Afghanistan's remarkable rise achieves new heights
The rise of Afghanistan cricket is, as Tim Anderson puts it, "a wonderful story". Anderson, the ICC's global development manager, has hailed the rise of Afghanistan cricket as "a shining example" and praised the team's remarkable ability to "overcome every challenge that has confronted them".
Afghanistan take the next step in their remarkable journey on Friday when they play Pakistan in an ODI in Sharjah. It is Afghanistan's first ODI against one of the ICC Full Members and the first ODI between a Full Member and an Affiliate nation. A crowd of up to 14,000 is anticipated - more than watched any day of the recently concluded Test series between Pakistan and England in the UAE - and the match will be broadcast to millions more by Ten Sports.
The fact that Afghanistan remains, for now, an Affiliate member of the ICC - the third tier of membership, below the ten Test-playing nations and the 36 Associate nations) speaks volumes for their swift progress. As recently as 2008, they began in Division Five of the World Cricket League, playing the likes of Jersey, Botswana, Vanuatu, Japan and Nepal. They are now in Division One, pitted against Ireland, Kenya, Scotland and the Netherlands.
In Twenty20 cricket, they are already outdoing several Full Member nations. They are ranked ninth, ahead of Zimbabwe and the currently unranked Bangladesh. From a standing start, cricket is already arguably the most popular sport in Afghanistan, with around 50,000 participants, and crowds of up to 5000 watch domestic matches. By any standards, that is remarkable progress.
That said, 2011 was a quiet year. They played only two ODIs, beating Canada on each occasion, having missed out on World Cup qualification because of a system that rewarded success a couple of years previously rather than current merit. They would have enriched the event had they participated.
They did feature in the 2010 World Twenty20, however. While they lost both their games - India and South Africa were the opponents - the experience helped to identify weaknesses that need attention. Their fielding and bowling were fine, but against the pace and bounce of the best international bowlers, there was room for considerable improvement.
There are plans for them to acquire Associate status and, with it, extra ICC funding. Achieving that will depend on far more than playing ability. They will need to prove evidence of sound governance and an administration system, publish accounts, draw up strategic and operational plans, agree upon a constitution, and run annual meetings. A junior development programme would also be a tangible sign that the undoubted enthusiasm that exists for cricket in the county is being put to practical ends. It will be a surprise if Associate status is not achieved before the end of 2013.
At present the ICC provides about $700,000 a year in funding. Based on current distributions, that will rise by around $150,000 once Associate status is assured. There are several other funding sources for cricket in Afghanistan, however, with numerous organisations recognising the positive social influence that sport, and cricket in particular, can play in a country that has experienced so much hardship over the last few decades. The ICC estimates that its funding only equates to about 30% of the money coming into Afghanistan cricket.
It is fitting that Pakistan are the first opponents. The seeds of Afghanistan cricket were sown in Pakistan in the 1980s, when a group of young men, dispossessed by the Soviet occupation of their country, were exposed to the game in refugee camps in Peshawar. Many of the current Afghanistan squad were born or raised in Pakistan after their families fled the war-torn land. Most have now returned home.
Pakistan has, of late, taken a paternal interest in nurturing its neighbour's development. Last year several matches between Afghanistan and Pakistan A provided a gauge of their current progress as well as valuable experience. There may well come a time when Pakistan benefits from this investment too. Several Afghan players might, before long, be attracting the attention of the Pakistan selectors in much the same way that England has benefited from the recent resurgence in Irish cricket.
One man who might well interest the selectors of many international sides is Hamid Hassan. The 24-year-old fast bowler is capable of generating speeds of over 140kph, swings the ball both ways, and when he represented the MCC in 2007, became the first Afghanistan cricketer to play at Lord's. He dismissed Andrew Strauss and Jonathan Trott in his opening spell while representing the Associate and Affiliate XI against England at the start of their current tour of the UAE and won a contract to play in the Bangladesh Premier League. Sadly, it appears injury will prohibit his involvement in this game.
Mohammad Shahzad, a feisty wicketkeeper-batsman who made half-centuries in both innings of that game against England, is another whose progress should be monitored. Mohammad Nabi, an offspinning allrounder who took five wickets in the match against England, is also a fine cricketer. While Pakistan will be overwhelming favourites in the ODI, victory is no foregone conclusion. As Anderson remarked, when you have experienced bombs, bullets and life in a refugee camp, the "pressure" of a cricket match does not amount to much. Afghanistan will not wilt in the spotlight.
In the medium term, their opportunities to play against full ICC members will depend largely upon qualifying for major events. While there is talk of an ODI against Bangladesh, there are currently no more scheduled games against Full Member nations. The FTP limits the possibilities of such encounters. Afghanistan do, however, have a decent chance of qualifying for the 2015 World Cup - there are four qualifying places up for grabs - while, more immediately, they have an opportunity to qualify for September's World T20 in Sri Lanka. The qualifying tournament - a 16-team event - takes place in the UAE in March. Only two teams will make it.
In the much longer term, it is going to be hard - morally, in particular - to limit the likes of Afghanistan and Ireland to World Cricket League encounters. Promotion and, as a consequence, relegation between the WCL and the Full Member nations seems like an obvious incentive and a way of generating spectator interest. As ever with these things, the self-interest of the main Test-playing nations may delay such a step. In the long term, however, it may well happen.
Cricket is not and never has been all about winning and losing. Whatever happens on Friday, Afghanistan cricket can take enormous pride in the swift progress they have made in recent times and look to the future with a sense of optimism that would have been impossible only a few years ago. Cricket, like Afghanistan as a whole, has many issues; many problems. The example of the Afghanistan cricket team reminds us that the game can transcend them.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo