It may be more dream than realistic ambition, but Afghanistan's national cricket team are about to take the next step in their goal of playing the world's best at the World Cup in three years time.
|Cricket is an increasingly popular sport in Afghanistan [GALLO/GETTY]
With two training game wins under their belts, including a win yesterday over Pakistan side Malik Sports at the Arbab Niaz Cricket Stadium, their training tour of Peshawar is giving them the big game experience that they need.
Afghanistan kept alive its dreams of meeting the likes of Australia and India by winning the World Cricket League Division Five in May, beating hosts Jersey by two wickets in a low-scoring final, and is now preparing for the next qualifying stage.
From October 4-11, the young Afghans will compete in WCL Division Four against Hong Kong, Italy, Fiji, hosts Tanzania and Jersey.
The top two finishers will progress to a six-team WCL Division 3 in Argentina in January.
From there, the top two sides will join a further ten countries in the United Arab Emirates to play off for four berths alongside cricket's elite at the 2011 World Cup, to be jointly hosted by Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
"Lots of people in Afghanistan are closely following our journey toward World Cup and hopefully we will not disappoint them," says Bashir Stanekzai, general manager of the team.
"That's a long way, but we are moving in right direction."
There is one national cricket academy in the capital Kabul, but the Afghan players have decamped to Peshawar in Pakistan to get some competitive games under their belts before traveling to Tanzania.
"We have good academy in Kabul, but the problem was we could not get tough matches like we'll be getting in Peshawar to train ourselves for the tournament in Tanzania," Stanekzai said.
A 13-day tour to Peshawar was organized in collaboration with the Pakistan
Cricket Board, during which Afghanistan will play four practice matches.
Playing against the likes of Pakistan test players Yasir Hameed and Wajahatullah Wasti will test the capabilities and boost the morale of an Afghan team led by opening batsman Nauroz Khan Mangal.
They are coached by former Pakistan test paceman Kabir Khan, who is concentrating on toughening the players psychologically for the stiff competition ahead.
"I only have 15 days to work with the team before the start of the tournament, which is probably not enough," the 34-year-old Khan said.
"They don't need a lot of coaching cricketing wise, they just need help with the mental side of the game."
Stanekzai agreed with the need for mental fine-tuning, noting his side's difficulties in pursuing targets.
"The standard of bowling and fielding is excellent, but sometimes the batting lets us down as we lost eight wickets in the final against Jersey while chasing just 81 runs," Khan said.
After the low-scoring final in Jersey, Afghanistan crashed to a semifinal defeat in the ACC Trophy Elite 2008 against Hong Kong.
It crumbled to 129 all out off just 43.4 overs, 25 runs short off its target.
"We need to use all the 50 overs, as we have a very good bowling attack, and if we get a score of 230 on the board we will be hard to beat," Khan said.
Confidence in the camp, which will run for the next few days ahead of the side's return to Kabul, is high and Khan has a belief in the ability of his players.
"The team has the potential to be promoted.
"I was the national coach of the UAE and I don't see any difference in standard between our team and players who played in the World Cricket League Division 2 and the Intercontinental Cup," he said.
Although the focus of the side, who will look to the likes of fast bowler Habid Hassan to star, will be on making it through to Division 3, Khan believes that if Afghanistan progress they have the potential to do well in the next stages of the competition as well.
"If we qualify for the next stage I hope the team will do well in that event as well," Khan said.
"Talent wise we are very good.
"I have seen a lot of players who have played Division 2 and Division 3 cricket and this is the most talented side I have seen."
Afghanistan will begin its campaign against Fiji on October 4, with crunch games likely to be against Hong Kong and Italy on October 8 and October 9 respectively.