Afghanistan made an impressive transition to first-class cricket after their success in the limited-overs format in the ICC World Cup Qualifiers, where they qualified for the Super Eights and earned ODI status. They put in an impressive show against a strong Zimbabwe XI in Mutare in their opening game of the Intercontinental Cup, where they held the upper hand for much of the drawn contest.
There were several individual highlights for one of the most closely followed teams in the tournament, with Noor Ali, the 21-year-old Afghanistan opener, stealing the headlines. He became just the fourth player to score a century in each innings of a first-class debut - Arthur Morris, Nari Contractor and Aamir Malik being the other three. And his coach Kabir Khan expected him to continue his tremendous run against Netherlands in Amstelveen on August 24.
"Every time I think I have seen the best of him [Noor], he proves me wrong by producing something special and extraordinary," Khan, a former Pakistan fast bowler, said on the eve of the match. "With the form he's enjoying, I'm sure he will score more runs in Amstelveen."
However, Khan cautioned that his players must also be prepared to experience the pitfalls of top-level cricket after enjoying success so far. "But these are early days for Noor and the side," he said. "The more the boys will play, the more they'll learn about the demands and rigours of first-class cricket with fitness being the key."
After delivering such a strong performance, Khan added that Noor would have to shoulder greater responsibility as Afghanistan play stiffer opposition. "I want Noor to enjoy this time and continue to play the way he's playing," he said. "I'm sure he'll learn when he'll play against different oppositions and in different conditions. But these are his happy days and he deserves to enjoy them without forgetting that he has raised the bar of expectation and to meet those expectations he'll be required to work and train harder."
It's been a remarkable few months for Afghanistan and had it not been for Tatenda Taibu - who, also, scored a century in each innings - and the resistance offered by the Zimbabwean lower order, they were in a good position to record their first first-class victory. Among the other players to leave a mark were allrounder Mohammad Nabi, who took 3 for 90 in the first innings and scored a century on debut, and wicketkeeper Mohammad Shahzad, who made 79.
Khan believed his team had done enough in their opening game to earn the respect of the other participants in the competition. "I think Afghanistan has given a very good account of itself in the tournament opener," he said. "I'm sure the opponents will take us seriously, come hard at us which, I think, will help us to play our best cricket.
"It is a long road to number one with no short cuts. There'll be successes and disappointments and we have to quickly learn to handle them both. But a good start is always essential and I think we got something in Mutare to build on."
The effort against Zimbabwe, Khan said, should inspire his team to step up against other Associate nations. "We have shown flashes of our talent and potential in the tournament opener and if we show the same commitment and zeal, I'm sure we will be able to challenge the top Associate sides in the not too distant future."
Their opponents, Netherlands, meanwhile, have made five changes to the team that hung on for a disappointing draw against Canada. Both teams are level on nine points going in to tomorrow's encounter and they meet again in two ODIs on August 30 and September 1.