Afghanistan’s cricketing roller-coaster ride stops off in Argentina this week with a place in the 2011 World Cup tantalisingly within reach. At the leafy Buenos Aires settings of the Hurlingham,Belgrano and St Albans Clubs,Afghanistan will tackle Argentina,Hong Kong,Uganda,Papua New Guinea and the Cayman Islands.
If they finish in the top two,they’ll progress to April’s World Cup qualifier in South Africa,the final testing ground ahead of the 2011 World Cup to be staged in India,Pakistan,Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
It’s a prospect which would have been unthinkable just over eight years ago when the Afghanistan cricket federation wasn’t even part of the International Cricket Council (ICC). But since their entry into ICC tournaments,they have been determined to show that there is more to Afghanistan than bloodshed and roadside bombs.
They surged through Division Five and Four of the World Cricket League with successive promotions,earning desperately-needed development cash along the way as well as plaudits.
One regional Afghan governor was even reported to have given the players plots of land on which to build homes as reward for reaching the next level.
Their successes have also led to neighbours Pakistan helping in the preparations for the Division three tournament in Argentina.
At a recent four week-training camp in Lahore,organised by the Asian Cricket Council,Shoaib Akhtar,Aamir Sohail,Rashid Latif,Ijaz Ahmed and Aaqib Javed passed on crucial tips.
“We discussed a lot of cricket,” Afghanistan batsman Raees Ahmadzai told a cricket website.
“The players look like complete cricketers. We worked a lot on temperament. Our fast bowlers worked on how to control the new ball and our batsmen on how we make partnerships to chase big targets.”
Despite their charge up the world rankings,the troubles at home are never too far away. The Afghanistan cricket academy is based at Kabul’s notorious Ghazi Stadium where the Taliban once staged public executions while in August 2008,Rahmat Wali,who was part of the team from 2001 and 2006,was killed during fighting.
“2011 is a dream – I am very hopeful,” said Afghanistan coach Kabir Ali,a former Pakistan Test player. Despite losing to Afghanistan in the Division Four final in Tanzania last year,Hong Kong were still promoted and their coach,ex-England international Aftab Habib,is confident his side can progress when the action gets underway in Argentina from Saturday.
“It is an achievable dream and it is just a matter of putting in a lot of hard work,” he said of a side who gained valuable experience by playing in the 2008 Asian Cup.
Hosts Argentina and Uganda secured promotion to Division Two in 2007 only to fall straight back down in 2008. “It is going to be a very close tournament and there isn’t going to be much between the teams,” said Argentine coach Hamish Barton.
Like Hong Kong,Uganda have recently tested their ability against a higher-rated nation – Kenya,shock World Cup semi-finalists in 2003. Despite losing two games,at one stage they had their African rivals struggling at 180-8.