Sharjah: Afghanistan will get another boost as a fledgling cricketing nation when they play former world champions Pakistan for the first time in a Twenty20 international in Sharjah on Sunday.
The Afghans learnt the game in Pakistan as refugees during the Russian invasion of their country in 1979 and have since had a fairytale rise in the game.
They received one-day status during their narrowly missed opportunity to qualify for the 2011 World Cup before progressing to two back-to-back World Twenty20 tournaments in 2010 and 2012, helping themselves to Associate membership of the International Cricket Council (ICC) this year.
The war-torn nation got a tremendous boost earlier this year when for the first time they qualified for the 50-over World Cup to be held in Australia and New Zealand in 2015. Last month they once again lived up to their billing of one of the best Associate teams by qualifying for the World Twenty20 to be held in Bangladesh next year.
Afghanistan`s Pakistan coach Kabir Khan said his team is hugely excited for Sunday`s game.
"It will be a historic match for us," Kabir, who played four Tests and 10 one-days for Pakistan in 1990s, told AFP. "Besides being historic, it will be a challenging match and if we do well then the world will take more notice."
Kabir said Pakistan have always provided his team with golden opportunities. "Pakistan have helped us a great deal. They gave us a one-dayer last year," said Kabir of Afghanistan`s first-ever ODI against a full ICC member last year in Sharjah, which Pakistan won by seven wickets.
That followed another one-dayer against Australia in September last year, which they also lost by 66 runs.
Sunday`s Twenty20 will be Afghanistan`s fifth against a Test playing country as they lost to India and South Africa in the 2010 World Twenty20 in the Caribbean and then went down against England and India two years later in Sri Lanka.
For Pakistan, Sunday`s game will tune them for two tougher Twenty20s against world number one Sri Lanka in Dubai on December 13 and 15. They also play five one-dayers and three Tests against the Islanders, also in the UAE.
Pakistan`s T20 captain Mohammad Hafeez refused to take Afghanistan lightly. "They are a dangerous side," Hafeez told AFP. "They have qualified for the 2015 World Cup and the World Twenty20 through hard work and since they are a dangerous side we will not take them lightly."
Pakistan have slipped to fourth in the T20 rankings after losing three of their last four games against South Africa. They will miss the wily Saeed Ajmal in Sunday`s game as the off-spinner opted to take a rest back home. Hafeez admitted Ajmal, who has most T20 wickets (77 in 57 matches) will be missed.
"Ajmal is a world class bowler but his absence will give others a chance to take responsibility," said Hafeez, himself under pressure for his miserable batting form.
Pakistan: Mohammad Hafeez (capt), Ahmed Shehzad, Sharjeel Khan, Sohaib Maqsood, Umar Amin, Umar Akmal, Shahid Afridi, Zulfiqar Babar, Bilawal Bhatti, Junaid Khan, Sohail Tanvir, Anwar Ali, Haris Sohail.
Afghanistan: Mohammad Nabi (capt), Merwais Ashraf, Hamid Hassan, Amir Hamza Hotak, Afsar Khan, Nawroz Mangal, Gulbadin Naib, Mohammad Shahzad, Asghar Stanikzai, Hashmatullah Shaidi, Samiullah Shinwari, Najeebullah Zadran, Shapor Zadran, Dawlat Khan Zadran, Izzatullah Dawlatzai.