DUBAI // Afghanistan take another big step toward cricketing respect when they play Australia in a one-dayer, only the second time the team of mostly war refugees have faced a Test-playing nation.
Afghanistan qualified this year for their second consecutive World Twenty20, but are not expected to beat Australia when they meet at 6pm on Saturday at Sharjah Cricket Stadium.
Even so, coach Kabir Khan said playing well will give the team confidence ahead of the Twenty20 tournament in Sri Lanka and show that they have moved beyond simply being a feel-good story for the sport. He also hopes it will inspire a younger generation to take up the sport.
Afghanistan played their first ODI against a Test-playing nation earlier this year when they faced Pakistan, losing by seven wickets.
"The Australia match is a day where Afghan cricket can go a step higher than where we are," Kabir told The Associated Press. "Some of the players have seen Australia on TV and they are stars. Now they will get a chance to play against them."
Made up of players who learnt the game in Pakistan refugee camps, Afghanistan have gone from the World Cricket League Division 5 in 2008 to playing their first ODI this year against a Test-playing team, Pakistan.
The team's success has helped cricket replace football as the national sport, and even the Taliban have approved cricket where frequent breaks mean the sport does not interfere with prayer times in the Muslim nation.
Cricket clubs have sprung up across the country and the government is building new grounds in order to keep up with the growing demand from 70,000 club cricketers.
Steve Rixon, the acting Australia coach, said his team were glad to do their part to bolster the prospects of Afghanistan cricket. But he said Australia were there to win and show why they were once the No 1-ranked ODI team in the world. They currently sit fourth.
"Afghanistan has come in as a minor contender but they are there and they are competing at the top level," Rixon said.
"We have to come in with every ounce of respect for the opposition," he said. "I like the idea that little minor nations are getting a chance to come in and play against the bigger boys. I think that is great for cricket."
Vice captain David Warner said it would be a mistake to take a team like Afghanistan lightly.
"They are the type of people that could bring anything to the table and we are looking forward to that challenge," Warner said.
Warner said the biggest hurdle is coping with spin bowling. Afghanistan have several quality spin bowlers including all-rounder Mohammad Nabi and Samiullah Shenwari. Their top fast bowler Hamid Hassan is out injured but expected to be back for the World Twenty20.
"Everyone says we struggle against spin bowling and we know they are going to have a lot of spin bowlers," Warner said. "We have practised very hard the past couple of weeks against spin bowling. We know over here we are going to have to be at our best."
In Afghanistan's favour, the team are relatively unknown and playing at Sharjah Cricket Stadium which will be packed with Afghan expats. Afghanistan have also been in the country for several weeks and adjusted to the hot and humid conditions, while the Australians only recently arrived.
"This is a good game for us," said the Afghan captain Nawroz Mangal. "We have learnt from our mistakes and hopefully we will perform better this time."
Follow us @SprtNationalUAE