Big stage, big dreams
The Afghanistan team's growth will get a boost when they play their second major international tournament over the next few weeks. Their matches against Pakistan and Australia earlier this year drew a lot of interest among cricket fans despite the contrasting calibre of both teams. But away from the mystique attached to a cricket team from a troubled land, and the live television coverage, they are a team that is simply a work in progress at a competition to which they bring an unmistakable spirit.
Like other top Associate and Affiliate nations, Afghanistan's enthusiasm for the game hasn't been satiated by participation in the Intercontinental Cup and the World Cricket League Championships. After completing qualification for the Sri Lanka event, they were invited to take part in the Port-of-Spain Twenty20 tournament. They ended up as champions, winning $50,000 ahead of Bangladesh (playing as BCB XI), Barbados and the hosts Trinidad & Tobago. But these competitions are still a world away from the cauldron of the World Twenty20s where they have to get everything right against India and England, their group stage opponents.
As can be expected from a team that relies on raw skill, Afghanistan have plenty of batsmen who take the aerial route. Mohammad Shahzad will get things rolling alongside the young Javed Ahmadi. Karim Sadiq, captain Nawroz Mangal and Asghar Stanikzai make up the middle-order, with all three capable of attack. Mohammad Nabi is the star big-hitter and has been recently used up the order to further their attacking ambitions.
They missed fast bowler Hamid Hassan for eight months this year but his return as the team's leading bowler would help the likes of Dawlat Zadran and Izatullah Dawlatzai who carried the attack in the interim, with left-arm pacer Shapoor Zadran also helping out. Samiullah Shenwari's leg-breaks and the off-spin of Nabi bring variation but against the big hitters of England and India, the spinners' eight overs would be heavily tested.
Afghanistan should give their group A opponents, as strong as they maybe, reasons to worry. After all, England knows all too well what it's like to lose to one of the smaller teams in the opening game of this competition.
Mohammad Nabi can hit the ball out of a stadium, as Xavier Doherty would know so well. Despite the big-hitting ability, he is still regarded mainly as an offspinner. He has form on his side though, having won the Man-of-the-Series award in the Trinidad tournament. And if the four sixes against Australia is any evidence - three belted down the ground and one high over midwicket - he could be a threat to a few reputed bowlers.
Though Hassan would roar in with the new ball, with or without the head-band, as the team's most recognisable player, Mohammad Shahzad's aggressive start with the bat could make him the headliner. He is the team's leading scorer in ODIs and T20Is, with more than 1000 runs which includes three hundreds and six half-centuries. The 24-year-old Shahzad also doubles up as Afghanistan's wicketkeeper.
Afghanistan are still relatively an inexperienced side and are yet to get enough exposure at the highest level. They might have improved as a team, their batsman and bowlers have all the basic skills, but they lack the experience which other teams fall back on in times of distress.
World T20 history
Afghanistan began playing ODIs in 2009 and the next year they secured a berth in the World Twenty20 in the Caribbean. They were expectedly knocked out from the preliminary stages after losing to India by seven wickets and South Africa by 58 runs, though they did restrict the latter to a score below the 150-mark. They made it to this tournament through a long qualifying campaign held in the United Arab Emirates in March this year.
Afghanistan has had a quiet build-up to the World Twenty20s after confirming participation in this tournament. They were beaten by Australia by 60 runs but it didn't break their spirit. They won two games in the Trinidad tournament and also defeated Sri Lanka A in their first practice game in Colombo. They however lost to West Indies by eight wickets on Monday.
Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent; Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent