Afghanistan's fairy tale rise up the Associate ranks may seem like a real life Cinderella story, but their penchant for stage fright has resulted in the clock striking midnight during every visit to a major world tournament. Though they may have the same amount of talent, if not more, than Ireland on paper, Afghanistan have zero victories over Full Members in four visits to ICC flagship events.

Prior visits have paired them up against fast-bowling heavy teams, and their batting has struggled to adapt. But even against a fast-bowling deficient team like Nepal, Afghanistan were too eager to count their chickens before they hatched. Chastened by a 1-2 mark in the opening round of 2014, they seem determined to fulfil their potential in 2016.

The batting has been beefed up by the return of wicketkeeper Mohammad Shahzad, who was dropped ahead of the 2015 World Cup on fitness grounds. His recent efforts against Zimbabwe have galvanised others on the comeback trail, like Karim Sadiq. Younger talents such as Noor Ali Zadran and Usman Ghani have also improved, to provide Shahzad and Sadiq needed support, building a bridge to the middle-order pyrotechnics from Mohammad Nabi, Gulbadin Naib and Najibullah Zadran.

Afghanistan's overall depth has also improved in recent times. Twin series victories over Zimbabwe were achieved without the fast-bowling duo of Hamid Hassan and Shapoor Zadran.

This is Afghanistan's fourth straight appearance at the World T20, but they only have one win, over Hong Kong, to show for their efforts. With Hassan, Shapoor and Shahzad back together again - and a place alongside Zimbabwe, the weaker of the two Full Members in the opening-round four-team qualifying groups - Afghanistan are strong favourites to advance into the main draw for the first time.

Road to the World T20
After reaching the final of the World T20 Qualifier three times in a row, from 2010-2013, Afghanistan received a wake-up call at last year's event in Ireland. They finished third in Group B after a loss to Oman, then suffered their first ever loss to Hong Kong in a qualifying playoff. Given a second chance to secure a berth in India, they blew away Papua New Guinea, then beat Oman in a rematch to finish fifth.

Since then, Afghanistan's fixture list in all formats has been packed fuller than that of any Associate, giving them great preparation for this tournament. In ten T20Is since the qualifier, they have gone 8-2, including 4-0 against Zimbabwe thanks to unprecedented home and away series sweeps. However, a slip up against UAE prevented them from reaching the main draw of the Asia Cup.

At the helm
Middle-order batsman Asghar Stanikzai took over as captain after Mohammad Nabi resigned following the 2015 World Cup. Stanikzai's overall record is respectable for Afghanistan, but he is only just starting to climb his way out of a form slump. Before making 49 and 34 in wins over Hong Kong and Oman, Stanikzai had made single-digit scores in seven of his previous eight limited-overs innings. His T20I record against Scotland and Hong Kong is solid, though, with 206 runs at 34.33 in six innings.

Key stat
17-2 Afghanistan's T20 record against their three opponents in qualifying Group B. They are 8-2 against Hong Kong and are undefeated against both Zimbabwe (4-0) and Scotland (5-0). All eight successful chases have been by a minimum five-wicket margin, while the average victory margin in nine wins batting first has been 42 runs.

Leading men

Dawlat Zadran
Shortly after his 2011 international debut, Dawlat had a stirring breakout performance, when he topped the wickets list with 17 in seven games at the 2012 World T20 Qualifier in the UAE. He has been Afghanistan's most consistent pace bowler in T20 cricket, with 62 wickets in 41 matches. He enters the tournament in solid form, having taken ten wickets in four T20Is against Zimbabwe and another three in the Asia Cup.

Mohammad Shahzad
The pudgy wicketkeeper is far and away Afghanistan's most potent weapon with the bat. His 1671 T20 runs at 29.83 are the most for Afghanistan, almost double the aggregate of the next closest player, Mohammad Nabi. His record in World T20s is poor, with 101 runs at 14.42, two-thirds of which came in Afghanistan's only World T20 win, over Hong Kong. He has shown signs of correcting that, though, with an Afghanistan record 118 not out in a win over Zimbabwe on January 10.

Rashid Khan
The 17-year-old legspinner is Afghanistan's youngest player at the tournament, but the team management has shown tremendous confidence in him since he made his debut against Zimbabwe late last year. Coming off a team best ten wickets at the Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh, he claimed five wickets in three games during the Asia Cup and has emerged as a key threat in helpful conditions.

Burning question: Can Hamid Hassan stay fit through the tournament?

When he's on the field, no bowler in the Associate world is capable of making the kind of impact he can, demonstrated by his World Cup performance against Sri Lanka where he claimed both Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. The talismanic but often-injured fast bowler has not played for Afghanistan since a playoff match against Papua New Guinea in the World T20 Qualifier in July, and doubts remain over his readiness to contribute after he missed the home and away series against Zimbabwe and the qualifying round of the Asia Cup.

In their own words: Mohammad Nabi
"The two series wins [v Zimbabwe] were quite good. The morale of the team is very good. Afghanistan have already achieved a lot of things in cricket in the short term. If we qualify for the second round, it will be a big achievement to get more chances to play against Full Members.

"Zimbabwe is already under pressure from Afghanistan and we have already beaten Hong Kong and Scotland as well. They are all under pressure. We have a good T20 squad and have had good preparation."

Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna