“The celebrations have been premature and, honestly, puerile. It is time to plummet down to earth, or to the drawing board, and chart the next plan of action”
It queers every pitch, does it not?
Mad passionate romance, fierce fire of excitement raging through the first week, becomes tepid, strained, run-of-the-mill mutual tolerance within the course of a year.
A fascinating head-turning interview, which has all the members of the panel drooling, often results in bad recruitment of an inconsistent performer, a work-shy, whining, unproductive overhead.
Phenomenal dribbling skills demonstrated during brief training sessions can fizzle out into frustrating non-performance through a 90-minute period, we are not even discussing a full season.
The story is the same.
The nuggets of potential can be present in loads, exciting, promising, in some cases incredible enough to border on the out of the world. Say, for example, Rashid Khan’s leg spinners. In small windows of display, these may seem bursting with possibilities.
But when time becomes a real factor, stretching the show to a significant length, broadening the stage, these very ingredients of success need to be seasoned and spaced appropriately to ensure the well-rounded product.
Else, all the promise collapses into a ginormous innings defeat within two days. Heck, they could not last the second day … batting two innings … after India had consumed as many as 26 overs in the morning.
Test cricket has this time factor built in, the element that makes it necessary to develop not only skills that make you proficient in the game, but also the temperament, stamina and serenity to blend the skills into prolonged phases of sustained performance.
Afghanistan may have a stupendous record in T20Is and ODIs, and they do. Their track record in the shorter formats of the game are admirable even if we take the non-Test-playing nations out of the equation.
The batsmen can play strokes, some of their bowlers have talent and variation. Rashid Khan is a leg-spinner with most of the weapons in the traditional wrist-spinner’s arsenal.
But unleashing these skills over 20 overs or perhaps 50, or in the case of a leggie over four or ten overs, is one thing.
Making these very set of skills work over five days, or making the leg-break, googly and the top-spinners tie their distinct threads of magic into a confusing tapestry across 30 overs in a day … these are completely different ball games.
In many aspects of cricket, variations are the key. But when time comes into the picture, variations need to be used with more discretion and less profligacy.
Let us carry out some basic arithmetic here.
A mystery spinner in a T20 match. There are so many of them. Why do so few graduate to Test cricket?
Over 24 balls in an innings, one has the luxury of a huge ratio of different varieties of deliveries. Say one has 6 different kinds of balls he can bowl. He has to bowl only four of an individual kind, and mix everything together to produce something like an endless mystery. That is T20 magic.
Now stretch it to a Test match. He still has 6 different kinds of balls. He has to bowl 150 deliveries in a normal day, or 240 in an innings. The ratio of types of balls to a total number of deliveries is not that great now. He has to ration the variations. He has to develop more skills, subtle variations of flight, pace, angle … supplementing the basic mystery of his bowling. Else, during the course of a long innings the mystery is unravelled. And the bowler becomes just another unusual one whom good batsmen can easily score off.
Hence, we see very few mystery spinners of the T20 game extend their run into the Test world.
Let us turn to batting now.
An incredible array of strokes that allows one to hit a number of unthinkable strokes. And if one gets out after a cameo lasting 20 balls, it does not really matter in the shortest format. Across 50 overs, perhaps a bit more watchfulness is required. But the team has to bat for 50 overs or 20 … Reverse sweeping the first ball one faces from a world class spinner can often end up not making a huge dent to the team’s cause.
In Test cricket, shot selection is way more important. Because of the time factor that plays such a vital role. One can score at very brisk pace, and most of the great batsmen have done that. But the occupation of the crease is also essential. The loss of a wicket matters a great deal more.
A delightful couple of flicks through the on side, the nonchalant lofted drives off Ravi Ashwin that resulted in boundaries, all these show that there are the basic skill ingredients in the Afghan batsmen.
But the primary requirement of batting through long periods is lacking … lacking rather desperately.
It is like trying to build a house with all the architectural brilliance without the fundament to hold it together.
The T20I success, the relatively promising ODI showings, all these were excellent. But the hype has been way too premature.
Afghanistan captures the public imagination because there is always a tendency to support the underdog. There is always sympathy for a phoenix rising out of flames. The troubled history of the country makes for incredible romanticism when it comes to their steep rise in international cricket.
However, there is one plot hole in the story. Test cricket has no place for romanticism. Else Archie Jackson, who died young at 23 because of tuberculosis, would have actually been a better batsman than Don Bradman. People often make such claims. He wasn’t. No one was. Record books tell us that. So much for romanticism.
Don Bradman himself would not have been bowled for a duck in his final Test innings. He was.
Test cricket does not run on romantic perceptions and ideologies. One has to hone the skills and become adept at the game, and performance is reflected in the scoreboard.
If the scoreboard at the end of the Test is any indicator, Afghanistan is some light years away from mastering the five-day format.
The celebrations have been premature and, honestly, puerile. It is time to plummet down to earth, or to the drawing board, and chart the next plan of action.