Win the toss? Check. Score 350-plus? Check. Secure first-innings lead? Afghanistan appeared to be heading toward another affirmative tick mark on that front, too, after a commanding performance on the opening day of their Intercontinental Cup clash with Ireland.
Captain Asghar Stanikzai's third I-Cup century set the pace to give the hosts their best chance at claiming not just the six points on offer for securing a first-innings advantage but 14 more for an outright win that would catapult them past Ireland into top spot on the table. His innings seized on the platform laid by Mohammad Shahzad in the opening session on a day where Ireland's bowlers posed little threat.
In the 33 overs of the morning session, Ireland's bowlers beat the outside edge just three times on a docile pitch. They did their best to prevent Shahzad from running amok, holding the run rate to 2.5 over the first 20 overs as Andy McBrine's first three overs after replacing new-ball seamer Peter Chase resulted in two maidens and the wicket of Shabir Noori, defending down the wrong line to be trapped in front for 15.
Shahzad, who had been batting with a hat on since the 13th over, called for his helmet again in anticipation of a barrage of sweeps to McBrine's offspin. The first attempt in the 21st over produced a boundary that served the dual purpose of unshackling Afghanistan from a tentative start and unsettling Ireland's disciplined early lengths. Two more sweeps off George Dockrell in the 24th and Ireland overcorrected further as Shahzad began to pounce on a series of short balls, slamming John Anderson's occasional legspin for six over midwicket to bring up his fifty in 68 balls.
The Afghanistan opener looked primed for a century after reaching lunch on 69 with the score 112 for 1, but resumed his innings in a lethargic state after the interval and paid the price for a lazy flick to a rank half-tracker from Anderson. It was the bowler's first delivery of a new spell and one that Shahzad would have rocked back in aggressive fashion to swat over the leg side earlier in his innings but a lack of footwork led to his downfall.
Though Ireland applied little pressure with the ball beyond the opening hour of play, Afghanistan's batsmen to that point matched them by operating in first gear. Perhaps sensing the lull that had set in prior to Shahzad's downfall, Stanikzai seemed intent on making a statement by pushing the pace.
After watching Rahmat Shah play out a maiden to Dockrell in the 45th, including an edge spilled by Niall O'Brien at the start of the over, Stanikzai began to twitch and a wild heave against Anderson nearly brought about his downfall but he managed to keep his back foot in the crease after overbalancing. In Anderson's next over, he was gifted a pair of full tosses that were heaved for six and four before a charge down the pitch produced another six in a 16-run over.
Rahmat tried to replicate Stanikzai's aggression but perished in Anderson's next over, edging behind to O'Brien for 46. Nasir Jamal joined Stanikzai and was content to play second fiddle to the captain through the early stages of their 144-run partnership as the captain shifted his attention to Chase. In his first over coming back on for Anderson, Chase was disdainfully flicked for six over midwicket and Stanikzai repeated the stroke a few overs later to bring a run-a-ball half-century.
Like Shahzad earlier in the day, Stanikzai began the post-tea session in a sleepy state, scoring just seven singles off his first 32 deliveries. Jamal happily took charge, smiting Dockrell for three fours and a six in a four-over stretch as the competition's leading wicket-taker continued to struggle with his control. Another boundary over midwicket by Jamal in the 76th over was followed two balls later by a six from Stanikzai to send Dockrell out of the attack.
Ireland took the second new ball straight away and Chase nearly got them the desired breakthrough, Stanikzai driving loosely toward substitute fielder Jacob Mulder at cover - on for Paul Stirling who was off since the 55th over after injuring his left hand attempting a diving stop - but the chance burst through his fingertips on the way to the rope. Chase finally broke the stand in his next over though, getting Jamal for 73 chasing a wide ball for a toe edge behind.
The visitors managed to claim two more wickets by the end of play. McBrine was rewarded for hard toil against the right-handers by getting a crack at the first left-hander to come to the crease, turning one enough to catch Hashmatullah Shahidi's outside edge on a forward prod that carried nicely to Gary Wilson at slip for 2. A silver lining to Dockrell's underwhelming day came courtesy of Mohammad Nabi, who drove to Chase at mid-off for 11, giving the left-armer figures of 1 for 91.
But Ireland could not conquer Stanikzai before stumps. He fittingly brought up his century in 137 balls via a boundary against Chase, the bowler he profited from most. At that stage, Stanikzai had scored 31 runs off just 22 balls he faced from Chase, including three of his seven boundaries and two of his five sixes. Afghanistan scored at four an over with Stanikzai at the crease and with a robust tail behind him, 500 by lunch on day two is realistically achievable before Ireland begin their response.