War-weary Afghanistan achieved one of its finest sporting moments by qualifying for its first Cricket World Cup on Friday. The Afghans had to beat Kenya in the last match of the World Cricket League Championship, and won by seven wickets in a canter in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.
“This is a big day in my life,” allrounder Mohammad Nabi said. “It’s a gift to a young (Afghan) generation.”
The historic victory sparked mass celebrations in capital Kabul where jubilant Afghans cheered on the streets and more than a thousand fans had been watching the game on a giant screen. After the match the players performed a dance in front of their applauding supporters before rushing across the pitch holding an Afghan flag.
Afghanistan edged UAE for the second automatic qualifying spot in the eight-team competition which started in June last year. The Afghans and Ireland, the championship winner, advance to the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
Afghanistan bowled out Kenya for a mere 93 runs in 43.3 overs with spinners Nabi, Hamza Hotak, and Karim Sadiq sharing seven wickets. Nabi then scored an unbeaten 46 off 42 balls and hit the winning boundary as Afghanistan raced to a triumphant 96-3 in only 20.5 overs.
“This is the best day of my coaching life,” said a jubilant Kabir Khan, Afghanistan’s coach and a former Pakistan Test cricketer.
Afghanistan Finance Minister Mohammad Omar Zakhilwal, also a member of the national cricket board, said qualification has brought smiles on the faces of his countrymen. “Our people have seen years and years of sadness and now we are among the best 12 cricketing nations in the world,” he said. “We will encourage businessmen and the government to support cricket.”
Cricket in refugee camps
Afghanistan has played in the last two World Twenty20s, but to qualify for a World Cup is remarkable progress for a country which has only a handful of turf pitches. Most of the players grew up playing in refugee camps in Pakistan.
Come 2015, they will be in a World Cup pool with Australia, New Zealand, England, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and another qualifier yet to be determined. Two more Associate teams, like Afghanistan and Ireland, will have a chance to qualify in New Zealand next year.
Nabi was quick to warn the big teams in his pool to watch out for Afghanistan. “Maybe we know about the weaknesses of some teams ... we will do better and do our best to beat some full member teams,” he said.
Division 5 to elite group
It was only five years ago when Afghanistan was playing in World Cricket League Division 5 -- the lowest ranked tournament among the affiliate members.
But since then Afghanistan has made rapid progress, and its status was raised to an Associate member. “Afghanistan’s journey has been a remarkable one,” ICC chief executive David Richardson said in congratulating the team.
UAE also played an important part in the Afghans’ progress, as Sharjah has been their home base for at least two years. They have competed against Australia and Pakistan in ODIs at Sharjah.
In 2010, Afghanistan qualified for the World T20 in West Indies, and last year played in the World T20 in Sri Lanka. Afghanistan didn’t win a match in either. Khan said he hoped ICC full member neighbours such as India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka will help Afghanistan prepare for the World Cup by playing ODIs with them.
“It’s always helpful when you play against full member countries, unfortunately we don’t get much chance to play against them,” he said. “I think at least neighboring countries like India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka should help us.”
With time to prepare, Khan hopes Afghanistan makes a statement in 2015. “We just want to leave our mark (at the World Cup) and we want other teams to notice us,” he said.
Fast bowler Hamid Hasan helped to restrict Kenya to only seven runs in the first 10 overs with some superb swing bowling, and clean-bowled tailenders Nelson Odhiambo and Hiren Varaiya off successive deliveries. “I’ve already lost all my words, but I am so, so happy. This is the happiest day of my life,” Hasan said. “To me it’s unbelievable, a dream come true.”
Brief Scores: Kenya 93 all out in 43.3 ov (Morris Ouma 39, Hamza Hotak 3-19, Karim Sadiq 10, Mohd Nabi 2-10, Hamid Hassan 2-11) vs Afghanistan 96-3 in 20.5 ov (Mohammad Nabi 46*, Hashmatullah Shaidi 13*; Shem Ngoche 2-30).
13 yrs in making
2001: The Afghanistan Cricket Federation comes into existence, set up by Afghan expats in Pakistan. Afghanistan, recognised as an Affiliate member, tour Pakistan, losing three matches and drawing two.
2004: Play in the ACC Elite Cup and win one match, beating Bahrain.
2007: Bag their first title, sharing the ACC T20 Cup with Oman after the final is tied. They win the tournament in 2009, 2011 and 2013.
2008: Win Division Five of the World Cricket League, to start their bid to qualify for the 2011 World Cup.
2009: Win WCL Division Three in Buenos Aires and progress to the 2009 World Cup qualifier, the final qualifying tournament for 2011. They fail to qualify for the World Cup, but get ODI status.
Feb 2010: Beat Ireland in the final of the World T20 qualifier to win a place in the World T20 in the Caribbean.
Nov 2010: Win the men’s silver in the Asian Games, beating Pakistan in the semis before losing to Bangladesh by five wickets in the final.
Dec 2010: Beat Scotland by seven wickets to win the Intercontinental Cup, in only their second appearance in the tournament.
2012: Finish runners-up to Ireland in the World T20 qualifiers and qualify for the World T20 in Sri Lanka.
June 2013: Are recognised as an Associate member of the ICC.
Oct 2013: Beat Kenya to finish second in the WCL Championship and qualify for the 2015 World Cup. They are the 20th team overall to feature in event.