It’s been quite a journey for the Afghanistan cricket team, as the war-torn country celebrates its qualification for the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
With the Afghanistan Cricket Federation still just 12 years old, for the Afghans to have qualified for the top international cricket tournament in the world is an extraordinary achievement.
Let’s take a look back at the key moments in their modern cricketing development.
New Affiliate Members
Under Taliban rule, most sports were banned except for cricket, which gained the regime’s official approval in 2000.
After the UK/US invasion of the country in 2001, the Afghanistan Cricket Federation was established by Afghan expats living in Pakistan and awarded Affiliate Member status by the International Cricket Council (ICC).
That same year, a team travelled to Pakistan on tour, where they lost three matches and drew two, attracting an enormous amount of media attention while war ravaged their home country.
First International Successes
In August 2003, the ICC and the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) committed themselves to helping cricket develop in Afghanistan.
Then, in June 2004, Afghanistan participated in the ACC Elite Cup for the first time, beating Bahrain and finishing sixth in the competition.
Three years after their ACC Elite Cup success, the Afghans won their first tournament, sharing the ACC Twenty20 Cup with Oman after their November 2007 final ended in a tie.
From there, Afghanistan won Division Five of the ICC World Cricket League, the lowest tier of a series of one-day cricket tournaments for national teams that do not have Test status.
They beat Jersey by two wickets in the final, launching their campaign to qualify for the 2011 Cricket World Cup.
Following that, the Afghans won Division Three of the World Cricket League in January 2009, beating the Cayman Islands by 82 runs and progressing to the 2009 World Cup qualifier on net run rate.
They were unable to qualify for the main tournament, finishing sixth in the qualifying stage, but their efforts were enough for them to be granted One-Day International status for the first time.
It was quite an achievement for a team that only participated in its first official international tournament just five years earlier.
Afghanistan’s cricketers achieved even greater attention the following year, as they beat Ireland by eight wickets in the final qualifier for the 2010 ICC World Twenty20 in the West Indies.
The Afghans had secured their spot in their first-ever tournament against Full ICC Members, to the jubilation of their players.
Paired with India and South Africa in Group C, the Afghans were knocked out of the competition at that stage, but there were some superb individual performances that made others sit up and take notice.
In their first game against India at St. Lucia, opener Noor Ali Zadran scored 50 from 48 balls against a bowling attack that included Praveen Kumar, Ashish Nehra and Zaheer Khan.
Afghanistan may have been defeated by eight wickets by their more experienced opponents, but they gained praise in many quarters for what ESPNCricinfo described as a “spirited” performance.
In their second game against South Africa, the Afghans did well to restrict the Proteas to 139 from their 20 overs.
It owed much to seam bowler Hamid Hassan, who took 3-21 in his four overs.
In reply, Afghanistan were reduced to 32-8 as they could not withstand the onslaught of Dale Steyn, Charl Langeveldt and Morne Morkel.
However, tail-enders Samiullah Shenwari, Mirwais Ashraf and Hassan showed a good deal of character, putting on 55 runs for the last three wickets to take their team to 80 all out.
After that experience of playing in such a high-profile competition, Afghanistan were in a much better position to participate and win other tournaments.
In December 2010, just months after their debut at the World Twenty20, the Afghans won the ICC Intercontinental Cup for the first time, beating Scotland in the final by seven wickets.
Two years later, Afghanistan qualified for the second time for the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka, where they were in Group A alongside India and tournament champions England.
Again, they failed to progress past the group stage but it once again showed how far Afghan cricket had come in a relatively short space of time.
Their success in qualifying for two consecutive World Twenty20 tournaments, while also winning the Intercontinental Cup, meant that in June 2013 Afghanistan were recognised as an Associate member of the ICC.
The award of Associate membership capped quite a rise for Afghan cricket, which went into the qualifying stage for the 2015 World Cup riding a tremendous wave of confidence.
2015 World Cup Qualifiers
To qualify for the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, Afghanistan were required to finish in the top two of the eight-team ICC World Cricket League Championship.
In a 14-match campaign that began in August 2011, the Afghans kept pace with Ireland, the United Arab Emirates and the Netherlands at the top of the table.
Their final match of the tournament took place on October 4 against Kenya, with the Afghans requiring a victory to secure their place at the World Cup.
Things began brightly as Afghanistan dismissed their opponents for 93 at Sharjah Cricket Stadium, with just two Kenyans reaching double figures.
In reply, it took the Afghans just 20.5 overs to reach their target, with captain Mohammed Nabi leading the way by scoring 46 not out from 42 balls.
To joyous scenes in the capital Kabul, Afghanistan finished second in the group with the win, reaching the World Cup for the first time in their history.
That qualifying triumph means the Afghans will be in Pool A, alongside England, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and co-hosts Australia and New Zealand.
Perhaps the biggest question that now faces Afghanistan’s cricket authorities is: How much further can this team go?
Their players are continuing to mature and, as the sport grows and improves at the grass-roots level, they will produce youngsters who play at a high standard and can continue the national side’s rapid rise.
The biggest issue in the immediate future will be the need to adapt to and learn about conditions in Australia and New Zealand. The former’s bouncy pitches and the latter’s swing and seam movement will be very unfamiliar to the Afghans.
Players like Mohammad Nabi and Hamid Hassan have experience of playing for the MCC and in other countries, a trend that is sure to continue given the proliferation of Twenty20 leagues around the world.
It is far too early to say whether Full Member status and playing Test matches is a realistic target for Afghanistan, especially with their first World Cup still just under two years away.
However, the steps they have taken and the development of the sport in the country despite its continued fragility are very encouraging.
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