Afghanistan cricket team beat Kenya to reach country’s first World Cup

The Afghan cricket team has united the war-town country behind its sporting success

After nearly 35 years of invasion, conflict, international apathy, further invasion and faltering democracy, eleven cricket players may have succeeded where the Afghanistan government and the international community has failed.

Today the country’s fledgling cricket team took another momentous step in unifying the war torn country by qualifying for the country’s first ever Cricket World Cup.

The team, which was only founded in 2001, secured its place at the 2015 event in Australia and New Zealand with a crushing victory over Kenya at the World Cricket League Championships in the United Arab Emirates. 

Qualification came to down to the wire with a victory required in the team’s last match of the competition to make it certain, but the young team remained composed and won by seven wickets at the Sharjah ground.

“This is a big day in my life,” all-rounder Mohammad Nabi said. “It's a gift to a young [Afghan] generation.”

Afghanistan bowled out Kenya for a 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 just 20.5 overs

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 most happiest day of my life,” Hasan said. “To me it's an unbelievable dream come true.”

Team coach Kabir Khans, who was a Pakistani test crickets before leading the team, said, “This is the  best day of my coaching life.”

The game may have been played in UEA, but a thousand jubilant Afghan fans watched their team's historic victory on a giant screen in a stadium in capital Kabul. “We don't want fight, we want peace,” said local resident Tahir Mustafa while watching the match.

Under Taliban rule the sport was banned along with all forms of outdoor sport and cricket grounds were more likely to be used for executing political opponents than spin bowling or batting practise, let alone a professional match.

This didn’t stop a Taliban spokesman jumping on the popularity of the sport last year during a one day international match against Pakistan. Zabiullah Mujahid told AFP, “I pray that Afghans come out as winners”.

The sport became one of the war-ravaged Afghanistan’s top sports after refugees from camps in Pakistan brought it to the country following the Soviet invasion in 1979. It’s following in the capital is limited but the fan base is large and dedicated in the south and east of the country, nearer the Pakistan border.

Afghanistan Finance Minister Mohammad Omar Zakhilwal, also a member of the country’s 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 added. “We will encourage businessmen and the government to support cricket.”

Friday’s result was the latest in a series of sporting successes for Afghanistan, which beat the Indian under-23 cricket team in Singapore in August. Last month the war-ravaged country’s football team won its first major trophy at the South Asian Football Federation Championship.

Like the country’s successful football team the cricket team unites the country’s ethnic groups with local reports saying Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras were all praying for victory.

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 and five years ago was playing in World Cricket League Division 5 - the lowest ranked tournament among the affiliate members. Since then the team has seen a rapid rise and is now an Associate member of the International Cricket Council.

In 2015 the team will join cricketing powers including Australia, New Zealand, England, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. That doesn’t seem to intimidate Nabi though: “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.

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