Al Jazeera’s Rahul Pathak reports as Afghanistan qualify for World Twenty20.
|Afghanistan get ready to celebrate as their batsmen hit out against UAE [Hilal Yasni]|
Tanzania, Argentina, Johannesburg and now Dubai.
The road taken by Afghanistan’s cricketers on their way to reaching their first ever senior international tournament has been varied and has included some exotic locations.
The side came agonisingly close to reaching the 50-over Cricket World Cup to be held in 2011.
But their victory in the ICC World Twenty20 qualifiers in Dubai means they’ll now take on the likes of India and South Africa at the tournament in the West Indies beginning this April.
“Awesome, amazing – it’s a dream come true to qualify for the World T20. It’s the biggest day in my cricketing life,” Afghanistan fast bowler Hamid Hassan told me on Saturday after the team had beaten the UAE to book their place in the Carribbean.
As well reaching the World T20, their performances in Dubai had given the Afghan community a chance to smile even as a major military operation was getting underway back home.
A reminder, if any were needed, of the ongoing problems the country still faces.
When the side arrived in the UAE for the qualifiers, they knew the shortest format of the game offered them their best chance of pulling off an upset.
The team were seeded sixth out of the eight side taking part, but wins against the top-two ranked countries, Ireland and Scotland, set them on their way in Group A.
|Players clap from the pavillion as the target gets nearer [Hilal Yasni]|
Their third match was a politically-charged encounter with the United States, who had controversially been offered a wildcard for this tournament.
But their victory against Scotland in their opener gave the team some credibility as they tried to focus on cricket and not the political connotations of the match.
That wasn’t going to be easy, with the American Embassy nervous at the prospect of a US team playing in the Gulf against an Afghan side.
The Americans, coached by former West Indies opener Clayton Lambert, had to account for their every movement with the US Embassy, and sit through an FBI security briefing.
“It’s just another match” Afghanistan coach Kabir Khan kept telling everybody.
Whether his players believed that is another matter.
Roared on by most of the Afghan population of Dubai who’d flocked to the city’s International Cricket Stadium, the team enjoyed a very comfortable 29-run victory to go through to the Super Four stage.
Afghanistan were now on the brink of reaching their first senior international tournament.
Quite an achievement for a country that has just one cricket pitch and for a team that still relies on handouts from the Asian and International Cricket councils as well as the Afghan government.
Kabir Khan told me he was frustrated that despite their success over the last two years, sponsorship was still elusive.
“Afghanistan doesn’t have the infrastructure to encourage sponsorship. There aren’t enough big companies in the country that can afford to help us,” he said.
As well as providing money, the Afghan president Hamid Karzai is the patron of the country’s cricket association and has recently met the players, although he did ask to have “the BMW rule” explained to him.
That’s the leg-before-wicket rule, not the transport requirements of an Indian Premier League cricketer.
Karzai’s cricket knowledge may be suspect but his funding means the side is now full time, with many players like fast bowler Hamid Hassan plying their trade in first class cricket in Pakistan.
Having won all three games and still on a high after their win against the US, Afghanistan got a wake-up call in their first Super Four match against the Netherlands.
“Afghanistan get a lot of support, but we will have to cope with it. It is strange being on your home ground and no one is supporting you”
Khurram Khan, UAE cricket captain
The Dutch, showing the form that saw them beat England in the last Twenty20 World Cup, restricted their opponents to a modest 128-9.
Needing a win to stay in the tournament, the Netherlands reached their target with seven balls to spare, winning by four wickets.
It meant Afghanistan’s next Super Four clash against hosts UAE was effectively a semi-final.
And with both finalists qualifying for the World T20, everything rested on this game.
Their opponents the UAE had surprised many by reaching this stage, having won three out of their four games.
Despite being the home team, Afghanistan’s hefty support base in the Emirates meant they were up against the majority of the crowd as well as the Afghans.
“They get a lot of support, but we will have to cope with it. It is strange being on your home ground and no one is supporting you,” said Khurram Khan, the UAE skipper.
The Afghanistan bowlers didn’t let their fans down, their attack far too good for the home team (on paper at least), as they crawled to 100-9 off their 20 overs.
Knowing they were on the verge of making history, the Afghan batsmen got off to a tentative start.
Despite a few wobbles the team eventually etched their target with three balls and four wickets to spare, cuing chaotic but joyous scenes.
“These are the best moments of my life,” said Taj Malik, the assistant coach.
“We had an ultimate aim, to go to the (Twenty20) World Cup. We are thankful to Allah for giving us this opportunity.
“I am so happy, I cannot put it into words.”