Kabul, Feb 7: Against the backdrop of war and hardship, a severe lack of facilities and funds, cricket in Afghanistan has grown at a phenomenal pace in a dozen years. The national team that left Afghanistan to prepare for its first ICC World Cup, the biggest stage for limited-overs cricket, has the kind of a conviction that belies its status as one of the so-called Associate teams.
"It is a magnificent achievement," coach Andy Moles told a farewell gathering. He wants the cricket world to see his group of players and how they go out to make their country proud.
"We are not going to win the tournament this year, but that is a target for eight to 10 years' time from now," Moles said.
For now, it's important for the team to learn from the opportunity and enjoy playing some of the best players of the world. Afghanistan will be among 14 teams competing for cricket's top prize in the February 14-March 29 tournament, which is being staged in 14 venues across Australia and New Zealand.
Moles said reaching the second round, as unlikely as that sounds to cricket followers around the world, would be a major triumph for his team. "First time there, to hit the super eight would be a massive achievement - that would be like winning the World Cup for Afghanistan," Moles said.
First things first, though. Afghanistan is in Pool A with four-time World Cup winner Australia, 1996 champion Sri Lanka - a finalist in the last two editions - England, New Zealand, Bangladesh and Scotland. Only the top four teams in each group advance to the quarterfinals, and that's likely to require at least three wins in the group phase.
Afghanistan open against Bangladesh, who are is competing in their fifth World Cup, in the Australian capital on Feb. 18. Less than a week later at Dunedin, on New Zealand's south island, the Afghans take on Scotland in a game featuring two of international cricket's second-tier, or Associate, teams. While it won't be one of the bigger games at the World Cup, it will be closely followed by supporters of both teams.
'England is a big team mostly in WC'
Cricket became popular in Afghanistan after the national team grew in international stature with a string of achievements in just over a decade, including unexpected performances in the Twenty20 format. Team captain Mohammad Nabi said his Afghan squad will take the attacking mentality into the World Cup, where it won't take a backward step against the traditionally powerful teams.
"England is a big team and mostly in World Cup tournaments, they have been defeated by some small teams, so this time around we will try our best to be the one to beat them," he said. One of the biggest challenges for the Afghan team at the World Cup will be the condition and bouncy pitches of Australia, which are vastly different to those in the subcontinent.
"One thing which can go against us, is the condition in their (opposition team's) favour - the wickets and pitches there, are not like Asian pitches, they have bounce, so we will do our best to prepare ourselves for that and be ready for it," Nawroz Mangal said.
The team played in the 2009 World Cup qualifiers, after rising rapidly through the World Cricket League, starting in Division Five in May 2008. The team failed to qualify for the 2011 World Cup. In 2013, Afghanistan beat Kenya to place second in the WCL Championship to qualify for the 2015 Cricket World Cup, becoming the 20th team to gain entry into the tournament overall.