Ecstatic about two Afghan cricketers bagging IPL contracts, the country’s chief coach Lalchand Rajput believes the gradually-improving team from the war-torn nation will be ready to play Tests in another two-three years. Spin sensation Rashid Khan and all-rounder Mohammad Nabi were picked up by Sunrisers Hyderabad in the IPL auction in February, a first for Afghanistan cricket. “These two guys playing in IPL is not just huge for them but for the entire country. It is hugely motivating for their national teammates as well,” Rajput told PTI. Cricket needs AFG as much as AFG need cricket

“They both are world-class players who will learn a lot by sharing the dressing room with some of the biggest names in world cricket. Going forward, I think the number will only grow (Afghans in IPL),” the former India opener said. “Playing Test cricket has to be the goal. I feel there is still another two or three years before the team is fully ready for the five-day format. A lot depends on the ICC as well,” he added. Afghanistan have come a long way ever since making their World T20 debut in 2010, having qualified for the last 50-over World Cup in Australia.

They recently hammered Ireland across the three formats (ODIs, T20 Internationals, First-Class) in a series played at their adopted home ground in Greater Noida. Rajput, who was manager of the Indian team when it won the inaugural World T20 in 2007, has been Afghanistan’s head coach since June last year and considers the job his toughest challenge yet. “…and that is exactly the reason why I took it up. It is a life-changing experience for me as well, to work with guys who have risen after a lot of struggle and are committed to improve with every game,” he said.

Rajput had replaced Pakistan great Inzamam-Ul-Haq for the coach’s job. The 55-year-old knows that he has big shoes to fill but feels the journey has been satisfying so far. “After taking over I realised that I had to work a lot on the mind and fitness aspect. The batsmen were always on fifth gear and used to throw their wicket away after getting a good start. They don’t do that anymore.

“They value their wicket a lot more now. Fitness wise also the boys have improved a lot and that is showing in their game.”

He has high hopes from the team and has no hesitation in calling some of the players world-class including the IPL debutants. “I feel Rashid Khan is the one of the best spinners in the world at the moment. He is always accurate, bowls a great googly and knows how to vary his line and length. The young boy has a bright future ahead of him. Nabi is another one who can fit into any international side along with top-order batsman Rahmat Shah,” Rajput explained..

After being appointed coach, the former batsman had gone to Kabul for a day and soon realised that players enjoy the status of “demi gods” even though they don’t play at home due to security concerns. Living literally out of a suitcase with the team, Rajput has developed a special bond with the Bollywood-loving bunch.

“They know a lot more about our movies than I do,” he says in a lighter vein. After the IPL we have the West Indies tour coming up which is exciting. The more they play against Test playing nations, the better they get. That is the only way Afghanistan can improve further.

“In fact we have spoken to the BCCI as well for a series. The Indian board has always been there for Afghanistan and I am confident the two teams will be playing each other soon,” he stated.

Rajput concludes by talking about his ultimate goal with the team. “I keep telling the players that in India, we don’t rate someone highly unless he plays Tests. So the players know the value of getting there,” says Rajput, who is with the team on a two-year contract.