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The nomads who went above and beyond for Test cricket

Many of Afghanistan's key players were dealing with great adversity, but they wouldn't let it affect them as they hunted down a maiden Test win

Shpageeza. Pashto for six. Hamid Hassan, the Afghanistan fast bowler, loves to use this word in commentary. Between stints he trains. He wants to make it to the World Cup.
Shpageeza is one word Mohammad Shahzad wants to see introduced in the cricket lexicon. He loves him a good Shpageeza. He is not fond of running. He rarely has to field because he keeps wicket, but for Tests Afghanistan want a younger, fitter keeper. So Shahzad is fielding at third man. A thick edge runs along the ground, only metres to his left. He takes a few strides, the ball is low, thinks of going down, but sticks the left foot out. The ball bounces over it. We all laugh.
Minutes earlier, he was vomiting in the change room. The dinner he had last night hasn't agreed with him. The ambulance has been on standby. This is a tense period of play. Ireland have begun to build a lead despite falling behind in the first innings. We know how difficult it is to chase in India. Shahzad is offered to be taken to the hospital, but he refuses.
He wants to be there. He wants to fight. Afghanistan begin their chase of 147 about an hour before stumps. The ambulance stays on standby. Shahzad goes in, and bats. Bats against his nature. Just like in the first innings, when he took 17 balls to get off the mark. Shpageeza is the farthest thing on his mind. The Test win is. Ireland attack with spin, Shahzad defends, defends and defends. He wants to get through the day and come back healthier. He bats for 33 balls, and doesn't play one attacking shot. He is caught down the leg side minutes before stumps.
Asghar Afghan is running hard for a single. He puts his head down and rushes past the crease, bumps into wicketkeeper Stuart Poynter and injures his shoulder. This is the third ODI, he is in the middle of his innings of 75. He will continue to play the next two ODIs, score 54 and 82, and end up as the highest run-getter of the series, all the while managing an injured shoulder. By the time he takes field on day one of the Test, only the second in the history of Afghanistan, he is not even able to run properly. It's like he's carrying his left arm in a sling. There is no way he is not playing this Test.
Last year Asghar changed his name from Stanikzai to Afghan. Afghan is known to be quite a slow batsman in ODIs; he strikes at 64.5 per 100 balls. In first-class cricket, that strike rate dips only by three points. In this format, he uses the aggressive fields to his advantage. When he comes in to bat, Afghanistan are in the lead, but we all know how their fickle batting is. He has to make sure they take a big lead. He does that with 67 off 92, with four well-thought Shpageezas. These are not hit just for fun or to remove pressure; these are calculated blows to make use of the fields set for him. Every time he hits a six, though, he feels his shoulder.
Rashid Khan is nursing an injured middle finger on his spinning hand. He is more a fingerspinner than wristspinner. He needs that finger. He spends the day before the Test cautiously, having it looked after, walks off with the finger in ice. Rashid has not spent any time at home in nearly a year. This one has been a long gruelling series, the IPL is around the corner, the World Cup is to follow, but there is no way you are keeping him away from this game.
Rashid spends a lot of time in the Test looking sullen and angry. Frustrated that the wickets are not coming as quickly as he wants them. This is no T20, he knows, but this is a low-scoring game and he knows he is the star player and everyone expects him to win Afghanistan the match. His finger is bothering him, but he knows that can't be an excuse if Ireland ask them to chase 200 or above.
It is lunch on day three, St Patrick's Day. Twelve years ago, on this day, Ireland scripted one of the biggest upsets in international cricket, beating Pakistan in the World Cup, ironically limiting their own chances of doing it again because the ICC doesn't want too many teams threatening the big draws of world events.
There is something about St Patrick's Day. They are channelling something. They are thinking of Malahide where they came back in the follow-on, and asked Pakistan to chase 160 and had them in a spot of bother. Third innings of a low-scoring contests are a magical time in Test cricket. They test the fielding side's heart and their tactics. You want to attack, you want to buy wickets, but you know how difficult it can be in the final innings. With every shot, the field takes a few steps back.
Ireland are the more experienced side. They have bowlers with 700 first-class wickets. Afghanistan's players haven't played any first-class cricket since a dismal Test debut last June. They cannot afford to give Ireland a sniff. This is when Rashid picks up his five-for. You have no choice, he says; you just have turn up, bear the pain and keep giving your best for the team. This day is one such.
The trophy is out on display on the fourth morning. There is anticipation. Afghanistan start the day needing 118. Every batsman - and tailender - is preparing himself, taking throwdowns. Rashid has the longest hit. He has been practising batting during every break in the Afghanistan innings. He wants to contribute in every way possible.
Ireland are the more experienced side. They have bowlers with 700 first-class wickets. Afghanistan's players haven't played any first-class cricket since a dismal Test debut last June
Shahzad is not feeling better. The ambulance is still on standby. Yet he is out there, giving the batsmen throwdowns, bowling offbreaks. Asghar's shoulder is still bothering him, but he is out there too.
The biggest hopes, though, are pinned on Rahmat Shah. He has hit a Shpageeza in only two innings in first-class cricket. He is the best technician in the side. Batting coach Nawroz Mangal acknowledges that, coach Phil Simmons knows that, and captain Asghar has told him that. In the first innings, he showed great restraint to get Afghanistan the lead. He fell two short of what would have been a maiden hundred for Afghanistan. He tried to use the vacant third man region but picked a straight ball. The hundred was playing on his mind. "If it is my destiny, I will score it," he says. It's not hundreds that matter; it is the Test win.
Destiny has put him in charge of that win again. He starts the final day with poise, easing it for opener Ishanullah too. The dam breaks with the same shot he played to get out. It does against the same bowler. Tim Murtagh is using the slowness of the pitch to stack up the field in front of square. Rahmat, though, finds the slightest bit of width here and gets going.
Only when the win is all but certain does he try a big shot and gets stumped. The glory of being there escapes him again, but he is the poise this mercurial batting needs. There is no crazy celebration when the win is theirs. Calmly they pose for the team photo. Yet it is way different from the team photo after their debut Test. This is no goodwill gesture from a team that was superior to them and beat them inside two days. This is a hard-earned win.
They are quick to point out this is not a win just for them; it is a win for those who brought them here. Nawroz Mangal, Hasti Gul, Noor Ali Zadran, Karim Sadiq. Hamid is asked to join the team for photographs. Taj Malik, the early mercurial coach and now an Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) official, is brought in too.
Coach Simmons' words from before their first Test come to mind: "Martin Luther King did all the fighting for black equality in the States but he didn't live to enjoy it. That's how things are. People who fight for somethings sometimes are not the people who get to enjoy the fruits of it. That's just how it is."
Simmons is teaching them all the poise they need to go with their talent. Before this Test a player did a video interview wearing a casual shirt. Simmons made sure the interview was redone in an ACB shirt. He makes sure that the team gets together inside the dressing room before it starts all the celebrations and the interviews. Minutes later, they emerge wearing their blue blazers. The same blazers they did Attan in, two days before the Test.
Shahzad has forgotten his illness. He carries the trophy on his head and dances. This trophy will now be carried to Kabul, all in good time for the Afghan New Year - called Nawroz - celebrations on March 21. There will be two T10 exhibition games to go with it, one in Kabul, one in Mazar-i-Sharif. Huge crowds are expected to turn up as they do for every cricket event. The home stint will be short. At the start of April they will go to South Africa for their camp to prepare for the World Cup. They are Test winners, but still nomads.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo