Afghanistan set to “host” 1st home test in India vs Ireland

For Afghan cricket the series against Ireland includes a debut “home” test match, despite it being on Indian soil in the foothills of the Himalayas.

From where the game was in Afghanistan a decade ago, though, it represents significant progress.

Afghanistan will host Ireland in the northern Indian city of Dehradun for three Twenty20 and five one-day internationals before a five-day test match — only the second for both countries since their admission to cricket’s elite.

Afghanistan lost to India last year in its very first test, and Ireland lost to Pakistan.

Since then both teams have been focused on cricket’s shorter formats rather than the more traditional, longest form of the game. Afghanistan qualified for the World Cup in England after edging out the more experienced Zimbabwe, and will open its campaign against Australia at Bristol on June 2. But the focus for now is very much on the test match, which had to be brought forward by four days so it didn’t clash with the start of the Indian Premier League on March 23.

Afghanistan’s three spin bowlers — Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi and Mujeeb-ur-Rehman — will be featuring in the lucrative IPL, which is now beginning earlier to give all the players rest ahead of the World Cup.

“Keeping in mind the dates of the Indian Premier League, in which three of Afghanistan’s main players will be participating, the dates were slightly adjusted,” Afghanistan Cricket Board chief executive officer Shafiqullah Stanikzai said. “And I would like to thank Cricket Ireland for honoring our request.”

In the absence of Gary Wilson, Ireland will be led by Paul Stirling in the T20s before William Porterfield takes over the captaincy for the ODIs and the test match.

Wilson is still recovering a condition which affects his vision, diagnosed in December last year, and will miss the entire tour.

“It’s a privilege to have been asked to captain the side (and) I will relish the challenge,” Stirling said. “Having started off in this side as a young player in 2008, the influence of senior players like Trent Johnston, Kyle McCallan, Andrew White and Ed Joyce were huge in developing the cricketer and the person.

“It is a big year ahead for us with the T20 World Cup qualifiers coming up in October, so the importance is growing with each game we play.”

Afghanistan selectors have tried to balance experience and consistency with the need to develop more players for the international game, and have made changes to their squads for each format.

Allrounder Sahrafuddin Ashraf, Ikram Ali Khil and 17-year-old left-arm fast bowler Waqar Salamkhail were named among the 14-member test squad as Afghanistan, which didn’t include Amir Hamza and Zahir Khan and three other players who were involved in their country’s inaugural test match.

Ashraf is not part of Afghanistan’s expanded 21-member squad for the ODIs, but will feature in the Twenty20s. Khil will be vying for a spot in the World Cup as he was also named in the ODI squad, but was left out from the T20s.

Afghanistan’s seasoned campaigners such as Dawlat Zadran and Shapoor Zadran have been given an opportunity to muscle their way into the World Cup squad and show their prowess during the ODIs along with hard-hitting batsman Hazratullah Zazai, a rookie spotted during Afghanistan’s domestic T20 league, held in the United Arab Emirates.

Surprisingly Afghan selectors have left out accomplished T20 wicketkeeper-batsman Mohammad Shahzad from the T20s, but the burly right-hander will be in contention to go to the World Cup in England after he was included in the squads for the ODIs and test match against Ireland.

Playing in Afghanistan’s adopted home — India — will pose a stern challenge to the Ireland batsmen, with the wickets likely to suit the Afghan spinners.

But Porterfield was optimistic about his team’s prospects, particularly after giving Pakistan an early scare in his country’s inaugural test match in Dublin last May.

“I expect this to be a great contest away from home,” Porterfield said. “We have a great balance throughout the squad and it’s great to see some new faces get the opportunity.”