Afghanistan coach Phil Simmons talks about how the side have been preparing, physically and mentally, for their first Test
How ready are Afghanistan for Test cricket?
It is a difficult question. But Test cricket is something they have grown up with. All the other countries, you have something to go by, but Afghanistan don't. It is a going to be a whole new frontier. After the first one, they will have an idea where they have to be.
Do you see it as a disadvantage that Afghanistan will make their Test debut overseas?
I don't think it is that much of a disadvantage because they have never played [international cricket] at home. All they have known as home is basically the UAE and now India. So that is a good thing, from the point of view that India is considered to be home. They feel at home playing here.
When did preparation for this Test start?
The main Test squad, excluding those who played in the Bangladesh T20 series, was in Noida [outside Delhi] from May 10, working on all aspects: fitness, fielding, skills. We have a couple of young bowlers who have been working on the patience aspect, because back home [Afghanistan] you bowl three balls and you are looking for a wicket. [In Test cricket] you bowl 10-15 balls before you start looking for a wicket, and for that to happen, you have to hit consistent areas.
Last week or so, in Dehradun, guys were put in a situation and presented with scenarios and asked how they would bat and how they would come out of those situations. That is the only way you can teach them, prepare them for a Test match. This week, in the last couple of days, it has been all about them going into the nets and trying to sharpen their skills and mentally prepare for the 14th.
Ideally would you have liked to play a warm-up match before going into the Test instead of a T20 series?
We couldn't have a four-day practice before the Test because of the T20 series. But we did have a three-day practice match in Dehradun before playing Bangladesh. All the senior players were playing the T20s, but the others got an idea of being in the field for three days, batting and bowling. But yes, you still would want a big practice match before a Test match.
"At the training camp we worked on making the players understand that there was no problem leaving the ball on the fifth stump ten times in a row"
Have you spoken to the squad about the psyche of Test cricket? What should their emphasis be on?
The thing that I have to mostly harp on a lot is the fact that it's a long game. It is a game of patience, like a chess match. Sometimes it takes five or six overs to get a wicket rather than just one over, or it takes 300 balls to score a hundred rather than just 60 balls. It is about patience. It is about being out there and working hard for a period of time rather than 20 overs or 50 overs.
Did the players have questions for you?
The questions come during practice, where they are trying to adjust between playing shots nearly every ball and leaving a lot more balls, playing defensive a lot more. The question then will come: "Coach, is this what you are talking about?" It is more about how we are doing what you want us to do.
Letting the ball go seems to be a lost art. How do you teach that?
The only way you can learn is by repetition, having specific sessions where you learn that you can leave the ball on the fifth stump, you can leave the ball pitched back of a length, because it will bounce over the stumps. That is what we did for the first week and a half at the training camp - make the players understand that there was no problem leaving the ball on the fifth stump ten times in a row.
How do you teach someone like Mohammad Shahzad, a fearless, aggressive opening batsman, that?
He is experienced enough. And he has showed in many of the practice sessions that when it is necessary for him to leave, he can leave the ball. But he is still going to be his aggressive, fluent self. That you would not want to take away from him. He is one of those that might put you in the game because he can make 50, 60, 70 not out at lunch on the first day because of the way he plays. So you have to let that happen because of his experience. He knows his cricket, so I won't be surprised at anything that he brings to this Test match.
Broadly speaking, the good thing for me is the fact that they have played four-day cricket. There have been quite a few hundreds in the four-day competitions. It means they have batted for periods of time. Shazi [Shehzad] hasn't blasted a hundred in 50 balls [in those matches], he has batted 150-plus deliveries. The captain [Asghar Stanikzai] has had three hundreds in the last few four-day matches Afghanistan played. It shows they can bat for long periods.
Are you confident that the Afghanistan batsmen can last a day in the field?
I am confident because there are a few guys who are technically really good batsmen. They have shown that in ODI cricket. Like Rahmat Shah is a good example of someone who has patience to bat 90-100 overs and is technically sound. That has been the challenge even in four-day cricket. It is not like they are confronting it for the first time. It is going to be more difficult in a Test match, but that challenge has been there before.
What are the basics they need to focus on to survive in Test cricket?
There has to be a lot of patience. Where they are coming from, it is not a patience game - it is an attack game. Though you want to be an attacking Test team, you still have to have patience in some areas, and I am harping on that. For example, how you need to have 190-200 balls against your name before you can think you are even close to a [score of] 100. So for me it is more about educating through consistent repetition of what has to be done, what you should be thinking of.
Which is the core group of players as far as Test cricket is concerned?
The captain is high on that list, as he is the influence behind the whole team. Rahmat Shah is technically the best batsman in the squad. [Mohammad] Nabi, as an allrounder, is another huge influence. The main influence in the team is Rashid [Khan]. We have already seen his influence in white-ball formats, but when you look at his numbers, he has also performed in the four-day competition. But it is going to be a test for him.
Then there is Shehzad. He is a huge influence, because, like I said, he can provide a start that can put others at comfort in the dressing room. He does cause that fear in other teams as to what can happen if he gets a start.
It has been nearly six months since you took charge of Afghanistan. Have you noticed any marked improvements?
There is a lot more thought, lot more understanding, of discipline and professionalism as we move forward. The fielding has improved.
"Shahzad is still going to be his aggressive, fluent self. That you would not want to take away from him. He is one of those that might put you in the game"
Then there are some things that you cannot see from outside. Like the thought about where people want to be - people want to dominate batsmen, people want to be higher up in the world rankings. That has genuinely become part of our daily talk. The hard work that we are pushing them to do, there is no complaint about it, because the players know that has played a big part in where Rashid is now.
Team culture is important in the building of a cohesive unit. How did you go about shaping that?
There are no senior and junior players when it comes to team activities. If we have a training session, everybody trains - unless you are injured. Everybody has bought into it. There is no grumbling. The players have been working really hard over the past several weeks, since we started preparing for the Bangladesh T20 series and the India Test match. That has been a huge positive because in different teams you might have a grumble here and grumble there. The credit should go to the leader [Stanikzai]. With him, and now Rashid and Nabi, two professionals who play around the world, leading from the front and training hard, the team culture and family culture is really, really strong.
What is your view on low fitness levels?
You can be low in fitness, but as long as you are trying to get to where we want you to get, I don't have a problem with that. We have a problem if you are not trying. That problem has not come up.
Players' understanding of the importance of their roles is key in team-building. Is that something the Afghanistan cricketers have taken on board?
You can judge it in different ways. We try and take the pressure off Rashid as far as possible because he is our main bowler. For that to happen, the other bowlers need to perform their roles. The discipline that comes with how the fast bowlers perform or how Mujeeb Ur Rahman performs will help the team eventually. That way everybody understands they have a role to play and they don't sit back and wait for Rashid to arrive to deliver. So everybody knows that they have to do what is exactly their skill in order for the team to be successful.
Passion is something Afghanistan players pride themselves on. How can that quality be harnessed on the field?
That is coming, bit by bit. It shows in the change of discipline on the field. It shows in the change in their fielding. It is being channelled into being better, more clinical, on the field, rather than just being noisy. The passion pours out when we take a wicket, when we field well, but we are trying to harness that passion and make sure that it is used in the right way.
Is Rashid going to be the key bowler against India, now that Dawlat Zadran, the strike bowler, is injured?
Yes, Rashid is the main bowler. He is the lynchpin of our bowling, but everyone else still has to do their job.
Rashid is one of the ultimate professionals I have dealt with in the game. He is positive as far as his mental state is concerned. He understands that it is not going to be like the IPL as in how quickly he has to bowl and how he needs to change the pace. He understands what has to be done to be successful, as he has done in the other two formats.
His strengths remain the same: the amount of the turn he gets when he bowls as quickly as he does, and the consistency of line and length. I don't think there's anyone who gets as many lbws and hits the stumps as he does. That is his biggest strength. In a Test match the more he can make the batsman play at him, the more chances he is going to have at getting wickets.
What will be the X-factor for Afghanistan going into the Test?
Afghanistan's strength will always be in their bowling, and that will stay for a while till we get all the batsmen up to the strength that they are supposed to be. The X-factor is going to be Rashid.
What do you want your players to do in their first Test?
They need to trust their ability because a lot of time when you stand in front of teams like India and Australia, you doubt whether you have the capability of dealing with them as young people. So all I want them to do is trust their ability, because they have the ability to play against these teams. That is the only message I will be giving them to continue to trust their ability.