Jubilant Afghanistan seek tougher opponents
Noor Mohammad Murad, the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) chief executive, has hailed his team's achievement of qualifying for the 2015 World Cup as a great moment in the country's history, and said that it was the start of a new journey during which he wanted Afghanistan to be compared with Full Member nations. Afghanistan secured their passage to Australia and New Zealand by beating Kenya 2-0 in the World Cricket League Championship in Sharjah.
"It is a great moment in the history of Afghanistan," Noor Mohammad told ESPNcricinfo. "We have been waiting for this so long and these moments are not only huge for our cricket but for the entire nation. We have brought happiness to the faces of 30 million people back home, and it's a proud moment for us that we became the reason to unite the nation.
"Our journey doesn't end here. It's a start of another phase and a new journey. We are not going to relax, we have a lot to do ahead of us. We have beaten all the Associate countries comprehensively and now we have set our sights at the next level to play Full Member [nations]. We want to be compared with the Full Member countries, and not at the Associate level. We want to rise more and more, and seek tougher opponents to play us."
About 3000 fans packed the field at Kabul's only cricket stadium to watch the match against Kenya on a big screen, with noisy chants and dancing marking each boundary the Afghanistan batsmen hit. AFP reported that celebratory gunfire rang through the air in Kabul and the eastern city of Jalalabad. Large crowds also celebrated in the southern city of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban movement, where police had issued strict warnings before the game that people should not celebrate by firing guns in the air.
"With cricket, we can change the face of the country and change the perception about us," Noor Mohammad said. "Around 75% [of the] population resides in mountains, but cricket bought them on the ground as a unit and they cheered for one cause. Our youngsters are thinking ahead of the war and changing things around them. Winning the World Cup berth can innovate the youth and help them transform their mind-set."
Qualifying for the World Cup has given Afghanistan a massive financial boost. They will receive $1 million from the ICC as preparation fee for the tournament, in addition to the $422,000 awarded in April as part of the ICC's Targeted Assistance and Performance Programme. In 2014, the top Associate and Affiliate Members - including Afghanistan - will also receive approximately $750,000 through the ICC Development Funding Policy.
"We have a plan in place on a daily basis ahead of the World Cup, with the ACB guarding against complacency," Noor Mohammad said. "We have specific plans for the development, skill building and improvement of the fitness of our players. We are not going to take a back seat, ensuring that things move forward with consistency."
"Apart from the common man in the country, cricket is being taken beyond just a game. The political figures in the country are taking a keen interest, with his highness, Hamid Karzai [President of Afghanistan], calling me personally on the success."
Afghanistan will be part of Pool A in the 2015 World Cup, alongside Australia, New Zealand, Bangladesh, England and Sri Lanka. It has been a remarkable journey, one that began in the ICC World Cricket League Division 5 in 2008. In 2010, Afghanistan qualified for the World Twenty20 in West Indies after they beat UAE in the qualifier. They then finished second to Ireland in the qualifiers in 2012 to play the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka.
Earlier this year, the ACB had signed a deal with the PCB with a view to develop their national players within the well-established Pakistan cricket infrastructure. Noor Mohammad hailed the support of Pakistan, but lamented the lack of response from India and Bangladesh.
"We have been writing [to the BCB] for the last one-and-a-half years to play us, but they are not responding positively," he said said. "We are not expecting India to play us, but they can offer us the support through an exchange program for our U-19s, and can help in their development.
"They are our neighbours and have a bigger cricketing history than us. We have seen the example of England supporting Ireland and Scotland, and South Africa helping the other African countries, but we are really disappointed to see the lack of practical support by India and Bangladesh."
Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent. He tweets here