<
>

John Mooney's Test debut with Afghanistan

"This is almost beyond dreams. It's crazy" Afghanistan Cricket Board

On May 8, John Mooney sent a message to William Porterfield, the Ireland Test captain and a close friend since the two were former team-mates from the days of "under-age cricket" and after.

Mooney and Porterfield used to have a routine when they played for Ireland. Usually Mooney would be at cover and Porterfield at backward point. "As everybody would get ready to get into their final positions, before the first ball was bowled, we used to have a moment between us where we would rev each other," Mooney says. "We prided ourselves on our fielding. We would never let any batsman, any team, hit a ball past us easy. Opposition teams felt that. We lived for those moments."

When Ireland made their Test debut last month, against Pakistan in Malahide, Porterfield was at backward point, as usual, but Mooney was in India, with the Afghanistan team, in Greater Noida, on the outskirts of Delhi.

He kept up with events back home, watching as much as he could on TV, listening to former Ireland fast bowler and another good mate, Trent Johnston, on commentary. "As the guys went out on the first day, I shed a little tear," Mooney says. "I was so proud. It was such a big moment for us as cricketers in Ireland."

The message he sent Porterfield was simple. "I said to him, that [pre-fielding] routine was one of the biggest things I missed about playing for Ireland.

"I also told him how proud I was of him, how much he deserved this moment, and how hard he had worked for it - because people would not understand the work ethic of a William Porterfield."

Mooney could relate to the emotions felt by the Ireland players in Dublin. And when Kevin O'Brien became Ireland's first Test centurion, Mooney's eyes were moist. "Kevie's knock was just out of this world," he says. O'Brien and he could each hear the other choke as they exchanged voice messages. "I still felt a part of it," Mooney says.

"I am not going to lie, I was extremely jealous of our guys getting presented with their Test caps. Going through the whole pageantry of it all, I was very, very jealous, but at the same time very proud."

Mooney has been part of various historic moments in Irish cricket. He played three World Cups, and hit the winning runs against England in 2011. He almost singlehandedly beat Afghanistan in the 2013 Intercontinental Cup final. He is still represents the gold standard in Irish cricket, but having retired from playing in 2015, he missed out on the team's latest landmark.

"I was extremely jealous of our guys getting presented with their Test caps. Going through the whole pageantry of it all, I was very, very jealous, but at the same time very proud"

Mooney may not have a Test cap, but on June 14 he will walk into the M Chinnaswamy stadium in Bangalore, his chest swelling with pride. On that day Afghanistan will become the newest Test-playing country. And as their fielding coach, it will be a Test debut for Mooney too.

As a boy growing up in Dublin, Mooney would watch England Test matches on the BBC every summer, and that is how he developed a love for Test cricket. "That was the cricket I grew up watching. Me, my brother, my dad, my uncles, we'd end up laying in the back garden in the evening."

It never occurred to him, though, that he would ever come close to playing that format. As a kid, for Mooney the desire was about playing ODI cricket for Ireland - which he did 184 times.

"Well, I would have dreamed of playing Test cricket, obviously," he says, "but I wouldn't have ever believed it could have happened. So now, this moment, to actually be building up and going into a Test match is surreal. This is almost beyond dreams. It's crazy."

***

When Mooney entered the Afghanistan dressing room for the very first time, in January this year, he had a lot of apologising to do. As a player he was always in the face of the opponent, and Afghanistan, as biggest rivals, copped a fair bit of it.

Raees Ahmadzai, one of the assistant coaches, reminded Mooney about some "pushing and shoving" once. In the past, Mooney had also had heated exchanges with a number of the senior Afghanistan players, including the captain Asghar Stanikzai, Mohammad Shehzad, and Nawroz Mangal, now the chief selector.

"Afghanistan came really hard at Ireland," Mooney remembers. "They beat us a lot. We beat them also. I never held back as a player. The Afghans never held back as players. We had some frosty, confrontational moments, when we were playing against each other, so the first couple of days [as fielding coach] there was a bit of sorting things out - me apologising, them apologising."

Every Afghanistan player seemed to have a story about Mooney, and the banter of those early days allowed a mutual respect to be built and a bond to be established.

Mooney has picked up a few words of Pashto - for example, for colours and numbers - which he uses during fielding drills. "It is nice to learn a bit of their language. I know enough for them to respect that I'm trying my best to interact with them in a way that is comfortable for them."

His influence is beginning to show in Afghanistan's fielding - the standard of which was most recently on display in the 3-0 whitewash of Bangladesh in the T20 series last week in their home base of Dehradun in India. All the Afghanistan fielders showed incredible energy, reflexes, proactiveness and presence of mind to create an impact in the field.

Take the final ball of the final T20, off which Bangladesh needed four runs. Ariful Haque slogged a drive over wide long-on off a googly from Rashid Khan. Even as Bangladesh's hearts soared in the expectation of victory, the flight of the ball was dramatically cut short by the outstretched left hand of Shafiqullah, who leapt from seemingly nowhere to slap it back inside the boundary, made sure his body was not touching the rope, and then watched as Mohammad Nabi, who had charged in from wide long-off, threw to the keeper's end, catching Mahmudullah short as he attempted to take the third run.

Mooney was in the dugout. "I explained to the guys at the end that it was no fluke," he says, "because Shafiq practises that every day.

"He is an extremely hard worker. He pesters me to hit catches. He does it so he can take diving catches, flick the ball inside the ropes, and do all those types of crazy things. I was just a little surprised because he was a couple of yards out of position, which made it that bit more difficult. He had the presence of mind to let go of the ball and get back in.

That was the third run-out (out of the six wickets that fell in the innings) Afghanistan pulled off in the match. Of the other three, one wicket came when Samiullah Shenwari, a stockily built man, flung himself to his wrong side to grab an unthinkably low catch at cover to send back Bangladesh captain Shakib Al Hasan. It was a turning point, Mooney says, because Shakib had hit Karim Janat for a six off the first ball of that over.

"If you watch the catch again, Sami's footwork, he took two or three quick little steps to get into the position before the full-stretched dive. It was a bit of surprise because it was such a special catch: to be able to dive that distance, catch it one-handed, keep it clean. The hardest part about such catches is when you actually hit the ground - sometimes the ball might jump out of your hands. It was a real big moment." Such spectacles were rare when Mooney played against Afghanistan.

When he took up the positon of fielding coach, Mooney had already worked out his first priority. "Fielding was not their strongest point. Sometimes they lacked the energy, sometimes they lacked the awareness. Their catching was hit and miss at times. They could do really well and not drop catches, but then there would be phases where they could drop two, three, four catches in a row. Sometimes they would panic. And they got very excited on the field. So the biggest area I wanted to improve straightway was catching."

Mooney pulled up the numbers, which showed that Afghanistan were, on average, missing nearly two chances per match, nearly one every 25 overs. "That was really startling," he says. Mooney was blunt: he told the Afghanistan players they could not find excuses and blame the sun, floodlights or anything else for drops.

"Now the way they are going about their business, it is [about] 40 overs that they are missing a chance." According to Mooney, in the four matches against Bangladesh - including the warm-up, which Afghanistan A won - only one catch was dropped.

"Mooney put in place a rule that if a player dropped a catch the entire team, including the fielding coach, would do a set of drills. The message he looked to send out was: If they drop a catch, it reflects on me"

"That has helped me moved the focus to the ground fielding - their awareness, their speed to the boundary. We have hardly given a two on the boundary or an easy single in the ring. I have just sat back and have had enormous pride in the way they have gone about their fielding."

Mooney's audit also found that Afghanistan were, on average, pulling off a run-out every three matches. That has now come down to nearly one per match.

"That is fantastic," he says. "With our bowling attack the way it is, if we can create pressure on the field, the batsmen are under some serious pressure, because they know they have to score off Rashid, Mujeeb, Nabi, Dawlat. If you can't rotate strike off Rashid, eventually something is going to happen -you might have to play a release shot to get a boundary, or that release shot might well be your undoing."

Mooney's energy as a coach is infectious. Monty Desai, who worked with Afghanistan as an assistant coach (batting) until April this year, says Mooney likes to "own" the field during drills. "In the first few days itself it was evident that he was bringing in plenty of energy." Desai remembers Mooney himself doing tests set for the players by the team's strength and conditioning coach to increase their fitness.

As Afghanistan get ready for Test cricket this week, Mooney has identified his slip fielders and those who will guard the outfield. He will be setting "tough targets", and will stress to the players that they absolutely cannot afford to drop their vigil and focus. "If they drop maybe two catches, well, then they will be out in the field for an awful lot longer.

"I am stressing that point that they can't drop the concentration at any stage. It is a bit of a punishment system, but it is working well with them. You don't want to be on the field for 120-140 overs. When that opportunity comes to you, you don't have any excuse."

When Mooney started in the Afghanistan job, he put in place a rule that if a player dropped a catch, the entire team, including the fielding coach, would do a set of drills: push-ups, sit-ups and a sprint. Although that rule isn't in place now, the message he looked to send out was: I will work with them. If they drop a catch, it reflects on me.

"They quickly learned to take their catches," he chuckles.

Mooney, Desai says, values a committed work ethic and a good team culture. Desai had worked in different roles with franchises in T20, but the Afghanistan job was his first with an international team. He needed all the guidance he could get and found Mooney happy to extend a helping hand. He would run in and deliver his swing bowling in the nets, and help Desai provide inputs to the Afghan players.

It is Mooney's first time back in Bangalore after the win against England in 2011. He cannot wait to get back on the pitch. "I am going to close my eyes and I am going to try to relive all 33 of the runs that I scored that day and all four wickets I took."

He will also sing along to the Afghan national anthem - the last part of which he now knows by heart. "It is all about Afghanistan," he says. "I will sing along. I'll sing that quietly to me. I have really, really taken to these guys, taken to Afghanistan, to their culture."