Even in defeat, a powerful statement
If anyone feared that Afghanistan might wilt in the spotlight when they stepped up to the bigger stage, their concerns were soon dispelled in Sharjah. True, Afghanistan did not win their first ODI against a Full member nation. But they were not out of their depth, either. They showed that, with a bit more experience and a bit more help, they could be a major force in world cricket. Perhaps more importantly, Afghanistan did the cause of Affiliate and Associate cricket the power of good with a performance that showed that good quality cricket extends far beyond the ten Test-playing nations.
The defining moment of this encounter came within the first hour. Saeed Ajmal, the scourge of England - the No.1 rated Test team, remember - was called into the attack. While some players - some nations - might have taken a cautious approach to the challenge of facing one of the world's great spinners, caution is not the Afghanistan way.
Instead Mohammad Shahzad, a pugnacious cricketer somewhat in the mould - physically and mentally - of Arjuna Ranatunga, produced an audacious reverse-sweep and carted Ajmal's third delivery over the cover boundary for six. It was a stroke that spoke volumes for the fearlessness of his side and exemplified their positive approach. It was also in stark contrast to the timidity shown by England against the same bowler in their recently concluded Test series.
It was the moment that summed up the match and, for that, matter Afghanistan cricket. Some teams might have chosen to ease their way into such a high-profile encounter, but not Afghanistan. Despite being the first Affiliate nation - that is a nation on the third tier of ICC membership - to play an ODI against one of the Test-playing nations, they elected to bat and, within the opening overs, waged an audacious assault upon the Pakistan bowling that saw respected international bowler Umar Gul thrashed for a six back over his head and Wahab Riaz plundered for three fours in succession. Ajmal, used to running through England with unbecoming ease, went wicketless.
We should have known that the pressure of this occasion would not bother the Afghan team. After dealing with war and displacement, the bustle of sporting contest holds few fears. As Keith Miller, Australian cricketer and war time bomber pilot so memorably put it: "pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse; playing cricket is not."
It would be hard to exaggerate how important cricket is to the people of Afghanistan, though. In a recent history littered with division and despair, the sport has unified the nation as perhaps nothing has before. A minister in the Afghanistan government suggested that as many as 80% of Afghans, both living at home and abroad, followed this game. In a country that has experienced more than its fair share of grief, cricket has brought joy. There will surely be more to come, too.
In the end it took contributions from a pair of vastly experienced international cricketers to defeat them. Younis Khan, with a high class innings, and Shahid Afridi, with an excellent display of bowling, ensured that Pakistan were not to stumble.
Afghanistan are far from the first side to fall victim to Afridi's mixture of top-spin, googlies and out-right pace. Muttiah Muralitharan is now the only spinner to have taken more than Afridi's 338 ODI wickets. This was the eighth five-wicket haul of Afridi's ODI career. Only Brett Lee, Murali and Waqar Younis have taken more and, after the game, when Misbah-ul-Haq hailed Afridi as one of the "best one-day bowlers in the world" it was hard to disagree. Younis Khan passed Viv Richards' ODI run tally in this game, too. It is no disgrace to be beaten by a side containing such players.
There were, however, numerous tell-tail signs of inexperience in the Afghanistan performance. The enterprising sixth-wicket stand between Samiullah Shenwari and Mohammad Nabi was ended when the latter, batting very well indeed, let his enthusiasm get the better of him and was run out after backing up too far. Later Dawlat Zadran followed a no-ball with a slower ball so obvious that Asad Shafiq might have had time to read a book before it reached him. He pulled it for four with something bordering on disdain. Four overthrows gifted via a wild and unnecessary throw and a few dropped half-chances did not help, either.
But such flaws are inevitable in a side as raw as this. With more exposure to this level, they will surely improve. This was a first step. And, as first steps go, it was better than most could reasonably have expected. Pakistan won with seven wickets and 77 balls to spare. It will be no surprise if they beat England by such margins, either.
And remember, Afghanistan were without their top strike bowler. Hamid Hassan injured his knee while fielding for the Associate and Affiliate XI team that played against England at the start of their tour of the UAE - he was unable to stop after pursuing a ball to the boundary; a typical example of his enthusiasm - and required minor surgery. It is anticipated that he should be fit for the World T20 qualifiers to be played in the UAE next month.
Where next for Afghanistan in ODI cricket? They play two more ODIs against the Netherlands at the end of March, before travelling to Ireland for two more. At present, there are no more games scheduled against Full Member nations, though ESPNcricinfo understands that talks are on-going with Bangladesh and, as Tim Anderson, the ICC's global development officer, puts it, this match against Pakistan will be "the first of many" games between the sides. Afghanistan are also taking part in the World T20 qualifying tournament in the UAE next month.
Their potential - and the potential of Associate and Affiliate cricket - should not be doubted. It will surely have escaped the attention of few that, while this game attracted a full house of 14,000 spectators, the Tests series between Pakistan and the No. 1 rated Test team, England, was, on the whole, played in front largely deserted stadiums. In the longer term, the ICC and leading Test nations may need the Associate and Affiliate as much as the affiliates and associates need the ICC now.
This match should also have served as an incentive to other nations. If Afghanistan, divided by war for decades, can achieve so much so fast, why is progress so minimal in the USA, for example? As Anderson says, if USA had the governance and administration of Ireland and the raw talent and enthusiasm of Afghanistan, their development would be rapid. The promise of elections in USA cricket next month should be the stepping stone to more accountability and more progress.
"We want to pay special thanks to Pakistan Cricket Board for giving us this opportunity," Nawroz Mangal, the Afghanistan captain said afterwards. "Now we request that the ICC present us with similar chances to play against other experienced sides. If we play against them, we will learn."
Mangal suggested the run-out of Nabi was the crucial moment of the match and suggested that, had he been able to bat for another eight overs, Afghanistan would have achieved their target of a score of between 240 and 250.
"There are lots of teams out there watching this," Anderson said. "And it will show them that, if Afghanistan can do it, so can they. Just walking into the stadium made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Afghanistan are flying the flag of Affiliate cricket. They are showing the huge potential that exists beyond the Test nations."
Pakistan, meanwhile, move on to Abu Dhabi where they will face England in the first of four ODIs on Monday. They have now won their last seven ODIs and 13 of their last 14. It remains to be seen whether England can test them any more than Afghanistan.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo