India’s Long Season Ahead And The Afghan Threat To Begin

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JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JANUARY 27: Virat Kohli and his team celebrate the win over South Africa in the final test during day 4 of the 3rd Sunfoil Test match between South Africa and India at Bidvest Wanderers Stadium on January 27, 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

India’s Long Season Ahead and The Afghan Threat To Begin

After a hectic IPL schedule, where either you play a match or you travel on any given day, Virat Kohli’s men are well rested and are now charging up in Bengaluru to kick off their new season. While Virat Kohli has a neck injury which costed him to miss his debut county stint with Surrey, India will look to begin their season on a high note against Afghanistan under Ajinkya Rahane’s captaincy.

There’s no denying the fact that India have been a top quality side in last couple of years. Virat Kohli may have his detractors but he has proved that he is the natural leader of this side. He has made sure players focus on on-field performances as well as on their fitness to succeed in a longer run. The recent exclusion of Mohammad Shami from India’s squad for Afghanistan test shows you have to be above a par fitness level and surely, that par is very high in Virat Kohli’s fitness book.

When MS Dhoni hung up his boots mid-series in Australia 2015, Kohli took the charge of a young and a very motivated bunch of players and since then, India had a long, successful run of nine successive Test series victories under the leadership of a very dynamic and aggressive captain Virat Kohli. The winning streak was ended this year in South Africa after India lost their first two matches of the three Test series courtesy a combined poor show from all specialist batsmen. Though again India were very impressive in the third test and put a stellar show to avoid a whitewash and made it 1-2 on a batsmen’s graveyard pitch which was rated ‘poor’ by ICC.

Time and time again Kohli’s ‘unusual’ style of captaincy has come under scrutiny with various cricket experts disagreeing to his ‘intent showing’ attitude and being over enthusiastic on the field at times. But then again, as long as you are winning no one can question you and if someone does, you can shut them up by winning again. This has been highlights of kohli and his few heated media interactions post matches.
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Consistency is a very important matter of concern when it comes to Test cricket, but Virat Kohli is yet to play the same playing eleven in two consecutive Test matches and it’s unbelievable because he has already captained India in 35 Test matches as a full time captain. Maybe he believes in horses for courses, but some strange selections like Rohit Sharma playing ahead of Ajinkya Rahane and Bhuvneshwar Kumar getting dropped after taking a 5-wicket-haul during the South Africa series were marked as bizarre and irksome by cricket geeks around the world. Kohli was severely criticised for not knowing his core players and being so inconsistent in picking the first eleven.

Despite all that, Kohli has made India the number one ranked Test team in the world and that too by a fair margin over others. But what Virat Kohli would look upon to, is surely improving India’s overseas record especially in Test cricket. India have recently defeated South Africa quite comprehensively in the ODI series but the last time when India had won a Test series outside Asia was in 2009 against New Zealand under MS Dhoni (excluding the West Indies tours). Since then, India has lost Test series in Australia, New Zealand and twice in both England and South Africa. Keeping that in mind, India would surely have to plan it well and not repeat what mistakes they have done previously. India will tour England and Australia this year and at both places India couldn’t win a Test series even under their most successful captain MS Dhoni. India last won a Rest series in England back in 2007 under Rahul Dravid and in Australia, India has never managed to win a Test series till date. They drew the 2003-04 four Test series 1-1. There are three things Kohli and company could do to fancy their chances in England and Australia:

1. A consistent playing XI – India would surely like to fix their top order woes and wouldn’t want to shuffle more among Shikhar Dhawan, Lokesh Rahul and Murali Vijay for two opening slots.

2. Backing the Core – The team management needs to back its core players. Players like Rahane, Pujara and Bhuvneshwar have been assets at the most difficult of times when India sensed trouble. So they need to be assured of their place in the team rather than thinking of their place in the team just after few failures.

3. Give chances to youngsters – Players like Karun Nair surely deserves more chances to prove their mettle at international stage, after scoring a triple ton against a quality England side. Dinesh Karthik (not a youngster though) surely deserves probably a final go in his career based on his current form in all formats of the game, especially after poor batting display by Wriddhiman Saha and Parthiv Patel recently.

This year could bring the best out of Virat Kohli the Test captain and may be the Test season which is very much required to change India’s fortunes on overseas tours. In the meantime India will also host West Indies and will play in the Asia cup this year and they certainly are the favourites to win those. Only time will tell if India will be able to overcome their overseas horrors, but it is pretty clear that they have a team capable of winning anywhere in the world and in all formats of the game.

The Afghan Threat To Begin

India will certainly start as hot favourites to win the one-off Test against Afghanistan despite Virat Kohli not participating. But to completely deny Afghanistan’s chances would be unfair. Just few days ago, Scotland has beaten No.1 ranked England side in an ODI game. Just when the ICC has reduced the World Cup to be just a 10-team affair, the emerging nations are showing why they deserves to play more and more with bigger teams for the betterment of their game as well as Cricket as a global sport. After qualifying for World Cup Afghanistan are all charged up and recently clean swept a strong Bangladesh line up in 3-match T20I series.
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Though limited over cricket can never be compared to red ball cricket, it’s about the rising story of a nation which has emerged in cricket despite having extreme conditions and not so great facilities to find and nurture talents in the countryside. Afghanistan has the no.1 ranked T20 bowler Rashid Khan, who is also no.2 in ODI rankings and has proved his worth in the Big-Bash and the IPL too by deceiving players like AB De Villiers, Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni. Now it’s time for him to use all his variations with all his different hidden grips in Test cricket. He would not like to become next Sunil Narine (just a white ball specialist).  If he continues to bowl the way in Test cricket like he bowls in limited overs cricket, he will surely finish as a great of the game. Too early to say and to put him alongside with the likes of Shane Warne, Kumble or Muralitharan, but I am highly hopeful for Rashid Khan to have a long career in the game. He may remain far behind them in numbers due to lack of opportunities but surely has the ability to surpass them in skill and capability to turn a game on his own.

Afghanistan have highly talented mystery spinner Mujeeb Ur Rahman and they have Mohammad Nabi. Who all would be keen to show their spin prowess at the biggest stage of all i.e. Test Cricket.

On Australia’s last tour of India the spin duo of Nathan Lyon and Steve O’Keefe bundled India out for 105 and 107 on a rank-turner in Pune and helped the Aussies go 1-0 up in the series sharing 17 wickets between them. So if you posses quality bowling, specially spin attack and a decent batting line up to back it up, you fancy your chances to beat India in India. Rashid, Mujeeb and co. would like to do something similar to what Lyon and O’keefe did.

While they have batsmen like Mohammad Shahzad, Mohammad Nabi and the captain Asghar Stanikzai who would like to put up decent total on the board for their bowlers to challenge India. On the other hand, Ajinkya Rahane will lead India in absence of Virat Kohli. Umesh Yadav may get a game in absence of Shami and Karun Nair is likely to get a game. Like always, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja will be the spearhead of Indian bowling in Indian Conditions. And an inexperienced Afghan batting line up will surely find it very tough to cope up with these two.

Karun Nair is technically a very sound batsman and probably no one in Indian side plays the sweep shot better than him. We have seen a lot of that shot in his 303* against England. He can solve India’s sixth batsman problem. He has promised a lot by becoming only the second Indian triple-centurian but some back to back failures afterwards lead his departure from the team. He would be keen to make his mark again and fancy his chances to be an integral part of India’s Test team for the upcoming tours. Umesh Yadav couldn’t get a single game in South Africa despite being highly consistent with the red ball for last couple of years. So he would also be eager to perform here and cement his place in the first eleven. In absence of Kohli the batting onus will mainly be on experienced players Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara and Murali Vijay.

Hopefully the world will see a passionate bunch of players fighting hard to make a mark in Test cricket against the number one Test team in the world. And whatever the result will be, as usual, cricket will be the real winner.

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