Afghanistan head coach Phil Simmons is using the IPL to motivate his players, in a bid to lift Afghanistan's batting to the standard of their bowling in the build-up to the 2019 World Cup. None of the three Afghanistan cricketers to have featured in the tournament so far - Mohammad Nabi, Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman - are batsmen. Simmons believes the widespread recognition an IPL performance can offer players, as well as the experience gained at the league among other such overseas assignments, offers long-term gains for the national team.
"We want to have a batsman in the IPL rather than three or two bowlers and an allrounder, although Rashid will tell me he's an allrounder," Simmons said. "We've seen the batting get better, but we have to get to the level of our bowlers. That's the big focus now.
"Bowlers are our strength, and now we've been working very hard in trying to get the batsmen to understand that they have to meet the bowlers. The bowlers are not going to come down. Even in the Test match against India, that was one of the big things. The batting has to get up there to where the bowlers are."
In that inaugural Test against India, Afghanistan lasted just 66.3 overs across both innings, losing inside two days. In two of their last three ODIs against Ireland, they made 227 and 182 respectively. There's no shortage of talent, but Simmons stresses on temperament, which he feels is lacking and was ruthlessly exposed in the Test. He was, however, heartened by players' self-realisation in the aftermath.
"I think one of the nice things about the Test match is that players now understand the gap between India, the No. 1 team in the world, and us," Simmons said. "They know how hard we have to work to be able to get there, and that has been an enormous help in how these guys train and how much it serves them to get them better. They know this is where we are and this is how we need to work hard to be able to get there."
One of the aspects that gladdened Simmons is the change in attitude of the players. He cited Rashid's example to drive this point. "I think for me, Rashid's biggest thing is the difference in his fitness and mental approach since he went to Caribbean Premier League two years ago," he said. "He looks like a total athlete now fitness-wise. His mental approach has always been strong, but now it is about assessing, 'what I have to do and where I have to go'. Mujeeb himself has come back from that county stint, and even from IPL, you can see he's different in the way he's thinking about his bowling and impact in all aspects of his game, even his batting."
Simmons, however, wanted his two spin trump cards to get over the initial mystery factor and continuously work on their game to offset the danger of overexposure that comes with the amount of T20 cricket across the world.
"The only way you can get overexposed is if you stand still," Simmons said. "If you keep evolving and keep improving your game, and if you keep making sure you are ahead of the batsmen around the world, you are not going be caught. It's up to them to continually evolve and make sure they are having new things so that batsmen will have to come up with new ways to play against them."
Simmons' ultimate goal is to get Afghanistan on par with the bigger teams. For that, he seeks improvements in every training session. If batsman gets out five times in the nets, he challenges them to ensure they are hard to dislodge the next time. If a bowler continuously oversteps, he's immediately in their ears, pointing out where they ought to be landing. It's these minor improvements and adjustments that will, he believes, make the team into a strong force over time.
"From my point of view, it is about how we improve. At the end of the day, winning is important to me," he said. "It's about trying to make sure everything gets to the level of the bigger nations. And two, beating the bigger nations. Winning games against the bigger nations, not just one-off games."
Unlike earlier, Afghanistan now have a lot more avenues to impress and improve. The team's Full Member status allows the players to participate in county cricket. Rashid and Mujeeb have already had stints with Sussex and Hampshire in the T20 Blast. There are players who regularly feature in the IPL, CPL, BBL and BPL. The number of bilateral tours have increased too.
Since March, Afghanistan have played two full tours, against Bangladesh and Ireland (50 overs and T20Is), their inaugural Test, and the World Cup Qualifiers. The Asia Cup and the inaugural Afghan T20 League in UAE later this year present more opportunities. For the moment, Simmons is looking to use the Asia Cup as a springboard to the World Cup.
"We played in Ireland and we realised it's different to Asia. For us, that was the good thing about that series," he said. "Nine months-ten months beforehand we got an idea of what the wickets are going be like in the World Cup. We know now exactly what we have to go back and try to work on, so it was an opportunity for us to make sure that we understand that and know how we have to prepare.
"From my point of view, any tournament you go into, you want to try to win. What we are looking at is how we play cricket and the ability to play our best every time we go out there. If we can play our best - not every player will be at his best every day, but once we can find three or four or five players each day at their best on a day, we know we can be competitive against each team and if they are not at their best, we can win the game. That is what we are looking at, to be at our best; half of the team to be at our best on the day and we'll take it from there."