What comes into your mind when you think of Afghanistan?
War. The Taliban. Poverty.
No matter what your opinion may be of the Islamic state, it may be time add another word to the list.
The Afghanistan national cricket team is on the precipice of achieving one of the most incredible feats in the history of sport. They are merely one match away from qualifying for the 2011 Cricket World Cup.
The eyes of the cricket world are firmly focused on South Africa as the Indian Premier League is set to commence this weekend on foreign shores. Sadly, many of those gazing in awe at the stars of the Twenty20 game are blind to the beauty of what has been happening on the cricket pitches of South Africa this past week.
Cricket in Afghanistan dates back to 1839, when the game is reported to have been played by British troops in Kabul. However, unlike many other countries influenced by British sport, the vast majority of Afghan people didn’t take to the game.
For over a hundred years the game remained dormant in Afghanistan. In fact, it wasn’t until the early 1990’s that the game became a relatively popular activity for Afghan people.
Afghan refugees, who had found sanctuary in neighbouring Pakistan, learned to play the game. Whilst still residing in the squalor of their refugee camps they formed the Afghanistan Cricket Federation in 1995.
The seeds had been sown. However, cricket in Afghanistan was cast aside in 1996 when the Taliban came into power, since they prohibited all sports.
As the world welcomed a new millennium, the Taliban had a change of heart. Cricket, in 2000, became the first sport, and only, sport to be approved by the fundamentalist regime.
Afghans were now free to play cricket when and where they wanted, but the good news didn’t end there. Just one year later, Afghanistan was bestowed with the honour of affiliate membership of the International Cricket Council.
Since then they have toured Pakistan, playing numerous teams from the second tier of Pakistan’s domestic league, as well as trekking around the home of cricket, England.
Wins were scarce, but that didn’t matter.
In 2007 they got their hands on some silverware, well, they had to share the ACC Twenty20 Cup with Oman after a tie in the final, but still, a trophy is a trophy.
One year later, with the taste of victory still lingering in the back of their throats they embarked on their, seemingly impossible, quest to qualify for the 2011 World Cup.
Starting their journey at the root of the World Cricket League, the task of successfully booking a place in the “Sub-continent World Cup” would by no means be an easy task.
Suffering just one defeat in Division Five saw them promoted to Division Four, where they went one better by winning the title without losing a game. Division Three now awaited, as well as some stiff opposition from Uganda and Papua New Guinea.
A loss to Uganda in their first game was a setback, but it was only a minor one. The defeat sparked new life into the Afghans who beat everyone else in the league, thus finishing in first place.
At the start of this month the ICC World Cup Qualifier began. Afghanistan scraped through the group stage with only two victories, against the only two teams to finish below them, Bermuda and Denmark. As a result of only beating the two teams that didn’t progress with them to the Super Eights, Afghanistan carried no points forward.
Afghanistan’s first game of the Super Eights was against the highly fancied Irish side, a team that had shocked Pakistan and Zimbabwe in the 2007 World Cup. This time, however, Ireland would be on the receiving end of an upset.
Having been the only team in the tournament to beat Ireland, so far, they went into their encounter with World Cup veterans, Canada, with morale at an all-time high. Nevertheless, the Afghans failed to break down the Canadians batting line-up, putting them on the brink of elimination.
Yesterday in a must-win match against Scotland, the Afghans posted a score of 279. It turned out to be a total much too high for Scotland to chase down, as they were bowled out for a meagre 237.
Afghanistan has just one game left against Namibia, scheduled for tomorrow. Both teams are level on four points; therefore a win for Afghanistan would, at the very least, all but sure up sixth place, which will gain them One Day International status for the next four years. However, if results go their way elsewhere then Afghanistan could qualify for the World Cup.
The country’s meteoric rise in the face of the hardship being endured back home is nothing short of inspiring. If they succeed tomorrow, then all credit to them. If they don’t, then all credit to them for showing the world that no matter how dark the future looks for Afghanistan, there is, and will always be, a faint light, representing hope.