The Afghanistan Under-19 men's team is "very, very excited" after being cleared to travel to the Caribbean to participate in the World Cup, which starts on January 14.
Earlier in the week, there were doubts over Afghanistan's participation in the 16-team tournament due to visa glitches. As a result, Afghanistan's two warm-up games, against England on January 10 and UAE on January 12, were cancelled.
The Afghanistan squad had arrived in Dubai on December 20 to participate in the Under-19 Asia Cup, which took place between December 23 and 31. With the UK embassy in Kabul currently shut, the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) had decided that the players and support staff would apply for visas in the UAE to travel to the World Cup.
However, uncertainty over the visas mounted as the days passed and a scenario of Afghanistan failing to get the paperwork needed to travel to the World Cup was not ruled out until late on Monday, when the UK government granted the necessary transit visas minutes before its consulate closed in Dubai. The Afghanistan group will now take a flight from Dubai early on January 12 morning to Manchester, followed by a connecting flight to the Caribbean.
As a result of the delay and the quarantine requirements for the tournament, their first game has been pushed from January 16 - when they were meant to take on against Zimbabwe in Trinidad - to January 18, when they will take on Papua New Guinea.* Game on January 20 and 22 follow, against Pakistan and Zimbabwe. Afghanistan are placed in Group C along with these three opponents, and all the sides in this group have had games rescheduled to fit in Afghanistan's matches. The top two teams from the pool qualify for the quarter-finals, while the bottom two from each pool will compete in a playoff round.
Raees Ahmadzai, the Afghanistan U-19 head coach, told ESPNcricinfo the team was thrilled to hear the news of their visas. "When they heard the news they were very, very excited," he said. "It was the best news for all these young boys. They want to do something very special in the World Cup."
This will be Afghanistan's seventh appearance in the Under-19 World Cup. Since first qualifying for it in 2010, they've made every subsequent edition. Their best finish came in 2018 in New Zealand, where they made the semi-finals. This is the second Under-19 World Cup for Ahmadzai as head coach - under him, Afghanistan finished seventh in 2020.
This time around, with both the warm-up matches cancelled due to the travel delay, their biggest challenge will be the absence of any preparation as they had only "3-4 days' practice" after the Asia Cup.
But what's more important, according to Ahmedzai, is the fact that Afghanistan will participate in the tournament. "I will say it is good news. We will adjust ourselves there, but participating in the World Cup is something very special for the fans, for the lovers of cricket in Afghanistan, for the country," he said. "It is something very special in this kind of situation right now back in our country because the whole young generation, they are waiting and they are very excited to see Afghanistan in the World Cup. Cricket is more than a game for us now.
"At the junior level if you representing the country for the first time or participating in the World Cup, it is something very special for the players. That is why they came out of their rooms today and celebrated in a special way [after the visa clearance]."
Ahmadzai said the players have been boosted by their performance in the close defeat against India in the Asia Cup. Afghanistan set a target of 260 which India surpassed with four wickets in hand and eight balls to spare in a group-stage match.
"They realised if they are more focused and remain positive during the game, they can beat any team in the World Cup," he said. "That game boosted the morale of our players."
*January 12, 3.30pm GMT: The article was updated to include the changes in schedule for Group C games.