts of cheating – Cameron Bancroft taking a strip of sandpaper on to the field, or Shahid Afridi biting into the ball as though it was a juicy morsel of filet mignon. But as Australia discovered in South Africa recently, the ‘line’ between what’s permissible and what constitutes unfair play is a hard one to draw. The only option left to the law-makers then is to clamp down on all kinds of tampering, whether that’s rubbing the ball against a zipper, using mints or taking the sandpaper to it.

So lax has been the policing of such transgressions that what happened with Bancroft is Cape Town was an incident waiting to happen. You give cricketers a grey area in the laws, and you can be rest assured they will exploit it. It doesn’t matter if it’s Sachin Tendulkar trying to clean the seam, or Faf du Plessis wearing special trousers, players will always try and gain every little advantage for their team. That’s the nature of sport, and lectures on morality are fairly pointless in an age when the stakes are so high.

The fact that Dinesh Chandimal, Sri Lanka’s captain, attempted to change the condition of the ball in the recent series in the Caribbean, and then brazenly refused to take the field when the umpires and match referee took action gives you an inkling of how casually many players take the matter, despite the fallout of the Cape Town incident. Chandimal was subsequently banned for the third Test, and should get the strongest possible punishment for the disgraceful stand-off that followed him being caught out.

All the administrators can do is make sure the penalties are so harsh that anyone who so much as looks at a piece of sandpaper will avert their gaze. Changing the condition of the ball will now be a Level 3 offence, and the quantum of punishment for it can go up to 12 suspension points, which means a ban for six Tests or 12 ODIs. For most countries, that would effectively mean a season down the drain.

It’s also praiseworthy that personal abuse – some of the vilest examples of which were aired during that South Africa-Australia series – will also attract stringent sanctions. For a long time now, cricket has been kidding itself about on-field ‘banter’, when players say things that would get them the sack in any other workplace. And with teams so unaware of the mythical line between genuine humour and foul abuse, the only option is to clamp down hard.

Personal slurs will now fall under level 2 or level 3, with the punishments rising accordingly. And in the most interesting twist, the ICC’s Cricket Committee has empowered the match referees by ruling that a judicial commissioner will come into the picture only to hear Level 4 appeals. Such a move was always in the offing after Kagiso Rabada and a high-profile legal team managed to overturn a two-match ban during that controversial series against Australia.

Appeal fees should dissuade frivolous pleas for second chances, but most importantly, making the match referee’s word the final one should prevent repeats of the James Anderson-Ravindra Jadeja fiasco that so coloured India’s last tour of England in 2014. There was not a soul at Trent Bridge who didn’t believe Anderson had abused Jadeja – he could be seen mouthing off all the way to the pavilion – but once it went to appeal, the whole affair became a he-said-he-didn’t farce. Anderson got away scot-free.

In an ideal world, such punitive measures wouldn’t be necessary. But when grown men behave like immature, entitled brats, and worse still like dolts completely unaware of their responsibilities to the game – step forward Messrs Warner, Smith and Bancroft – you’re left with no choice. If cricket has to become a nanny state to arrest the decline in standards, then so be it.

Premachandran: Manish Pandey on the Precipice …

In The Happy Prince, Oscar Wilde wrote: “Any place you love is the world to you.” In the summer of 2009 [winter in the southern hemisphere], Manish Pandey’s world was South Africa’s highveld. But more than the 67-ball hundred against Deccan Chargers at Supersport Park in Centurion, it’s the boy in flip-flops that I remember, traipsing through the Sandton City Mall with a smile that had the full wattage of worry-free youth.

Even the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) coach, the notoriously hard-to-please Ray Jennings, reckoned he was the next big thing. This, mind you, was a team that had Virat Kohli in its ranks. Under-19 World Cup-winning captain, Kohli had already played for India. Pandey had just a handful of Ranji Trophy matches to his name.

Before that evening at Centurion, Pandey had faced two balls in that season’s IPL, in Durban three weeks earlier. RCB saw him as one for the future, with Jennings especially wary of the Under-19 stars being exposed to too much, too soon. There were already question marks about Kohli and his fondness for the trappings of success.

Pandey, from an army family, was seen as the sorted one. Against a Chargers attack headlined by Ryan Harris and RP Singh, he batted as though touched by genius. There was power, there was placement, and a deftness of touch that only the truly gifted possess. Few would have guessed then that it would take him another six years to win the India cap, or that Kohli would leave him so far behind.

Nearly a decade on from that first IPL century by an Indian, it’s tempting to wonder where we lost that boy with the carefree smile. At Malahide, against a completely outclassed Ireland side, Pandey was the only Indian player who looked ill at ease, batting from memory, searching for a rhythm that just wasn’t there.

A 20-ball 21 is an abomination in the Twenty20 format. In an innings where your teammates have made a 36-ball 70, a 45-ball 69 and a nine-ball 32, it’s an ugly boil begging to be lanced. One four, miscue after miscue, ugly heaves…almost no sign of the batsman who so captivated Centurion.

Earlier this year, at the IPL auction in Bengaluru, Sunrisers Hyderabad shelled out 11 crores for his services. Four other teams made bids before Hyderabad sealed it. Interesting, one of the franchises not to look his way was Kolkata Knight Riders, where he spent the previous four seasons.

Their decision to burn bridges wasn’t surprising. Pandey may have won the 2014 final with a dazzling 50-ball 94, but the high notes were spaced too far apart in an insipid tune. Ironically, his best season in Kolkata was his last, when his 396 runs came at a strike-rate of 128.57.

With Hyderabad in the season just gone by, there were three half-centuries, but the strike-rate of 115.44 was dismal. For a team so heavily reliant on runs from Kane Williamson and Shikhar Dhawan, Pandey’s failure to grow into his role was a huge setback. Each time it looked like a corner had been turned, he would find a dead end. And another.

That he played the two games at Malahide, preferred to KL Rahul and Dinesh Karthik in the first, was a big surprise. Over the years, his first-class record and performances in 50-over cricket have kept him in the selectors’ line of vision. But in the format where he first caught the eye, there has been little. Now nearly 29, he’s no longer one of the boys of summer either.

The gift of timing has deserted him. The harder he tries to mow the ball, the poorer the connection. From being a figure of hope to a symbol of social-media derision and outrage, the transformation has been painful to watch. It becomes acutely uncomfortable any time he’s at the crease with Kohli. Once equals, they no inhabit the same batting planet. Everything about Kohli screams assurance and certainty. Pandey is the prodigal who lost his bearings, still wandering the desert.

How many more chances will India give him? Clearly, the team management, and Kohli, remember what he’s capable of. But these days, it’s not just Rahul and Karthik who are after his place in the XI. There’s Rishabh Pant, who bats like a Catherine Wheel, and Shubman Gill, whose poise recalls Pandey of 2009 vintage.

If he doesn’t find the sweet spot on his bat across the Irish Sea in England, that could well be it. For the sake of the boy with the happy-go-lucky smile, let’s hope he does. Few things in this world are as painful to witness as young potential denied its full expression.

Premachandran: India Reaping the Rewards of Re…

The seeds of India’s Twenty20 transformation were sown on the playing fields of Bangladesh and India. At the World Twenty20 in 2014, India romped to the final and were then ambushed by a canny Sri Lanka side. You didn’t need a day’s number-crunching to figure out why they had fallen short. They lacked middle-order oomph and lacked a strike bowler.

As magnificent as Virat Kohli had been, with Rohit Sharma’s sterling support, India had no one capable of muscling the ball to the boundary and beyond in the final stages of an innings. In 142 balls that they faced between them, Yuvraj Singh and MS Dhoni struck seven sixes. Kusal Perera, though he failed in the final, hit as many off just 83 balls.

With the ball, there was again a void that couldn’t be filled. R Ashwin and Amit Mishra were superb, while Ravindra Jadeja was an adequate foil as third spinner. Bhuvneshwar Kumar took only four wickets, but his parsimony – conceding just 5.42 an over – played a big part in the run to the final.

But there was no second pacer to call on at the death, with Mohammed Shami and Mohit Sharma both leaking runs. It was a problem that should have been fixed in the two years that followed, but by the time India hosted the event in 2016, the answer was to go back to Ashish Nehra, in the twilight of his career.

This time, India got only as far as the semifinal, before being blown away by a blizzard of West Indian big-hitting. That they had got that far was largely down to Kohli, second on the batting charts and once again a byword for incredible consistency.

The rest may as well not have turned up. Dhoni was the second-highest scorer for India, languishing in 36th spot with a mediocre 89 off 70 balls. The bowling was equally pitiful. Ashwin and Jadeja had four wickets apiece from five matches, conceding over seven an over, while Jasprit Bumrah had 4 for 153 from 20 overs.

Teams weren’t asked many questions with the new ball, and the spin threat was seen off without undue alarms in the middle overs. By the time the final overs came up, with wickets in hand, teams were primed to tee off. The ease with which West Indies chased down 193 was a chastening reminder of how far off the pace India were.

Part of the blame for the debacle lay in unimaginative selections, in a refusal to accept that Twenty20 was a different sport altogether. While other teams thrived thanks to the skills of new-age stars like Andre Russell and Carlos Brathwaite, India continued to play T20 cricket from 2007.

It was no surprise therefore that Kohli, after two man-of-the-tournament displays that didn’t fetch him a winners’ medal, wanted to shake things up. Almost every other leading side had some bowlers with beguiling variations. India didn’t, and with Mishra aging and out of favour, there wasn’t even a proper wrist-spin option.

That changed with the promotion of Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav. Chahal had the advantage of playing alongside Kohli in the Indian Premier League (IPL), on a Bangalore pitch where the slightest error usually meant a six sailing into the stands. As much as his skill and variations, what stood out was his attitude.

Little flustered him, and his background as a chess player could be glimpsed in the way he kept tempting the batsmen to go big. Sure, he got hit sometimes, but like the chess master sacrificing his queen to win the game, Chahal usually knew what he was doing.

Kuldeep offered an angle of attack and bamboozling variety that India simply didn’t have previously. The Jadeja method was like water torture – drip, drip, drip, ball after ball. Kuldeep and his twirling wrists came at you like a snake out of the grass. Even Asian batsmen, allegedly the most proficient against spin, struggled to fathom him in the IPL.

At Malahide on Wednesday night, as one great sporting institution – the German football team – was humbled, Indian cricket showed just how far it has come since that World T20 debacle. Kuldeep, Chahal and Bumrah took all of the nine wickets to fall, while Bhuvneshwar was his traditional miserly self.

Ireland were in the game until the ninth over, having given Chahal some tap in his first two overs. Then, Kuldeep came on and outsmarted Simi Singh in an over where he conceded no runs. Suddenly, the asking rate ballooned to nearly 14, and the game was as good as over. Chahal was taken for four sixes, with James Shannon taking a shine to him, but he kept his composure to take the wickets of Kevin O’Brien and Gary Wilson off consecutive balls in his final over.

Bumrah, who varies his length a lot better now, is a far superior bowler to two years ago, and the only concerns surround the fifth bowler – Hardik Pandya. So far, for all the bluster and bling, Pandya hasn’t done enough with bat or bat to justify his place. As long as the other four are on point, India can carry him. When one or two of them have a bad day, he becomes an unaffordable luxury.

With the bowling bite largely restored, the challenge for Kohli and the team management is to put some muscle into the batting order. The days of batsmen dawdling along at strike-rates of 120 or 130 are passé, thanks to teams like West Indies and England who go full-throttle. KL Rahul and Dinesh Karthik, who had excellent IPL seasons, will doubtless get opportunities over the coming months, as will Manish Pandey to show that he’s better than the poor season he had for Hyderabad.

There’s no shortage of players outside this squad either, with the likes of Rishabh Pant and Shubman Gill already looking ready for the big tent. Most importantly, India appear to have recognised that excellence in the longer formats means nothing when it comes to the right-here-right-now nature of T20. For every freak like Kohli, who can tailor his game to suit any eventuality, there are ten others who struggle to make the switch.

Ultimately, the building blocks of a successful T20 side are quite simple. You need to be extremely athletic and agile in the field, bowl a heavy ball with change-ups, use spin variations, and wield the long handle as well as you run the quick singles and twos. More than a decade after their unexpected victory at the World Twenty20 transformed the sport in India, India are finally getting with the program.

Premachandran: Ireland Lacked the Support Afgh…

In different circumstances, this Indian tour of Ireland would have flown under the radar. Had Christian Eriksen’s brilliance not eviscerated the Republic of Ireland in Dublin last November, the green hordes would have been in Russia, soaking in their fourth football World Cup. Everything else would have been an irrelevance.

The importance of being part of sport’s biggest carnival was once beautifully expressed by Roddy Doyle, the great Irish novelist. “It was one of the great times of my life, when I loved being from Dublin and I loved being Irish,” he wrote, looking back on Italia ’90. “Three years later, it still fills me. The joy and the fun and the pride. Adults behaving like children. Packie gritting his teeth. Being able to cry in public. Getting drunk in daylight. The T-shirts, the colour. Mick McCarthy’s long throw. The players. Paul McGrath. The excitement and madness and love. It’s all still in me and I’m starting to cry again.”

This summer, there’s no such green connection. The Irish, like millions of Indians, are distant onlookers, outsiders excluded from the biggest party in town. Sports fans in the Republic have had consolation in the shape of their rugby team, whose epic series win in Australia came 18 months after a historic first win against the mighty All Blacks.

Cricket had its moment in the watery sun in May, when Pakistan came to Malahide for Ireland’s first Test match. William Porterfield’s team scrapped tenaciously after a nervous start, with Kevin O’Brien’s superb second-innings hundred giving them a whiff of an upset victory. But it didn’t happen, and the absence of a Test against India – the game’s commercial heavy-hitters – in the next Future Tours Program (FTP) tells you a lot about the current state of play.

When India last visited the island of St. Patrick, Irish cricket was still coming down from the euphoria of a first World Cup campaign – one where they had tied with Zimbabwe and beaten Pakistan and Bangladesh. A motley crew led by Trent Johnston, a travelling salesman with roots in New South Wales, were the nation’s new sporting heroes, and the future was bright.

But despite building on that with victories against England in Bangalore (2011 World Cup) and West Indies in Nelson (World Cup 2015) and dominant performances in the tournaments involving associates, the call-up to the top table came a few years too late.

Unlike Afghanistan and Nepal, to name just two emerging nations, the Irish had a fairly rich cricket history. The most notable chapter in those early years was written at Sion Mills in County Tyrone nearly half a century ago. A West Indian team led by Basil Butcher and also comprising Clive Lloyd, Joey Carew and Clyde Walcott, were skittled for just 25, with Douglas Goodwin (5 for 6) and Alec O’Riordan (4 for 18) doing the damage.

Goodwin is 80 now, and O’Riordan 77, and both would have gone through periods in their lives when they wondered whether those with the shamrock on their chests would ever get to test themselves against the big boys. India toured England in 2011 and ’14, without any trips across the Irish Sea. Encouragement from England, the Big Brother, has also been patchy. It’s hard to speak of support, after all, when you’re busy poaching Irish players. As a result, Ireland never got the sort of backing that Afghanistan have received, first from Pakistan and then from India.

Had Ireland been elevated to the top table around the time they beat England in such thrilling fashion at the 2011 World Cup, there’s every chance that they would have managed to swim rather than sink. But by 2015, without the riches to truly promote the game at grassroots, they were a team in decline, a side slowly growing old together.

The lack of youthful vigour has been especially apparent in the white-ball formats. Missing out on the World Cup was no great surprise. The current rankings – 12th in ODI, and 18th in T20Is – are an accurate reflection of those recent struggles.

A generation ago, Bangladesh were fast-tracked to Test status. Their initial difficulties queered the pitch for those that followed. Ireland, who needed that accelerated development to build on the gains of 2007, didn’t get it, and a decade on, cricket is paying the price. The Indian tour, if you can call two abbreviated matches that, is in keeping with Ireland’s place in the pecking order. But it could all have been so different with a bit of foresight.

To understand what jousting with the best means to those making their way up, you only have to think back to Italia ’90. “So, can you remember where you were when Neil Armstrong stood on the moon. Or when the crowds stormed through the Berlin Wall?” wrote Sean Diffley in the Irish Independent. “Perhaps not. The great moments of history tend to fade like over-exposed watercolours. But you will never forget, will you, where you were when Packie Bonner saved that penalty?”

Sabina Park and the victory over Pakistan should have been Irish cricket’s Packie Bonner moment. Instead, a decade of relative neglect has meant that it’s now one of those faded watercolours.

Premachandran: India Probables Must Take a Lea…

New Delhi: After the dramatic final-day victory at Lord’s that left India one up with three to play on the 2014 tour of England, the players had a couple of days off. I took off to the Getty estate in Wormsley, which was hosting Words and Wickets, a cricket-themed literary festival. The questions asked there made it seem that India had the series won. “Will Alastair Cook make a run?” “Will your boys let England win a Test?”

For a journalist who had mostly covered one disappointing overseas campaign after another – none more so than the 4-0 rout in England three years earlier – it was a surreal feeling, one you sensed was too good to last. From there, I went to Southampton, which was hosting the third Test.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. But the best commentators and experts possess foresight, seeing patterns in the tea leaves that are beyond you and me. On the eve of the Test, Joe Dawes, the Queenslander who was India’s bowling coach, asked Michael Holding to have a look at his wards.

Holding wasn’t impressed by what he saw. Before the game began, on the drive to the ground, he said bluntly: “They don’t have the legs. Not going to last five Tests.” For a long time, Holding has been a critic of what he sees as vanity gym work, with appearance taking precedence over genuine fitness. In his eyes, there simply was no substitute for getting miles in the legs. And in his view, India’s bowlers didn’t have enough.

The individual he made special attention to was Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who had earned rave reviews after taking 11 for 185 in the first two Tests. With Ishant Sharma, Lord’s match-winner limping off with the ankle injury from final practice before the game, the onus was very much on Bhuvneshwar to keep the pressure on England.

We know how that script played out. Ravindra Jadeja shelled a slip catch off the luckless Pankaj Singh when Cook had made just 15, and England went on to win with a measure of comfort. Bhuvneshwar took eight wickets at 40 in those last three Tests. Where the ball had zipped off the pitch at Trent Bridge and Lord’s, it often floated through harmlessly in the next three games.

In the context of that and other Indian cricket debacles, the controversial yo-yo tests are especially important. Let’s make one thing clear. All these India probables are professional athletes. They knew beforehand that there was a standard to be met. If they were apprehensive that they may not meet them, each of them is rich enough to have been able to afford a personal trainer to get them through the test.

If sympathy is in short supply, that’s because it should be. Other countries like West Indies and Pakistan set higher yo-yo test benchmarks for their players. That even the 16.1 score wasn’t met by the likes of Mohammed Shami, Sanju Samson and Ambati Rayudu says far more about those individuals than it does about the team management.

This ruthlessness is especially necessary in limited-overs cricket. During the World Twenty20 in India in 2016, the semifinal at the Wankhede Stadium was like watching a grainy black-and-white movie on one side and HD-quality streaming on the other. India, with the notable exception of the brilliant and thoroughly modern Virat Kohli, tried to ‘build’ an innings, a notion that has been made utterly passé by the West Indies’ phalanx of heavy hitters.

Lendl Simmons, Johnson Charles and Andre Russell didn’t take too many singles or twos. They didn’t need to, not even at least one ball an over was being muscled to the rope or over it. Where India tried to pace themselves, West Indies just nailed the pedal to the floor.

The difference was as stark on the field. Russell and friends are superb athletes, and even the big men like Carlos Brathwaite prowled the outfield like jaguars. India dropped catches, bowled no-balls, missed with throws, and generally undid all the sterling work Kohli had done with the bat.

Along with the high-profile Test series in England and Australia, India also have two global tournaments coming up in the next two years – the World Cup in England (2019) and the World Twenty20 in Australia (2020). Despite their remarkable consistency in ICC tournaments this decade, they haven’t won anything since the Champions Trophy in 2013. With Kohli now in his prime, the two upcoming tournaments offer a great chance to remedy that.

For that to happen, everyone needs to sing from the same sheet as the skipper, whose commitment to fitness and excellence is nothing short of extraordinary. Yes, cricket, especially the five-day game, is a test of skill. But the limited-overs forms, for all the recent dominance of spin bowling, have become primarily about power and athleticism, two areas where India have usually lagged behind.

The Samson and Rayudu stories were heartwarming ones during the IPL season. But once that was over and they got their India call-ups, they knew what needed to be done before boarding the flight to England. Good selection isn’t just about picking the most skilled players or those in form. It’s also about choosing those that want it the most. The test results have a way of telling you that

Dileep Premachandran: Chance For Afghanistan t…

Bangalore: It isn’t just the path they’ve taken to Test status that makes Afghan cricket an anomaly. Most emerging nations could boast of one or two quality batsmen when they came on the scene. It was the bowling that invariably let them down. Ironically, given the reputation as no country for pace bowlers, it was India that bucked that trend when they played their first Test in England in 1932.

“He had a nice, easy action and before the shine had gone off the ball, he made it swing and at times break back alarmingly,” said the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack of Mohamed Nissar. “In point of actual skill, however, Amar Singh was probably the best bowler of the side. Exception might be taken to his run, which was far from smooth in its rhythm, but he was able to do such a lot with the ball that he not only looked, but actually proved to be, very difficult to play.

“He could make the ball swerve either way and at times cause it to dip, while his pace off the pitch was often phenomenal. Better bowling than his in the second innings of the Test match has not been seen for a long time and more than one famous old cricketer said afterwards that Amar Singh was the best bowler seen in England since the war.”

After partition in 1947, that fast-bowling tradition continued to be nurtured in Pakistan, while India largely became a nation of batsmen and spinners. The same was true of other sides that came along too. Long before Test status, Sri Lanka could point to the batting of Mahadevan Sathasivam and Derrick de Saram. There was Anura Tennekoon too, before Duleep Mendis and Roy Dias became their standout players in the early years as a Test nation.

Zimbabwe had Dave Houghton and Andy Flower, and also possessed enough bowling resources to win a Test series in Pakistan in 1998-99. Kenya, though they couldn’t build on their displays at the World Cups of 1996 and 2003, had Steve Tikolo, then the best batsman in the associates’ ranks.

When Ireland upset Pakistan to make it to the Super Eights at their first World Cup in 2007, Adrian Birrell, the South Africa who coached them at the time, spoke quite candidly about the challenges they faced. Several of their players were part-timers – teachers, travelling salesmen and the like. While they could hold their own and even excel in games against other associates, games against the cricket’s sharks threw up tests they had never confronted before.

“You just don’t face bowlers as quick as Shaun Tait or Brett Lee in associate cricket,” he told us one day. “Nor do you usually come across bowlers with the variations that someone like Brad Hogg has. There’s just no way you can prepare for that in the nets. You’ll only get better by playing against them as often as you can.”

Along with Ireland, Afghanistan dominated the associate scene for more than half a decade, paving the way for Test status to be granted last year. But while they had played ODIs and Twenty20s against the leading nations, the Intercontinental Cup represented pretty much the sum total of their first-class experience.

Against bowlers of lesser quality, you can take liberties and even get away with some sloppiness. At the Chinnaswamy Stadium, Afghanistan were up against Ishant Sharma, bowling as well as he’s ever done after a good county stint with Sussex, who came into this game on 234 Test wickets. The spell he’s most remembered for, against Ricky Ponting in Perth, was more than a decade ago. You can’t buy that kind of experience off a shelf.

Umesh Yadav, who shared the new ball and reached 100 Test wickets with the dismissal of Rahmat Shah, is very different from the scattergun of a few years ago. Against Australia in 2017, he was India’s best bowler, taking nearly twice as many wickets (17) as his more feted Aussie counterparts.

And after Ishant and Umesh had left the innings in ruins, Afghanistan had to deal with R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. Asghar Stanikzai and Phil Simmons may have talked up their own slow bowlers before the game, but the value of experience was all too clear the minute Ashwin came on.

It took Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman more than a session to locate the ideal length, by which time Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay and KL Rahul had batted India into a position of considerable strength. Ashwin was immaculate from ball one, looping it up and turning it sharply, and all from a length that left the batsmen chronically unsure of whether to come forward or play back.

Jadeja did as he always does, landing it on a spot and using subtle deviations to confuse the batsmen. Both took wickets while maintaining relentless pressure. There were no freebies. In Afghanistan’s first innings, only Mohammad Nabi (24 off 44 balls) and Hashmatullah Shahidi (11 off 24) faced more than 20 balls.

Mohammad Shahzad’s 18-ball 14 featured an outside edge, an inside edge, a superb wristy flick and the run-out courtesy Hardik Pandya. It made for a decent highlights package, but was rather out of sync with what his team needed after India had posted 474.

But a first Test isn’t the time or place to look for scapegoats. If this game has shown us anything, it’s the yawning gulf between the Intercontinental Cup and Test cricket. The only way the Afghan batsmen will come to grip with the unique rhythms of the five-day game is by playing more against opposition of this quality.

Since they’re already based in India, here’s an idea. The Duleep Trophy has steadily been devalued by tampering with its format and place in the calendar. Why not invite Afghanistan to play each season? With the established nations unlikely to schedule too many Tests against them in the immediate future, it’s one way to give them the exposure they need. Given the depth in Indian cricket at the moment, they’d end up pitting their wits against several players good enough to play for other countries.

Any Indian supporters being too snooty about this result would do well to remember their own Test journey. In the summer of 1952, a full two decades after playing their first Test, Alec Bedser, Fred Trueman and Tony Lock skittled India twice in a day at Old Trafford – 58 ball out (21.4 overs) and 82 all out (36.3 overs). And that was with four of Indian cricket’s batting greats – Vinoo Mankad, Vijay Hazare, Polly Umrigar and Vijay Manjrekar – in the XI.

Such things happen. For Afghanistan, this second day was a sobering reality check. But if the lessons are learned and acted on, it won’t have been in vain.

Virat Kohli Looks Comfortable During Yo-Yo Tes…

Hardik Pandya and R Ashwin were batting in front of sparsely filled stands at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, but a lot of the attention was on what was taking place in a secluded corner of the stadium complex. On the National Cricket Academy premises, in the nets where teams usually prepare for games, Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni and others were taking the yo-yo test, which is now one of the guidelines for selection in any India squad.

It may be recalled that Sanju Samson, one of Indian cricket’s brightest young prospects, was replaced by Ishan Kishan in the A team that left for England after his yo-yo test score didn’t meet the required standards. Mohammed Shami too didn’t make the grade ahead of this Test against Afghanistan, with Navdeep Saini called up in his place.

With the sun peering out from behind the clouds that have hung over Bangalore for days, most eyes were on Kohli, who missed this game and his proposed county stint with Surrey because of a neck-and-back problem. The Indian captain shuttled back and forth with no visible signs of discomfort. In the next net, Dhoni did the same. Kedar Jadhav, who hurt his hamstring during the opening game of the Indian Premier League (IPL) in April, was on the other side of Kohli. Suresh Raina, part of the ODI squad that will leave for the British Isles on June 21, was also there, as was Bhuvneshwar Kumar, rested for this Test.

More than a decade ago, when Andrew Leipus was the physio and Adrian le Roux the trainer, Indian cricket started using the bleep test – the precursor to the yo-yo one – as a measure of the players’ aerobic fitness. Back then, however, the numbers were only a guide and no player was sidelined because he didn’t meet a certain benchmark.

Since Kohli took over as captain though, there has been an extra emphasis on fitness, with the captain himself leading the way. His Instagram videos don’t just get millions of views from cricket fans. They also remind his teammates of what is expected. It’s no coincidence that even players who used to carry a few extra pounds are now noticeably fitter. Family packs have been replaced by six-packs.

As Kohli and Dhoni wound down and reached for their energy drinks, under the supervision of Shankar Basu, the trainer, another batch of players started to make their way out. Jasprit Bumrah, Siddharth Kaul and Washington Sundar are all in the limited-overs squad. The handful of journalists who had gathered to watch were kept well away, with tape stretched across the entrance to the NCA premises. The test scores are unlikely to be made available.

There is already a move to raise the yo-yo test threshold from 16.1 to 16.3, with Ravi Shastri, the coach, keen on even better fitness ahead of an arduous year that includes tours of Ireland, England and Australia before next summer’s World Cup.

Premachandran: Afghanistan Roll With the Punch…

As they lined up, first in their smart blue blazers and then in their creams with the beautiful crimson cap, it was hard not to think of those who had been left behind. Hamid Hassan, pace bowler extraordinaire, who was Afghan cricket’s first superstar. Nawroz Mangal, who guided them up the first steps of the ICC ladder. Karim Sadiq, so desperate to play here that he offered to retire if given the chance. The Zadrans – Noor Ali, Shapoor and Najib. Men who had been instrumental in creating something out of nothing, those who put their country on the cricket map.

“The names you have mentioned have made huge contributions to Afghanistan cricket when we started,” said Asghar Stanikzai, the current captain who played alongside most of them, on the eve of this Test. “After ODI and T20 status, we have achieved Test status because of the wonderful efforts they have put in. It is a big moment for all of them also, and we [the current side] will take it from there.”

The Afghan mindset, epitomised by the rotund figure of Mohammad Shahzad, has been a revelation in the limited-overs arena, where their refusal to be intimidated by any opposition has played such a big part in them becoming the pick of the emerging nations. So much of the pre-match talk was of how they expected to take that attitude into the Test arena and thrive in similar vein.

But the five-day game is a strange beast. Afghanistan’s flair and aggression have served them well in the white-ball formats. Their quick bowlers hurl it down fast, the spinners give the ball a real rip and the batsmen give the leather a pounding. It’s simple, uncomplicated and seems to come naturally to them.

Test cricket so often is a strategy game played out on an oval, where discipline and patience are two of the greatest virtues. You can’t always blast batsmen out. And the magic balls that make the T20 highlights reels aren’t always that because the batsmen aren’t compelled to try and hit them for four or six. Experience matters, and this Indian team has it in spades.

Murali Vijay looked awful in the opening exchanges. His feet were going nowhere, he was flashing at balls he should have left, and fortunate that one he inside-edged missed the stumps. But Vijay is also an old pro with a decade of Tests behind him. He knew how to ride out the storm and get to the azure blue where he could calmly paddle along.

And then there was Shikhar Dhawan. The emotion of the morning ceremonies had no impact on him whatsoever. He may struggle on seam-friendly pitches overseas, but in these conditions, he’s one batsman you don’t want to bowl to if you’re struggling to find the right line and length. Pretty much every errant ball pinged off the middle of his bat and sped to the boundary. And he scored at such a pace that Afghanistan had no opportunity to take a breather.

Once Stanikzai refused Shahzad’s entreaties to use the Decision Review System (DRS) when Dhawan was on 23, the opening day’s plan veered off track. Bowlers couldn’t settle into spells, fields set couldn’t be maintained. And the runs came at nearly T20 pace. Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman, talked up so much by their captain before the game, got a pasting. Had anyone else been at the crease, they might have got the couple of overs they needed to settle into a rhythm. But the only rhythm they found was the thump-thump of the ball leaving the Dhawan bat.

Once the Dhawan Effect wore off, with Ajinkya Rahane, in particular, struggling in the final session, Afghanistan looked much more at home. Without the attacking threat that Dhawan, and later Vijay and Rahul, had offered, the bowlers could find their grooves. Rashid, especially, was a different bowler once the threat of caning was removed.

Before play began, in a nod to nostalgia, the BCCI had invited Salim Durani to present a memento to Stanikzai. Born in Kabul in 1934, Durani hit 15 sixes in his 29 Tests for India, in addition to taking 75 wickets with wily left-arm spin. Four decades before the IPL, he was the great entertainer, the one who tried to smack sixes on demand.

Now a frail old man, Durani wouldn’t have dreamed, even during his playing days that the country of his birth would one day be a Test nation. A decade ago, the team coached by Taj Malik and led by Mangal was eking out a nail-biting victory over Jersey, the hosts, in the World Cricket League Division 5. Countries like the UAE, Scotland, Netherlands, Kenya and Canada were all further along the road to international recognition. Most of them had an existing cricket culture and some facilities. Afghanistan had neither.

Now, here they are, having left each of those teams behind. Ireland also got Test status along with Afghanistan last year, but when they played their first match last month, the men who shared the new ball were 36 and 34. Had Ireland been given Test status in 2010 or ’11, where they were at the top of their curve, the increased funding and the buzz around it would have inspired even more youngsters to take to the game.

For Afghanistan, the timing is perfect. Rashid and Mujeeb may have had nightmarish Test baptisms, but their feats, both in Afghan colours and in the IPL, have inspired thousands. With a population nearly twice that of Sri Lanka and a side that are national heroes, they won’t struggle to attract kids to the game.

The nous will come with time. Afghanistan could have taken the easy way out and opted for a Test debut on a Sharjah pitch tailormade for Rashid and friends, against opponents who would be wary of that. Instead, they’re taking on the world’s. No.1-ranked Test side in their backyard. First lessons don’t come much harder, and Afghan cricket will be better and stronger for it.

Focus On Spinners as Stanikzai’s Men Take on R…

Dileep Premachandran in Bengaluru: Just under 15 months ago, with Virat Kohli nursing an injured shoulder, it was Ajinkya Rahane that led India to a series victory over Australia in Dharamsala. One of the catalysts for that success was a debutant. Kuldeep Yadav’s contentious selection may or may not have contributed to Anil Kumble losing the coaching job, but there’s every chance that the Rahane-Kuldeep combination will once again be seen at the Chinnaswamy Stadium on Thursday for a Test that marks Afghanistan’s entry into the big league.

Rahane himself has had a tumultuous year. Dropped for the first two Tests against South Africa in January after a dismal home series against Sri Lanka, he was recalled only for The Wanderers, by which time the series was already lost. The 48 he made on that spiteful pitch may have shut the door on Rohit Sharma’s Test career for the foreseeable future, and Kohli’s recent birthday wish on social media suggested that India wouldn’t make the mistake of jettisoning Rahane for an overseas Test again any time soon.

With injury once again sidelining Kohli, it will be fascinating to see how Rahane approaches this assignment. Like Cheteshwar Pujara, who had a shocking county season – 100 runs in eight innings for Yorkshire – he is now a one-format player. After this game, while most jet off for the limited-overs leg in the UK, Rahane will be left to his own devices to prepare for the five-Test series that starts on August 1.

For the moment, the focus is very much on Bengaluru, and a landmark occasion. “It’s an honour for all of us to be part of this Test match,” said Rahane. “A big moment for Afghan cricket as well. Playing a Test match is always special. It’s an honour for me as well to be captain in this match.”

Asghar Stanikzai, who will head out for the toss of the coin with him, had stirred the pot a few days ago by suggesting that his team had the more accomplished spinners. But Rahane had no interest in getting into a public debate on the matter. “Every member of a team, they always believe their team is good, that their bowling attack and their batting is better,” he said, the very acme of diplomacy. “We all know the stats, but we don’t focus on stats. In Test cricket, every session matters a lot. It is important that you do your best all the time.

Our spinners – Kuldeep, Ashwin or Jadeja – they are all experienced. They are quality spinners, they back each other, they enjoy bowling with each other even in the nets and in the match. On that given day, it’s important what is your mindset and how to handle pressure.”

Phil Simmons, the Afghanistan coach, certainly didn’t try to contradict his captain. If anything, he only reinforced the message. “My captain knows what he is talking about,” he said with a laugh. “When you look at it, all spinners in this contest will be excellent. We know that right now, Rashid [Khan] is the most difficult spinner to play. He has not played Test cricket. We have to look and see what happens. but his professionalism will help him to adjust and am sure he will come out well.”

Stanikzai said he wouldn’t know what ‘nervous’ meant and stressed on the structures that Afghanistan have put in place to produce far more talent than most emerging nations.

“We have different tournaments, four-day first-class tournaments, University T20 tournaments,” he said. “So, there are players you can’t hide when they do well in domestic cricket. Most of our matches are live on social media so they are coming through. We have limited players from different provinces but when they perform we give them a chance in our teams like A team and development squad. They are coming through to the national team.”

Mohammad Shahzad returns to the fray after missing some of the Intercontinental Cup campaign because of a drug-related ban, but Afzar Zazai is set to keep his place behind the stumps. Shahzad, whose admiration for Dhoni is second to none, will play as a specialist batsman and field close in. Afghanistan are likely to play three specialist spinners, and Mohammad Nabi, with the exciting 18-year-old Wafadar taking the new ball.

India have a couple of selection conundrums to sort out before they step on to the park. The pitch, which has been prepared under cloudy skies and with plenty of rain in the air, has a fair smattering of grass, but also comes with a reputation for assisting the slow bowlers. Ashwin and Jadeja both played crucial roles in India’s stunning come-from-behind victory against Australia here in March 2017, and the temptation will be overwhelming to add Kuldeep’s wristy, left-arm variations to the mix.

If that happens, Karun Nair, who had been expected to make a Test comeback, could be the one to miss out. There’s also the question of which two to pick from Murali Vijay, KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan. Dhawan was dropped in South Africa, where the conditions didn’t suit his brand of swash and buckle, but Rahul didn’t make runs either. Vijay too was disappointing. Rahul was in prime form in the IPL, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if India took a punt on him, just as England recently did with Jos Buttler.

With Mohammed Shami again sidelined, the pace bowlers pick themselves. Umesh Yadav was hugely impressive in that 2017 series against Australia, while Ishant Sharma has had a fine stint with Sussex in the county championship. For Navdeep Saini, this Test has probably come too soon, but we’ll be seeing and hearing a lot more of him.

“Over the last three days, the focus has been on tuning our minds, especially because we’re coming in after two months of the IPL,” said Rahane. “Skill-wise, it won’t make a difference, but our attitude [towards training] matters, if you have to make a quick switch in terms of our mindset from T20s to Test cricket. Talking about Afghanistan, we won’t take them lightly. From our side, we will play like how we approach any other team. Our attitude will remain the same on the field.”

“It is itself history that we are playing the inaugural and historic Test match against the number-one team in the world,” said Stanikzai, reflecting on what lies ahead. “The mood back home is that they are very positive and supportive and looking forward for the best performance. They expect us to perform well because recently Afghanistan performed really well in the T20s and ODIs. Their expectation will be the same from us.”

Along with the anticipation, there will also be a twinge of regret, mixed with some relief. “I think there will always be a bit of disappointment in the players not to be on the same field as Virat,” said Simmons. “But at the same time, we look at it as win the Test match and beat India. We don’t beat Virat. We are disappointed he is not playing, but a little bit happy that we are not going to bowl to him all the time. We are happy to be here and playing India. Virat is not India.”

India (likely XI): Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane (capt), Dinesh Karthik (wk), Hardik Pandya, R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma.

Afghanistan (likely XI): Javed Ahmadi, Mohammad Shahzad, Rahmat Shah, Asghar Stanikzai (capt), Mohammad Nabi, Afzar Zazai (wk), Rashid Khan, Yamin Ahmadzai, Zahir Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Wafadar.

Watch out for: R Ashwin. The exile from the white-ball squads has hurt his pride, and some worry that it might dent his confidence in Tests as well. But in home conditions, Ashwin has usually been peerless. In his last outing in Bangalore, he wrecked Australia’s fourth-innings chase with a five-wicket haul. With so much focus on Rashid and his recent exploits, Ashwin will be especially eager to prove he’s still king of the spin-bowling castle.

Mohammad Nabi: One of the original bunch that played against Mike Gatting and the MCC in Mumbai 12 years ago, Nabi lends both experience and poise to the middle order. And his off-spin is invariably tidy and effective. Stanikzai will lean on him heavily if Afghanistan are pushed into a corner.

Premachandran: Flamboyant Pietersen Delivers O…

With Kevin Pietersen, it was always either lily-white or carbon-black. There was never a middle ground. You either loved him, skunk hairdo and all, or you loathed him. I am yet to meet a cricket lover who was indifferent to him.

Cricket, like every other sphere of human endeavor, divides opinion. For some, the West Indies fast bowlers of the 1980s were bullies, who used their physical prowess to intimidate teams into submission. For me, they were artists, especially Michael Holding, beautiful men who illuminated my youth as the token brown face in a white town.

With them, however, there were people who could see both sides, and appreciate the nuances of both viewpoints. With Pietersen, from the time he announced himself with those three flamboyant ODI centuries against the country of his birth, there was never any nuance. For those that appreciated his unique gifts, he was a blessing, as charismatic a batsman as the game had seen since Viv Richards. For the naysayers, he was the mercenary, the me-me-me man.

The reaction to the news that he would deliver the Pataudi Memorial lecture at the BCCI awards was therefore on predictable lines. There was the usual yawn-inducing argument on how it should have been a son of the soil that did the deed, while others suggested he just didn’t have the gravitas to pull it off. After all, this is a man who has spent most of the four years since he last played a Test stirring things up on social media.

The problem with such attitudes is that we only see that side of a person that we want to. But none of us is two-dimensional. Steve Waugh was the man behind mental disintegration, the ugliness that culminated in all this recent empty talk of culture change in Australian cricket. But he was also the individual who championed a home for the kids of leprosy victims, who set off with his camera to get a sense of the cities he was lucky enough to visit.

Pietersen himself put it quite beautifully when he spoke of why Test cricket offers such a distinct challenge. “Because, having played every form of cricket in every corner of the cricketing globe, I remain one hundred per cent convinced that the five-day Test remains the supreme form of the game,” he said. “This may surprise some of you. After all, I am not known as a traditionalist. But in 2005, I maintained that you shouldn’t judge a man by his haircut. And now, 13 years later, I suggest you should not believe everything you read on Twitter!”

What was best about the speech was the fact that he didn’t pretend to be what he isn’t. Clive Rice, a colossus on the county scene with Nottinghamshire in the 1980s and integral part of the Transvaal ‘Mean Machine’, was his hero growing up. Rice passed away three years ago and was far from a popular figure in post-Apartheid South Africa, especially because of his views on transformation in sport.

That didn’t stop Pietersen paying tribute. “Ricey,” he said. “Fearless, graceful and, at times, savage at the crease. Instilling in me the enormity of character required for the first-class game.”

But his most considered words were reserved for the Afghan players about to embark on a voyage into the unknown, the same journey he undertook against mighty Australia at Lord’s in 2005. “The squad, the management, and all those who helped you get here. You guys are sitting on the very edge of history,” he said. “The doom-mongers say this is a dying form of the game, but you have it within your grasp to keep it alive. You are representing a population of 36 million people.

“Your country has scaled the ladder across the shorter forms of the game, but this is bigger and better. And I have every faith that at some stage during the game, one of you will lift your bat – or the ball – up high. Not just to acknowledge the applause for your personal achievement but, more significantly, to pinpoint that moment when all your hard work, the sacrifices you have made and the expectations of others that you have carried on your shoulders have borne fruit.

“At that moment, you will feel a surge of adrenaline, a moment that trumps anything I have experienced in life because you know how difficult it is, how unlikely it was and, uniquely in your case, you will not only have succeeded as a Test cricketer, but you will have done so as a pioneer.”

If there had been more players like Pietersen, Test cricket’s fortunes wouldn’t have declined. As much as he loved winning, he understood that sport at its zenith is also about transmitting joy, about making people dream. “And last but most definitely not least, when you are at the crease; when you have played yourselves in; when you decide to take the attack to the bowlers, commit yourselves fully,” he told the listening Afghan players. “Not just to attack. But to entertain.”

The doubters expected Pietersen to fall short. Instead, behind the lectern, as he once had at the crease, he hit it out of the park.