Where do Afghanistan go next?
"From refugee camps to the World Cup" is a great headline. But it doesn't reflect Afghanistan's cricketing rise. For all its attraction as a "good-news story", there was nothing surprising about Afghanistan's World Cup qualification, which merely confirmed their status as Ireland's pre-eminent rivals in the sport's second tier.
Afghanistan has an older relationship with cricket than you might think: there are tales of locals playing with British soldiers in the Second Anglo-Afghan War in the 1870s. But 2000 could be regarded as Year Zero for the Afghan cricket team.
It was then that the Taliban authorised playing the sport. There were two main reasons. The first was clothing. Unlike football, where the kit marked those who wore it heathens, cricket uniforms could be accommodated within the religious and cultural traditions of the country. The second was that while cricket was a new sport, it had significant resemblances to top danda, an old Afghan game. If the regime was to permit any sport, cricket seemed like the obvious option.
The story of Afghan cricket is inextricably linked to the country's traumatic history. The refugees who returned to Afghanistan in the 1990s, having fled the country during the Soviet Union's invasion, brought their new awareness of cricket with them. When the USA's response to 9/11 brought another war in Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of refugees ended up in Pakistan once more.
Having gained a foothold in Afghanistan, cricket has not let go since. It is firmly established as the national sport and there are now 280,000 registered players in the country. One domestic game attracted an audience of 13,000. And the composition of the national side reflects the popularity of the sport deep in rural areas: there is no particular domination by Kabul or other urban areas.
Inevitably the team is a product of the country's past. The majority of those who qualified for the World Cup have spent time in refugee camps. The captain, Mohammad Nabi, was born in Pakistan and spent his first eight years as a refugee there while the Soviet Union was embroiled in war in Afghanistan.
It would be easy to describe it all as a fairy tale. Except the fairy tale never happened. In 2008-09, Afghanistan went from playing Japan and Jersey to beating Ireland. They gained ODI status but just missed out on the 2011 World Cup. A documentary on the team, Out of The Ashes, told a tale of the sort that cutthroat 21st-century sport is meant to have no time for. The star was Taj Malik, the temperamental, eccentric but supremely enthusiastic national coach who is regarded as the father of Afghan cricket for his insatiable commitment to it. Yet the Afghanistan board reasoned that the side needed guidance from someone with international experience. It was a brutally unsentimental decision but results since suggest that it was the right one. It's easy to credit Afghanistan's success to passion and raw talent, but more mundane qualities are just as important.
A wish for greater professionalism underpinned the appointment of Kabir Khan, a former Pakistan Test player, as Malik's successor. He's still there now, though he spent a spell as UAE coach in between.
The Afghan board now gets enough funding to contract 32 players - 17 from the senior squad and 15 from the Under-19 side - to be full-time professional cricketers. The level of the transformation from even ten years ago is hard to overstate: from a couple of clubs in Kabul, there are now hundreds around the country. Thirty-two of the 34 provinces have representative sides. There are also five regional sides that play all three formats of the game. From 2014, the three-day league will become a four-day one. And an increasing number of Afghan players play domestic cricket in Bangladesh (Nabi scored 146 off 90 balls in a game last month); a couple have also represented MCC, with great success, in the champion county game.
Increasingly there is real long-term planning. A Memorandum of Understanding has been signed with the Ministry of Education to establish cricket as part of the national curriculum. A diverse array of sponsors, including UNICEF, have helped develop the infrastructure of the sport.
Fifteen U-19 players have contracts with the Afghan board. Afghanistan finished ninth in last year's Under-19 World Cup in Australia, and came within nine runs of beating New Zealand. The national team just thrashed Kenya in an Intercontinental Cup game despite resting nearly all their first-team players and selecting eight players aged 21 or under.
While Ireland may lead the Associate world's push for more recognition, Afghanistan are not far behind. The two have developed one of the more enthralling rivalries in the game today: Afghanistan beat Ireland in the 2010 World Twenty20 qualifying final, Ireland returned the favour in 2012. In December the two will meet in the ICC Intercontinental Cup final.
While it would be easy to slip into a blithe caricature of Afghanistan's cricketers as fiery and unpredictable, their results suggest otherwise. At Associate level, Afghanistan are formidable: they won eight consecutive games to qualify for last year's World Twenty20, and clinched their World Cup qualification with six consecutive World Cricket League wins.
Like Ireland, Afghanistan aspire to Test status, although they have not set a date for their target. There's a long way to go. Most fundamentally, women's cricket is still stuck in limbo. "Political reasons" have repeatedly led to scheduled women's fixtures being cancelled, with the result that Afghanistan are yet to play a full women's international. Raees Ahmadzai, former Afghan cricket captain and now the head of Afghan Youth Cricket Support Organisation, explains that there are "no grounds for women's cricket" and "the girls will not feel happy to play in front of men". Unless this is resolved - and the profound religious conservatism of the country acts as a huge hindrance - it is inconceivable that Afghanistan could become an ICC Full Member.
There are other deep structural issues. Despite significant improvements, the cricket infrastructure remains inadequate for a country of 30 million people: there are only nine turf wickets in the country, for instance. Selection decisions have too often suffered from interference. It was this that led to Kabir Khan's previous resignation. And the refusal of other nations to countenance touring Afghanistan means that they have to play home games in the UAE. It's an imperfect solution and the Afghan board says that it is investigating whether there are alternatives.
There are problems back on the pitch too. Afghanistan's fielding and running between the wickets compares unfavourably with Ireland's. Mohammad Shahzad, he of the "helicopter shot", is one of several batsmen with X factor, but unfortunately adhesiveness seems in rather shorter supply. Afghanistan collapsed to 26 for 8 against England in the World Twenty20 last year, and 32 for 8 against South Africa in 2010.
Their bowling is much more reliable. Afghanistan's varied attack - they have legspin, offspin, left-armers, and best of all, raw pace - is the envy of the non-Test playing world. They demonstrated that by bowling Kenya out for 89 and 93 to seal World Cup qualification.
The main man is Hamid Hassan. With pace, reverse swing and a devilish yorker, he seems wasted at Associate level. In two ODIs and one T20 against Kenya, he produced figures of 20-6-34-9. Hassan and his headband have shown they can trouble the best - he took 3 for 21 against South Africa in the 2010 World Twenty20 and claimed seven wickets for MCC against Nottinghamshire in 2011. The problem is, he's very injury prone, and has only ever bowled seven overs against Full Members. If that changes, then, along with Dawlat Zadran, Afghanistan could have two bowlers quicker than those Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have when they meet them in the 2015 World Cup. On Australian and New Zealand wickets, talk of upsets is not ridiculous.
So the question is: where do Afghanistan go from here? No one will dispute that the side has much room for improvement. But there is a strong argument that there is a limit to how much they can progress until they regularly play better sides. Gaining ODI status at the 2009 World Cup qualifiers may have sounded exciting but its impact has essentially been irrelevant: just two Full Members - Pakistan and Australia - have deigned to play ODIs against Afghanistan. On neither occasion were Afghanistan outclassed.
The crowded international cricket schedule can only offer a partial excuse for the lack of games. Given that Afghanistan and Pakistan both play in the UAE, it would take little imagination for teams to play a game or two against Afghanistan as preparation for series with Pakistan.
Afghanistan have been desperately trying to get Bangladesh, who often complain about their lack of competitive cricket, to agree to play with them. But there has not been "any positive reply" according to Noor Muhammad, the chief executive of the Afghanistan board. As with the reluctance of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe to play Ireland, it is hard to escape the feeling that fear of the consequences of losing has a part to play. Noor emphasises that money is not a problem. Owing to funding from the ICC and the government, Afghanistan have enough funds to host Full Members. It is just that they are so reluctant to come.
Perhaps even more damning is the attitude of the Asian Cricket Council. You might think that the Asia Cup would be the perfect opportunity for Afghanistan to get some more experience against Full Members. But the tournament is now an invite-only affair for the four Asian Full Members; Afghanistan are denied even an opportunity to qualify. As Noor tersely puts it, "We are not allowed to play in Asia Cup, which is very disappointing and we have been not even provided with justification."
Pakistan would seem to be an honourable exception. Not only did they play Afghanistan in an ODI last year, they have allowed Afghan players and officials to use training facilities, and were influential in Afghanistan winning Associate membership of the ICC this year. They will also play a T20 against Afghanistan in December.
Can anything be done to end the impasse between the worst Full Members and the best Associates? Noor makes a plea that Afghanistan should not be viewed as a threat to those already enjoying a slice of the pie, but as potentially helping to increase the portions. "If the ICC wants to change the entire situation, increase the participation in the world and increase the support among the sponsors, they need to bring some new teams into the cricket world."
The immediate obstacles preventing regular fixtures between Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Ireland and Afghanistan are self-interest and money. When the ICC awards Targeted Assistance and Performance Programme funding to Full Members, it should be linked to a willingness to play the leading Associates. But the wider context of cricket governance - in which the Woolf Report's call for independent governance has been ignored - is not conducive to those outside the elite few.
Afghan cricket is now a serious business. The game against Kenya was the first time the ICC ever charged supporters to attend a game in the UAE not involving Full Members. Five Afghan parliamentarians attended the game against Kenya; the president was reportedly glued to his TV and has previously demanded answers for disappointing U-19 results. There are almost three times as many registered players in Afghanistan as in New Zealand. Thousands greeted the victorious players upon their return. Gunfire was heard in celebration.
And yet Afghan cricket remains in a sort of limbo, waiting eagerly for an event in 18 months but not sure what comes before or after. They have a busy next few months, with the World Twenty20 qualifiers and a five-day Intercontinental Cup final against Ireland that promises to be a spicy affair. But for the players it must often seem that the cricketing world is happy to share the credit for their success, but rather less keen to actually help them. The main World Twenty20 is being scaled back down to ten teams. Afghan cricket (like all other Associates) will gain funding and exposure if cricket appeared in the Olympics, but the big beasts do not want it to. Afghanistan also need more sponsorship to reduce their dependency on ICC funding, but there is no inclination they will get the regular fixtures that would enable them to achieve self-reliance. While Hassan and Shazhad might be intriguing additions to county cricket, ECB work-permit rules mean there is a de facto ban on Afghans.
All these paradoxes were captured in the ICC's effusive reaction to Afghanistan's qualification. It is a brilliant story - the greatest testimony yet to the vision of Bob Woolmer in pioneering the ICC's development programme. ICC funding and the ambition of the World Cricket League were crucial. But the ICC obviously suffers from amnesia. Remember, it was the ICC - or more accurately, the boards who wield all the power - that wanted to restrict the World Cup to a ten-team invite-only affair. And though the 2019 tournament will have qualification, it is also scheduled to be limited to ten teams.
Unless that changes, Afghanistan's first World Cup may also be their last. But for now they have earned the right to go to Australia and New Zealand and to be treated as not just a romantic tale but as the serious international cricket team they are.