Sometimes sport provides a story which not only justifies its existence, but confirms its vast significance. The Afghanistan cricket team is such a story with knobs on.
Today, at the blissful Beausejour ground in St Lucia, they will play India in the group stages of the World Twenty20. It is necessary to pinch yourself to believe it: Afghanistan versus India, if not quite on a level playing field then perfectly legitimately in the finals of a global tournament.
So utterly inconceivable is this that the film director Sam Mendes, Oscar winner and cricketer, has asked permission to film Afghanistan's progress in this competition.
Cricket barely existed in Afghanistan until 15 years ago. It was played by British troops there in the 19th century, but it never thrived. For years under Taliban rule it, like other sports, was banned.
Only when thousands of Afghans sought refuge in Pakistan did they properly learn to study and appreciate the game. Upon their return, they continued to play and, as these things do, it filtered down to new players who were similarly entranced. Somehow, they have competed and won despite the dreadfully abnormal state of their country and chronic shortage of cricket pitches.
There are said to be six turf pitches in their country, but only one might be of an acceptable standard and there is no hope whatever of any other country going to play on that. To continue their astonishing rise they need help and succour from quarters official and unofficial.
"It has been a vertical ascent," said Robin Marlar, a former president of MCC, who has been a champion of Afghan cricket and helped its public profile hugely by ensuring an inaugural fixture against them during his year of office. "They are serious cricketers with wonderful talent and the role of Pakistan in their rise should not be underestimated."
Afghanistan did not become an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council until 2001, but when they were handed the ball they ran with it, gaining successive promotions from Division Five of the ICC League. But it was when they started beating the senior associate members that notice started to be taken.
By finishing fifth in the ICC World Cup qualifying tournament last year they were granted full one-day international status, but their finest hour was winning the qualifying tournament for this event when they beat Ireland in the final.
The sport is growing apace at home despite the obvious drawbacks. They will simply have to become accustomed, like Pakistan, to playing their home matches away – probably in Sharjah.
Ireland are the top dogs among the lesser nations and in a warm-up match earlier this week. Afghanistan beat them again, comfortably, by five wickets. It is unthinkable that they can win either against India or their other group opponents, South Africa, though as their charismatic coach, Kabir Khan, said: "Obviously we have got two very good teams in our group, we know that, but we have seen in Twenty20 anything can happen. The good thing about the team is that at every level they have lifted their game.
"The demands at home are very high. They don't know a lot about cricket, they just see the team is winning so think it should be good enough. If they can win one tournament why not the World Cup? It's a lot of pressure on us, they don't want us to lose. We met our President, Hamid Karzai, a month ago and he just asked us to win the World Cup."
Players to watch are Nowroz Mangal, their captain, a proper fast bowler in Hamid Hassan, who has a mean yorker, and the powerful batsman Mohammad Shahzad. They are serious cricketers and may never play properly at home in their lifetimes, but they are here to stay.Reuse content