|Cricket is popular in Afghanistan, despite a lack of sporting facilities [GALLO/GETTY]|
Afghanistan are squaring up to meet the United States in another battle – but this time on a cricket field in Dubai.
And in an unusual twist, the Afghan team find themselves as favourites.
Afghanistan have been grouped with the United States in the qualifying tournament for the Twenty20 World Cup in May, along with Ireland and Scotland.
A victory by Afghanistan would offer a moment of pride for a country which has been mired deep in conflict with the US for years.
“We are the underdogs,” confirmed Sushail Nadkarni, a US player.
Afghan batsman Raees Ahmadzai was confident of a victory that would move his team closer to the tournament in the West Indies in May.
“We will beat them, but our goal is not just to defeat the Americans, but to qualify for the World Cup,” said 25-year-old Ahmadzai, who comes from Logar province, southeast of the capital Kabul.
Cricket is fringe sport in the US with little funding and recognition, while in Afghanistan the sport has been part of the sporting landscape for decades.
More recently, the passion for the game developed among Afghan refugees in neighbouring Pakistan.
Like all sports, cricket was banned during the Taliban rule. In 2000 it became the only sport, and was sanctioned by the hardline Islamic movement.
A year later Afghanistan became an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council.
Due to the instability in the country, the Afghan team meet on improvised cricket grounds and play for spectators on makeshift football fields. The players often travel to Pakistan for training, said Seed Shah, the team’s manager.
The number of cricket fans is growing and the game has the support of “many factions,” including the Taliban and the country’s president Hamid Karzai, Shah said.
A spot in the World Cup is what is expected of the Afghan team, Shah said, but he acknowledged that the “enthusiasm is focused on at least beating the US”.
“We want to show that Afghanistan is not worth less than any other country if only given a fair chance,” Shah said.
Both teams are trying hard to downplay the obvious political overtones of the qualifier.
“We are not even thinking about it,” US team captain Steve Massiah said.
“It’s politics, but we are here to win the match and the entire tournament. That’s our objective.”
The American team are clear underdogs in the tournament. The national team rarely practice together and most cricket in the US is played on a synthetic surface.
Imran Khan Suddahazai, the US team manager, said American cricketers have distanced themselves from politics ahead of the match, but won’t deny the rival team’s difficult political reality.
“There’s conflict in Afghanistan and the US government is involved, but we’d like to dissociate ourselves from that”
Imran Khan Suddahazai US team manager
“There’s conflict in Afghanistan and the US government is involved, but we’d like to dissociate ourselves from that,” Suddahazai said.
“Cricket is sport, a healthy way of competition,” he said, adding the Afghan team was made of “a great bunch of guys.”
He praised their achievements, their dedication to cricket and hailed their “remarkable spirit.”
“We’d like to emulate their success, qualify for the World Cup and enhance cricket in the US”.
Joining Afghanistan and the US in Group A are Ireland and Scotland. Group B is made up by the Netherlands, Kenya, Canada and the United Arab Emirates.
The two finalists from the qualifying competition, which will include a playoff stage among the top two sides from each group, will qualify for the Twenty20 World Cup.
The winners will join South Africa and India in Group C, while the losing finalist will be placed with West Indies and England in Group D.