Fans from Afghanistan are excited because they think he can draw attention to the situation at home.

How Bengaluru embraced Rashid Khan as Afghanistan made its test match debutPTI
Sports Sport Thursday, June 14, 2018 - 15:32

A roar of expectation rang around Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru on Thursday morning. It was not Virat Kohli walking out to bat. It wasn’t any Indian player. The crowd was cheering Afghanistan spinner Rashid Khan, who was warming up to bowl the fourteenth over of the game. 

With the ball in hand however, the 19-year-old was uncharacteristically off colour. Two full tosses and a short ball were dispatched for four in his first over by India's Shikhar Dhawan. Few minutes later, he was hit for a six down the ground by the aggressive Indian opener. At this point, the crowd had switched sides yet again and was now cheering the Indian batsmen with every shot.

In spite of the shaky start, Rashid continued to be the topic of conversation in the stands, with some writing him off already and others saying that he needs time to adapt to test cricket. But one thing was certain, his name was on everyone’s lips. 

Bengaluru is not new to talented leg spinners. After all, Anil Kumble, India's most successful wicket taker has a circle named after him not far from the stadium. But on Thursday, there was a sense of recognition among match-goers that this was Afghanistan's moment. 

Every chance created by Afghanistan of getting a wicket was cheered in the first session of play. “There were a lot of ooohs and aaahs earlier on when the fast bowlers were running in to bowl to the Indian openers. The crowd in my section was cheering Rashid Khan whenever he appeared on screen,” says Adarsh, an Indian supporter from Bengaluru. 

India vs Afghanistan at Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru

Afghanistan is making its debut in Test cricket becoming only the 12th country in the game’s 141-year history to do so. The team's debut in the game's longest format marks another milestone in a remarkable rise through the ranks for the war-torn nation. The team, known for its exploits in the game's shorter formats, made its first World Cup appearance in Australia in 2015, winning admirers for its resilience. It famously managed a one-wicket win against Scotland but bowed out of the tournament in the group stage. 

Later in the same year, Rashid Khan made his international debut for the team having just turned 17. Over the next two years, Rashid produced stirring performances including a 7 for 18 against West Indies, the best bowling figures by a cricketer from an associate nation and the fourth best bowling figures in ODI history, to put Afghanistan firmly on the cricketing map.

His reputation skyrocketed after his performances in franchise-based T20 tournaments around the world. He was recruited by Adelaide Strikers in Australia’s Big-Bash League (BBL) and helped his team win the 2017-18 BBL title. But it was in the Indian Premier League (IPL) that he cemented his reputation as a lethal leg-spinner. He took the IPL’s 2018 edition by storm, finishing the tournament with 21 wickets from 17 matches and winning admirers along the way, for his nonchalant style and trademark airplane celebration after taking a wicket. 

As the Afghanistan team takes to the field in ‘test match whites’ and red caps for the first time, Rashid Khan’s popularity is at its peak. Shirts and memorabilia with the Afghan sensation’s name were being sold outside the stadium along with ones displaying ‘Dhawan’ and ‘Kohli’.

Rashid Khan jerseys being sold outside Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru

“He could be the most famous person from Afghanistan because playing cricket is giving him a name around the world,” quipped Anees, an Afghanistan national who is currently studying in Hyderabad and made the trip to Bengaluru to watch the game. “He has never played Test cricket but you can see how good he is, in turning the ball. The kind of change he and the team are bringing about is visible back home. When I went to Kabul for my semester break, I saw that many people are turning to cricket,” he says.

Cricket, which was introduced to Afghanistan by migrants and refugees who learnt to play the game in neighbouring Pakistan, is emerging as a popular distraction for its war-affected residents. There are still incidents that remind Afghanistan players of the devastation in their home country. In May, multiple explosions rocked a cricket match in the country’s eastern city of Jalalabad. An emotional Rashid Khan, who hails from the city, dedicated a man-of-the-match award he won in the IPL, to those who lost their lives in the blast. 

Afghanistan fans pose with Indian fans outside Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru

Afghan fans believe that with his success on the pitch, Rashid Khan can draw attention to the trouble back home. “He is a big deal now, isn’t he? I had to be here to watch him play Test cricket for the first time and I am surprised by how many Indians are cheering for him, along with us. He can draw attention to the situation at home with his performances,” says Farid, an Afghan national who travelled down from Kabul last week.  

It is a responsibility that few athletes around the world have to deal with. And yet, here in Bengaluru, is a team full of players taking to the field in this kind of a situation. "In India, cricket is popular. It is a craze. The same is not the case back home but with more games like this, it can be," adds Farid. 

Afghanistan fans Farid, Shirin Agha and Aneef outside Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru

Farid and his friends however did not have much to celebrate on the field as India dominated proceedings for much of the day on Thursday. Shikhar Dhawan, who was in a punishing mood, scored a century before lunch to put India in a commanding position. 

But regardless of the outcome, a new journey has begun for Afghanistan as it relishes its first taste of Test match cricket. And in India, where the craze for cricket runs high, they have found the perfect place to embark on this epic odyssey. 

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