BANGALORE: Afghanistan were handed a bruising introduction to Test cricket by India on Thursday as they capped their astonishing rise from war and refugee camps to joining the sport’s elite.
Afghan skipper Asghar Stanikzai called it a “very proud moment” as he strode onto to the field at Bangalore’s M. Chinnaswamy stadium for the toss, won by opposite number Ajinkya Rahane.
“All the guys have first-class experience. Hopefully, we can do well. Maybe the first one hour will be a good wicket for bowling,” the 30-year-old batsman said.
Afghanistan have become one of only 12 nations sanctioned to play Tests, the five-day format considered cricket’s peak, after defying heavy odds to emerge as a force in the game.
The hosts gave the Afghan bowlers a tough welcome, however, reaching 158 without loss at lunch as Shikhar Dhawan smashed a merciless, unbeaten 104. Murali Vijay was on 41.
Dhawan galloped to his century in just 87 deliveries, becoming the first Indian batsman to score a ton on the opening day before lunch.
Dhawan hit 19 fours and three sixes as he set about the Afghan bowlers including spin sensation Rashid Khan, smashing three boundaries in the teenager’s opening over to bring up his fifty.
However, it remained a landmark occasion for Afghanistan, whose President Ashraf Ghani sent a message of support and called on other Test-playing nations to try their luck against his country.
“I am proud of the men who championed cricket in Afghanistan in the dawn of the century and believed in themselves that one day Afghanistan will play against the best in the world,” he said.
“Today is that historic day.”
Afghan cricket grew out of refugee camps in Pakistan where many families were based after they fled conflict in the 1980s and 1990s.
The national team has made giant strides against much richer and more stable countries, and despite unrest at home which has forced them to train in India since 2015.
Afghanistan last year achieved full member status of the International Cricket Council, becoming only the 12th Test team.
They gained one-day international status in 2009 and have qualified for their second 50-over World Cup to be held in England and Wales next year.
They have also been part of four Twenty20 World Cups.
Last week they secured a T20 series sweep over Bangladesh helped by spin bowler Khan, 19, the stand-out star of this year’s Indian Premier League.
“The terror in our home area meant we did not have access to an education while growing up. My parents even forbid my siblings and I to play cricket outside our home,” Khan, one of 12 children, said in a recent interview with Afghan media.
He continued, “But no amount of war stopped me from sneaking out to play cricket with my brothers.”
Only last month an attack on a cricket match in Khan’s home city of Jalalabad killed eight people and wounded 45.
While Afghanistan’s successes so far have come in short formats of cricket, they must now prove they can stand the physical and mental challenge of a five-day match.
India’s Rahane, standing in as captain in place of national hero Virat Kohli, said the hosts planned to be tough on Afghanistan as he quickly decided to bat first.
“We are not taking them lightly at all. All opponents are the same, and we wish to be ruthless here,” Rahane said.
The hosts have picked their experienced spin duo of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, leaving out left-arm wrist spinner Kuldeep Yadav