Afghan adventure continues with World Cup debut
Born in refugee camps and nurtured in the midst of bloody civil strife, Afghanistan cricketers reach another landmark on their extraordinary journey on Wednesday when they make their World Cup debut against Bangladesh.
Cricket came to Afghanistan from neighbouring Pakistan, where countless Afghans fled following the 1979 Soviet invasion of their homeland.
Mohammad Nabi, now Afghanistan`s captain, was one of those who learnt the game in exile, having first played cricket as a 10-year-old in a refugee camp in Pakistan, before the sport came across the border when the Taliban fell in 2001.
Now, the game has flourished to such an extent that cricket is Afghanistan`s most popular sport.
Not that cricket is insulated from the political and security issues that are a part of every day life in Afghanistan, as Nabi knows only too well.
Driving from Jalalabad to a team training camp in Kabul in May 2013, Nabi saw his father`s car abandoned by the roadside and was told by officials: "Somebody kidnapped your dad."
It took a call from his brother to persuade Nabi to go on to the camp.
"I didn`t want to go (but) he said, `Go`. I didn`t relax, every time I was calling my brother [asking], `What`s happening now, tell me," Nabi said in an interview with the Canberra Times.
Three months passed before the kidnappers were caught and Nabi`s father released unharmed.
"They are thinking Nabi is a big cricketer, he has a lot of money. That is why they took my dad," the Afghanistan skipper explained.
Afghanistan`s fans have quickly become as passionate as those of established Asian giants India and Pakistan, with many set to enthusiastically follow Wednesday`s match in Canberra via radio, television and social media.
"Everyone is excited... for the start of the tournament," said Nabi. "Hopefully we`ll win that match (against Bangladesh)."
While Afghanistan have become many cricket fans` favourite `second team` on account of their astonishing rise, they are rather more than `plucky minnows`.For example, just as Ireland beating the West Indies in their World Cup opener in Nelson on Monday wasn`t quite the stunning upset it might once have been, it won`t be a total shock should Afghanistan beat Bangladesh given they defeated the Tigers -- their first victory in 10 one-day internationals against a Test-playing nation -- at last year`s Asia Cup.
Nor is Canberra unfamiliar territory, with Afghanistan -- who could yet receive some expatriate support on Wednesday as Australia is now home to some 30,000 citizens of Afghan origin -- having played two matches there in September.
Afghanistan coach Andy Moles was confident his players would not be over-awed by the significance of Wednesday`s match.
"They feel a real genuine honour to be here, and they want to do well for the public at home," Moles told a news conference on Tuesday.
"It`s a massive inspiration generally for the players," added Moles, who made his name in cricket as an opening batsman with English county side Warwickshire before starting a coaching career that has included a brief stint in charge of New Zealand.
"The players have worked really hard, and from my point of view now, all the work and preparation has been done.
"The next 24 hours we`ll just get ready for the game tomorrow and make sure we`re calm, calculated and execute the plans.
"If we do that, Bangladesh can look forward to a very hard game. If we do the right things at the right time, we can get the right result.
"We`re aware that the Bangladesh are a Test side. We`ve played a lot of cricket. We respect them, and we`re certainly not scared. We`re looking forward to the challenge."