Afghanistan ready for a giant leap
In a modern era changing almost too quickly for comfort, it has been a rare moment of romance for an increasingly commercialised sport to watch a war-torn country defy expectations, and the world's prejudices. As Afghanistan approach Division 3 of the World Cricket League as joint-favourites with Hong Kong, the 2011 World Cup isn't so much a dream as a realistic aspiration.
The side have shot up through the rankings in the past few years, earning promotion through Division 5 and Division 4. In Buenos Aires starting tomorrow, they take on Argentina, Hong Kong, Uganda, Papua New Guinea and the Cayman Islands; if they finish in the top two, as well they should, they progress to the World Cup Qualifiers in South Africa in April, the last barrier to 2011. For all the optimism and hope that propel Afghanistan as a nation, their cricket coach, Kabir Khan, remains cautious.
"I want to take it step by step. My personal goal is to secure our place in Division 3, rather than getting relegated to Division 4, and after that we will see how the team gels together and see how the players are playing," he told Cricinfo. "If we start thinking just about whether we can finish in the top four or six in South Africa, we might lose our place here."
A decade ago, Afghanistan was still under oppressive Taliban rule. Led by its Emir, Mohammed Omar, the level of prohibitions swung from the ridiculous - no musical instruments allowed - to the frightening, where women were beaten, locked indoors and behind burkas, and effectively banished from society by the "religious police". Sport was banned in the afternoons and evenings for interrupting prayer. Like the refugees who fled the civil and Soviet wars, cricket didn't stand a chance.
Yet 10 years on, they stand on the verge of rubbing shoulders with the world's elite. Pakistan, their nearest neighbours, have helped them with training camps, as well as providing them with a coach in Khan. "We have discussed a lot of cricket," Raees Ahmadzai, one of Afghanistan's leading batsmen, told Cricinfo. "Now the players are very relaxed; they feel better and look like complete cricketers. We worked a lot on temperament in camp. Our fast bowlers worked on how to control the new ball and batsmen on how we make partnerships to chase big targets."
After winning the Division 4 title last year, Ahmadzai said, the Governor of Ningrahar Province (in the country's east) gave all the players land for houses. Fame and fortune beckons for these Afghans, but the bloody past is never too far from their minds; the national ground in Kabul, the Ghazi Stadium, was the Taliban's venue for public executions only a few years ago. "Cricket can play a big role in making peace in the country as everybody is involved," Khan said. "Everybody knows we don't have that many facilities back home, but we are trying our best and hopefully someday we can improve those standards."
Their opponents might lack such gruesome gravitas in their recent history, but the incentives are no less compelling. Hong Kong are an up-and-coming side, equal-favourites with Afghanistan, who beat them in the Division 4 final last year, and are coached by the former England batsman Aftab Habib. "It is an achievable dream," Habib says, "and it is just a matter of putting in a lot of hard work."
Uganda, whose side have a small but thriving following, lack the consistency and quality to regularly challenge Afghanistan and Hong Kong, but nevertheless could easily topple either favourite if they have a good day. They nearly beat Kenya this month Unfortunately, there are reports from their training camp that the players haven't grasped just how important the next week is, doubtless angering the Uganda Cricket Association, who are eyeing the additional US$500,000 funding bounty on offer for the victors. That's a vast sum for a country where cricket is still a minority sport.
Khan, whose side face Uganda in the opening match on Saturday, promised there would be "some big upsets", yet for all his caution about getting too carried away, he has done his homework. "Luckily I have seen both Argentina and Uganda play in Namibia, as I was the coach of the UAE at the time. I know their strengths and what style of cricket they used to play.
"I believe in cricket, though, that you don't plan ahead too much."
Whoever does win - and from a neutral's perspective it is hard not to be charmed by Afghanistan's story thus far - they'll be placed in Group B of the World Cup Qualifiers later this year along with Kenya, Netherlands, Bermuda, UAE and Denmark. Given recent form, Afghanistan would arguably not begin at the bottom of that particular pile, and if they do qualify for the World Cup, the intense romance they have had with cricket could quickly swell into a prosperous marriage.
"It is a dream that I want to be true and I am living that dream," said Khan. "A lot of people have seen they have a lot of potential and are good enough to play international cricket financially. I am not saying we will beat all international teams, but I know we could give a good fight against them."
Will Luke is a staff writer at Cricinfo