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Afghanistan face difficult climb up Test ladder

They will only get better the more games they play, but finding games to play might prove a problem

Rashid Khan takes a selfie with the fans, Afghanistan v West Indies, only Test, Lucknow, 3rd day, November 29, 2019

Rashid Khan takes a selfie with the fans  •  AFP

Afghanistan are ranked No. 10 in Test cricket. The same in ODIs. Marginally better in T20Is at No. 8. West Indies are ranked 8, 9 and 10 in those formats respectively. When they play each other, you might think it's more or less a contest of equals. It's not.
The 'contest' is most lively in the shortest format. As the overs grow, so does the gulf. That's why, in the series gone by, West Indies won 3-0 in the ODIs and finished off the lone Test in short time: it took just two days and half a session.
But given how young Afghanistan are in Test cricket, that's to be expected. Unlike, say, in T20s, you can't suddenly be parachuted into Test cricket and win, or even compete in matches because of natural ability. Test cricket demands discipline to a level that you cannot achieve unless you actually play and imbibe it through repeated iterations.
Since their debut in June 2018, Afghanistan have played just four Tests. Ireland and Zimbabwe have two each, but the established countries are all in double digits. Expecting any country to be a force in Test cricket with that sort of playing time is futile. Even after Jason Holder had surprisingly chosen to bowl first on a pitch that assisted spin from the first day, even after the Afghanistan top order carried the team to 84 for 1.
If you don't score big runs against top teams, it does not matter however good a bowling line-up you have
Rashid Khan
Afghanistan captain Rashid Khan was realistic about the path that remains to be travelled. "This is just the beginning in Test cricket for us and definitely, we will be struggling, especially in the longer format," he said after the nine-wicket defeat against West Indies in Lucknow. "We have struggled in the ODIs as well.
"In this Test, we had the best opportunity in the first innings to score some runs to put them under pressure. But again, it's a matter of experience and we didn't have enough. We got the start, we got the partnership initially, but then we just slowed down. In this format, once you get on the back foot against opposition like West Indies, they won't let you get up again. That's what happened with us as well."
Afghanistan had a competent spin attack in Rashid himself, left-arm wristspinner Zahir Khan and debutant left-arm spinner Amir Hamza, but as Rashid pointed out, without runs on the board - Afghanistan got just 187 in the first innings - there was little the bowlers could do. Even in limited-overs cricket, Afghanistan's strength has always been their bowling. In the cauldron of Test cricket, where you can't always hit your way out of trouble, the batting hasn't yet reached a level to consistently make first-innings totals that can give Afghanistan control
"We need to work hard in the batting department when coming up against the big teams," Rashid said. "If you don't score big runs against top teams, it does not matter however good a bowling line-up you have, you will struggle. We did not have enough runs in the first innings, and that let them play freely and get the lead. Again, we did same mistakes in the second innings."
Holder, when asked what advice he would give Afghanistan, agreed that the batsmen needed to step up, but also felt they needed to develop a more rounded bowling attack. Even on a very spin-friendly Ekana Stadium pitch, West Indies benefited from the control Holder could exert at one end with an overall match economy rate of 1.81, while Rahkeem Cornwall spun the Afghan batsmen out.
I always remember a conversation I had with Clive Lloyd, and he would always say he only learned to play Test cricket after three years
Jason Holder
"I think they've got some really good players. They just need to understand the dynamics of Test cricket," Holder said. "You learn it over a period of time. I always remember a conversation I had with Clive Lloyd, and he would always say he only learned to play Test cricket after three years. It takes time to get the hang of it.
"I think they need to rely a bit more on their seamers. Over the month I've been here, they've got some quality seamers. They need to put more confidence in them and try to make a balanced attack. And then obviously their batters have to take responsibility to put runs on the board."
For Rashid, the long-term solution lay in a two-pronged approach - play more Test cricket and improve the first-class structure in Afghanistan.
"As you know, practice makes perfect, and the more you practice in Test cricket, the better it is," Rashid said. "If we were play them (West Indies) again in a Test match in a short time from now, we will know better what are the right things to do and what are the right options against them.
"We need to play the longer format more -- ODIs and Tests. The more we play, the better we will be. It can't be something like you play one Test in a full year, and then you are waiting for the next one. That kind of momentum, the kind of experience and the rhythm you have in that game, that just goes away - if you play after a year. Let's hope (we play more). It's tough for us to get more Tests against big teams, but we are still trying our best to get as many as possible."
Getting Test cricket against the bigger sides is the goal, though with Afghanistan and Ireland not part of the World Test Championship, it is difficult. Equally important, the finances of hosting a Test match don't always work out in favour of several teams.
Former Zimbabwe captain Alistair Campbell, who was one of the commentators for this Test and has been a long-time observer of Afghanistan cricket, reckoned that this game would have set back the Afghanistan Cricket Board by a considerable amount, with no revenues to show for it.
The match wasn't broadcast on television in India, even though it was played in Lucknow, with no takers for the rights. "It's great that Afghanistan have got some more Test match playing experience, but with the costs involved, it's difficult for teams like them to host Tests on a regular basis," Campbell told ESPNcricinfo.
It's a challenge alright, but what Afghanistan can do is strengthen their first-class system. The Ahmad Shah Abdali four-day tournament is the main first-class competition, and Rashid felt it needed some investment and fine-tuning to come up to speed.
"We need to work a lot on our first-class cricket. It is still struggling there," Rashid said. "The quality is not as good as it should be, being a Test nation. Once we get the quality, the first-class structure, and stuff like that in place, then it will be easy for us to adjust to the longer format quickly. We should focus more on longer formats back home, like 50-over cricket and four-day cricket.
"We are famous for T20s, people love T20s back home, but where we are struggling is the longer format. Improving in that comes from domestic cricket. Once we have a proper domestic structure for first-class cricket, we can be better in the longer formats in the future."
Given the difficulties of playing Test cricket regularly, that might well be Afghanistan's best option for the near future.

Saurabh Somani is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo