Afghanistan cricket fairytale enters a new era
From the ruins of war to rubbing shoulders with world beaters at the biggest stage for limited-overs cricket, the meteoric rise of the Afghanistan cricket team is nothing short of a fairy tale.
Amid the explosions rising from constant fighting, political or otherwise, cricket has taken giant strides in the war-ravaged nation. Born and brought up mostly in refugee camps, the Afghan cricketers would hope to leave their mark during their maiden appearance at the World Cup being staged in 14 venues across Australia and New Zealand, beginning Saturday.
Afghanistan cricketers don't have a home ground and mostly play their matches in Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). They have previously qualified for three editions of the World Twenty20 but failed to make it to the 2011 World Cup in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. However, their promising performances earned them the ODI status six years ago.
In 2014, the Afghans made the cut for the World Cup by finishing second behind Ireland in the International Cricket Council's World Cricket League Championship.
Going into the coveted tournament, Afghanistan captain Mohammad Nabi would surely like to lead by example.
Born and brought up in a refugee camp, the all-rounder is the only one to feature in all of his country's ODI appearances. With over 1,000 runs and 42 wickets, the off-spin bowler is the one to watch out for.
Having a fine balance of youth and experience, the team would also rely on former skipper and batsman Nawroz Mangal. Mangal also grew up in a refugee camp. The 30-year-old holds the record for the highest individual innings in ODIs for his country.
A key batsman for the team would be the 18-year-old right hander Usman Ghani, who has had an impressive Asian Cricket Council (ACC) Premier League and has also scored an international ton against Zimbabwe.
With the pitches in Australia and New Zealand expected to suit pacers, the Afghans would bank on the duo of Shapoor Zadran and Dawlat Zadran.
Known for his pace and bounce, left-armer Shapoor has 29 scalps from 30 matches while the 26-year-old right-armer Dawlat has 32 wickets from 24 matches.
Coached by Englishman Andy Moles, the Afghans start their Cup campaign Feb 18 in Canberra against Bangladesh whom they have beaten earlier, registering their first ODI win against a Test-playing nation.
They are a part of Pool A, also comprising England, Sri Lanka, Scotland and co-hosts Australia and New Zealand.
The game came to Afghanistan from the refugee camps in Pakistan, where countless Afghans fled after the 1979 Soviet invasion of their homeland. Cricket has now grown into a passion and a binding force for the war-ravaged nation.
"Cricket gives an opportunity for the country to feel proud about the players. And I know the players are very proud to do well, not for themselves but because they know the country will be fully behind them," Moles told the ICC official website.
"The passion at home is massive."
Nabi said that the only constant thing in our country is the infighting which seems to be limitless.
"Now, If there's a positive news like Afghanistan playing cricket in the World Cup, that changes the mindset of the people back home."
Afghanistan have so far played 45 ODIs, winning 24 and losing 21. They registered their highest innings score of 302 against the UAE in Kuala Lumpur in 2014, while their lowest team total of 63 came against Scotland in Abu Dhabi last month.