India vs Afghanistan 2018 Test: Afghans primed for red-ball challenge
Exuberance over experience, the Afghanistan team are geared up for the historic clash against India.
More than 7000 kilometers from the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, where the FIFA World Cup is garnering the majority of the sporting fraternity interest, the Afghanistan cricket team will embark on a new journey, etching their names on Test scorebooks, for the first time in the game's history.
The journey has been remarkable, but this is just the kick-off.
Against them, lies the immediate challenge of the Virat Kohli-less Team India on their historic debut in Bengaluru, an Indian side studded with superstars, fresh after the razzmatazz of the IPL and with one eye on the England tour that falls next.
"The focus has been on tuning our minds, especially because we're coming in after two months of the IPL" - Captain Ajinkya Rahane, a day before the start of the game, stressed on the need for the team to train their minds, rather than skills, against an Afghanistan side that backs on exuberance more than experience.
While this might be a new territory for the Afghans, they've slowly seeped their way into Indian cricket: from Rashid Khan's virtuosity in the IPL to adopting Greater Noida as their second home, Afghanistan Cricket has evolved since being humbled on their first encounter against India, in the World T20 in 2010.
The Rashids and the Shahzads are now names on the lips of Indian cricket fans, but it isn't just about two individuals for the Afghan side this time around. A spin-heavy bowling department bolstered further by two spin all-rounders, will face Rahane's men.
The variety in the Afghan spin will be India's biggest challenge - the home side was seen practising for the imminent spin threat, even employing the likes of Yuzvendra Chahal and Shivil Kaushik in the nets.
For India, the biggest pre-match headache is getting their opening combination right, along with Shikhar Dhawan, Rahane would need to choose between Murali Vijay, who has been India's rock at the top, and KL Rahul, who was in scorching hot form through the entire 2018 IPL.
If India decide to go with four bowlers and one fast bowling all-rounder (Hardik Pandya), then Karun Nair, who has been out of the Indian side for a year and a half, might have to wait longer.
There's no Wriddhiman Saha, whose exclusion has paved the way for Dinesh Karthik to play his first Test in eight years, an opportunity he would look to grab with both hands.
On the bowling front, two of the world's best spinners, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, will be licking their fingers in anticipation: both took six-for in the last Test at this very venue, against Australia in 2017.
From Mohammad Shahzad's boisterous batting to Asghar Stanikzai's stonewalling approach, the Afghanistan batting is an assortment of different flavors - it remains to be seen how well they adapt to the changed format.
Rashid Khan remains the Afghan side's biggest weapon - his googlies and flippers have proved to be a menace for batsmen in T20s, but there won't be hurried strokes or exaggerated strikes in Tests, he will have to continuously derive something off the pitch.
Along with him is finger-spinner Mujeeb Ur Rahman, in line to become the first player born in the 21st century to play Tests. Pacers from both the sides could very well take a backseat, in this spin vs spin battle.
A story that started in a refugee camp, is now in the annals of a 140-year-old sport. Whether they stand against the might of the No.1 ranked Test team, only time will tell.