Only six years ago, Afghanistan, its sports programs struggling to overcome the consequences of war, was in lowly Division 5 of the World Cricket League.
Since then, the country has steadily improved and is now set to compete in the 2015 Cricket World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
The team has not yet cruised into the privileged upper tier of the International Cricket Council (ICC), but it has made its presence felt on the international stage, beating formidable oppositions in various tournaments. It has battled Pakistan, Bangladesh and the West Indies (three of the ICC’s 10 full members), along with some of the other 36 teams that, like Afghanistan, have ICC associate status.
Taking steps to arrive on the international stage
Afghan expats living in Pakistan in 2001 took the first step by forming the Afghanistan Cricket Federation, the predecessor of the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB). The ICC recognised the federation as an affiliate member, and the team embarked on its first tour in 2001, heading to Pakistan.
It competed in two Pakistani tournaments in 2003, where it won its first match. Just three years later, it placed third in the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) Trophy.
In 2007, it became an Asian champion for the first time, tying with Oman for top honors in the ACC Twenty20 Cup.
Things started moving in earnest in 2008 after it beat Jersey, the team representing the largest of the Channel Islands.
The team on February 10, 2012, took the next step in its remarkable journey when it competed against Pakistan in Sharjah, its first One-Day International match against an ICC full member. Last June, it rose from ICC affiliate to ICC associate member.
From hard journey comes inspiration
Many Afghans and foreigners alike have found the team’s dauntless spirit in the face of hardship inspiring.
Afghanistan’s cricketers have shown that anything is possible with hard work, belief and a deep passion for the game, Sri Lankan cricket captain Angelo Mathews said last October.
Australian cricketer Michael Clarke last October also praised the Afghan team’s dramatic rise. “Their growth over the past decade as a nation and a cricket side has been an inspiring story.”
“We expect that they’ll be a challenge for any side,” he said.
Afghanistan still hasn’t reached the level of the foreign teams that have played competitively for years, former Afghan cricket captain Nawroz Mangal conceded, but it has still played well against powerhouses like Pakistan and Australia.
“This is the start of what you might call our second phase,” ACB CEO Noor Muhammad Murad said. “We are looking at bringing in new support and technologies, as we will now be performing against full [ICC] members more regularly.”
More than a sport
Cricket is already the most popular sport in Afghanistan and the ACB’s idea is to keep building up its popularity and participation rate nationwide, Noor said.
“Cricket is not just a game in Afghanistan,” he said. “It’s also a tool for youth development, as our players can show youngsters what they can achieve by playing the game.”
The government and other donors support the sport because cricket helps promote peace and stability, Noor said.
Afghan cricket’s benefactors include the ICC. Last year, the ICC donated 24.1m AFN (US $421,000) to the ACB as part of its Targeted Assistance and Performance Program (TAPP), as well as another US $1m (57m AFN) after Afghanistan qualified for the 2015 World Cup by defeating Kenya in a series played in Sharjah.
“It is a big accomplishment for us, and the money will be spent on the development of cricket and professional training of our cricketers,” ACB spokesman Farid Ahmad Hotak said.
Also, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) last March signed a two-year memorandum of understanding with the ACB promising to contribute technical and professional expertise, including assistance with high performance program camps, Noor said.
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