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April 29, 2010
Afghanistan have been breaking new ground for the last two years. Their rapid rise up the world rankings, and ultimately a place at the World Twenty20, has captured the hearts and minds of the cricket world. Now comes another new challenge for them. On Saturday, in St Lucia, they will play India in front of a sell-out crowd with pictures being beamed back to local television in Kabul and beyond.
It's a lot to take in, but Afghanistan show no signs of a backward step after their five-wicket victory against Ireland on their first full day in the Caribbean. Even for what was, ultimately, nothing more than a practice game there will be huge celebrations back home at the result. There always are when Afghanistan win, which they've done a lot lately, but it leads to some huge expectations for the 15 players on duty in West Indies.
"We met our president, Hamid Kharzai, a month ago and he just asked us to win the World Cup," the coach Kabir Khan said with a laugh and a smile, sitting alongside his captain Nowroz Mangal. "Even when it's a friendly game the scores are live on the internet and the TV shows them at the bottom.
"So now we've beaten Ireland in a friendly game they will be celebrating, that's how big it has gone. It's a lot of pressure on us. They don't want us to lose. The demands are very high, they expect a lot from us and it can go both ways, but so far the boys have given them a lot of trophies."
That run of success - starting with the World Cricket League Division Five and cumulating in February's victory in the World Twenty20 qualifiers - has brought much joy to a troubled nation, but at the same time the fans, many of whom are new to cricket, expect the team to win every time they walk onto the field.
"They don't know a lot about cricket, they just see the team is winning so think it should be good enough," Khan explained. "If they can win one tournament why not the World Cup? It's all the same for them. We often get asked when we are going to beat Australia or Pakistan, so those are the questions we have to answer sometimes and we just have to calm them a little."
Most teams talk about the pressure of expectation, and in Afghanistan's case it's plain to see. However, they are likely to receive an extra boost from the crowds, because if their warm-up against Ireland was any marker, they will be everyone's second-favourite team - much like West Indies used to be.
"The good thing about the team is that at every level they have lifted their game. Everything about them has improved at each stage," Khan added. "I know there will be pressure; there will the pressure of television, the pressure of the crowd but they are quick learners and I hope they will adjust to it."
Mangal has the daunting task of dealing with the hopes of a country who are now expecting nothing less than victory every time. However, he can only see the positive in Afghanistan's situation and is happy to dream about more memorable days.
"It's a great honour for us to be playing at this level and it's a great achievement for us to be here at a World Cup," he said. "The team we qualified with, Ireland, we have come here and beaten so it shows our standards are there and obviously we hope something very special will happen over the next week."
Surely, though, they don't have realistic hopes of causing an upset when the tournament proper starts? India and South Africa are at the top of the pile in world cricket, packed with powerful batting, bowling of the pace Afghanistan have never seen and, in India's case, no shortage of spin quality.
"Obviously we have got two very good teams in our group, we know that, but we have seen in Twenty20 anything can happen," Khan said. "It can be anyone's game on the day if you play well and if we play well there is a chance of an upset. The boys are very well prepared and the best thing for them, and for me, is that we aren't just here to participate - we are going to play hard cricket, we are going to play tough cricket.
"We are positive, but win or lose, for me as a coach, achieving this status in the World Cup is a much bigger thing for me. But if they can give me a win I'll be delighted."
Delighted probably wouldn't be the right word to sum up the reaction in Afghanistan if India and South Africa are humbled in the coming days.
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