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Two days before the start of the inaugural Test match, Kevin Pietersen summed up what it meant to play a Test match at the Pataudi lecture. He called it the 'greatest all-round challenge in modern sport'.
A few hours before Pietersen's speech, Afghanistan lined up together after a practice session in full whites, and a bright blue blazer for the official team photographs. They had finished practice only a while ago but their spirits were still high. The players sat first, followed by members of the support staff joining them one by one and all of it finally ended with a raucous laughter and cheering. It was scheduled a day earlier but had to be cancelled because of poor lighting. Even that had resulted in selfies and more laughter. In practice sessions, Mohammad Shahzad pauses his batting stint in the nets to greet journalists. When the bowler, Amir Hamza, comes to explain the imaginary field he has, Shahzad waves him away; Rashid Khan has some fun bowling to clueless tailenders as he fires in his legspinners and follows it up with a word or two.
Being in Bengaluru, they have also called in bat-makers to their practice sessions to test out new equipment. Their first team huddle lasts a good twelve minutes before the players split up in groups but it's a fairly relaxed session. Their practice sessions grow in intensity over the next two days but the final one, as too their first one, is affected by rain. Their line-up too will not see too many of their white-ball specialists crossing over to the longer format. The others have prepared in relative obscurity as the focus is diverted to their known entities, namely their spinners who have done well in the IPL.
India decided that their final practice session before the Test starts is an optional one. It's a process that they have put in place from their previous Test series in South Africa. Their preparations are in contrast to Afghanistan's. They begin their training with intensity a couple of days ahead and leave the day before for rest and recuperation. They do not have their regular captain in Virat Kohli, but it hasn't disturbed them too much. The practice sessions still run like a well-oiled machine. The players don't have to be told what to do except for certain routine instructions. Shikhar Dhawan has a fitness training but doesn't bat, Karun Nair joins Cheteshwar Pujara for slip catching practice on the final day, the bowlers have decided to give the optional training a miss, so has Murali Vijay.
The stand-in skipper, Ajinkya Rahane, like Dinesh Karthik before him plays oblivious to Asghar Stanikzai's comments comparing the spinners of the two teams. They believe that their own experience will matter more in the upcoming days. They have grown used to the excitement of a Test match, and have processes to handle it. From Thursday, Afghanistan's exuberance will be up against India's experience. But Afghanistan will walk out with a sense of achievement to have even come this far.
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