The refugees arrive
Shortly after 6pm yesterday, through sheer will power and single-minded belief in their ability, a new country was inducted into the ICC's six teams who hold one-day international status. It is a country more familiar with terror and war than celebration, acclaim and cricket. Afghanistan have truly arrived.
The romance of their story will become diluted and clichéd in a few months' time, if it hasn't already, but now is a fitting time to be reminded of the journey of refugees who have sprung quite literally from nowhere. Many were born in Peshawar, in north Pakistan. Those born in Afghanistan sought refuge from the seemingly endless war against Russia in the 1980s, or from the Taliban, which banned all forms of entertainment. Or from the Americans' Operation Enduring Freedom attempt to oust the Taliban in recent years, the consequences of which still impact Kabul and the country as a whole. In one way or another, through loss of family or the barbed-wire claustrophobia of refugee camps, all the team have suffered.
Like for most children, cricket and sport were an escape, a delicious distraction from the humdrum and rigidity of education or parental control, but moreover from war and the subsequent suffering. Hamid Hassan, a gifted and intelligent fast bowler, learned the game under his elder brother's wing, having seen barefoot and dusty strangers thwack balls on the streets of Tehkal. He only started wearing spikes 18 months ago. Raees Ahmadzai, slightly older, grew up in one of Peshawar's biggest refugee camps, Kacha Gari, which is now closed, and became "the Sachin Tendulkar" of tennis-ball cricket, so renowned was his hitting. He never imagined there was a world outside Kacha Gari, because Kacha Gari was his world. Cricket was his dream, and now acts as a passport to a better life.
And like most people, particularly Afghans who have endured decades of mortars and suffering, hope has been one of the few constants in their lives; hope and the aspiration to achieve something out of nothing, to quash the prejudiced view that all Afghans are fighters. In racing through the divisions of the World Cricket League - the ICC's venerable competition to wheedle the wheat from the chaff - they have proved to themselves that they can achieve something significant. Moreover, their prominence now on the world stage might inspire their countrymen either into playing cricket, or simply believing they too can succeed.
"I think this will give them back their self-belief," Sarah Fane, chairman of the Afghan Connection, told Cricinfo. "If you really work at something, you can make it happen and you can succeed. You don't necessarily need to have the wonderful infrastructure and equipment that [Britain and the West] have got." Fane and her charity have been donating cricket equipment to rural locations, building schools and cricket pitches in Afghanistan. Without her or MCC's interest and funding, cricket might have passed a generation of schoolchildren by. Now, they have role models too.
Too often lately cricket has cosied up to controversy and made a rod for its own back. Not a series goes by when we don't argue over the use of technology, call for the resignation of an umpire or official, or complain at the quantity or gripe at the quality. This level of cricket is not immune to corruption or farce - it's a veritable hotbed of ridiculousness in some cases - but the game is somehow simpler and cleaner. Bat versus ball. Twenty-two people playing cricket. And Afghanistan have epitomised this carefree exuberance of playing a game with no distractions other than their single-minded belief that they can, and will, win.
Their attitude, while refreshing and mildly amusing in its simplicity, has not won over everyone. In Jersey last year, their excitable demeanour and expectation that they were going to play in the World Cup found them few friends on opposing teams. Their attitude, one journalist told me, was to win and not accept second place. They did win, and they have kept on winning through that same formula: a potent and occasionally tangy recipe of talent and belief.
Their victories in this tournament have been notable for their comprehensiveness. Bermuda, whose methods and desire are the complete antithesis of Afghanistan's, were rolled aside dismissively. Ireland, the favourites, and now finalists, underestimated them woefully - albeit on a corrugated pitch - and were bowled out, with Hassan picking up five. Scotland, too, were simply outplayed.
"Good on 'em. They've come a long way and have played in a lot of tournaments just to get this far, so any team that comes from Division 3 or 4 and works their way up to reach the top six, they deserve it," Pete Steindl, Scotland's coach, told Cricinfo. "You don't get there by luck, or without hard work and good performances, so good on 'em." The surprise factor is now diminishing. Afghanistan are a team to be reckoned with, for the time being at least.
With ODI status comes pride, prominence and money, and here is where the caveat lies. Afghanistan remains a nation riddled by decades of war and the Afghan Cricket Foundation has only ever relied on small funding from the ICC, donations from charities, and a sponsor to fund the players' clothes and equipment. The board's make-up will need to be reviewed or expanded, a financial officer employed, a media liaison found, a website built and a development programme put in place. The ICC will help - they have to protect their interests - but the inevitable corruption that exists in the politics of a war-torn nation could easily seep into the pores of baby Afghan cricket. As Bermuda have shown so glaringly, money is not the cure but often the problem. The investment Afghanistan will receive is doubtless exciting, but equally worrisome.
Everything smells of roses tonight, however, and the future seems impossibly bright. For the time being, cricket and its many quirks and irritations has acted as a vehicle for good in a country not used to celebrating. And that in itself is reason enough to cheer for the game and for the refugees who relied on self-belief to get them to the top.
Will Luke is assistant editor of Cricinfo