SHARJAH // Afghanistan may have lost their one-day international against Australia but they won a lot of friends.
In only their second ODI game against an ICC Test playing side they were impressive in restricting Australia for 272 for eight.
The Afghans were all out for 206 in reply, thanks to an entertaining 86-run stand between Mohammed Nabi (46) and Asghar Stanikzai (66) at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium in a game that started at 6pm on Friday and ended at 1.30am on Saturday.
Omar Zakhilwal, the president of the Afghanistan Cricket Board, said the two ODIs they have played - against Pakistan in February and now Australia - would help bring peace in the war-ravaged country.
"The youth are drawn away from hostilities by cricket. Today they watch, tomorrow they will play," said Zakhilwal, who is also the finance minister in the Hamid Karzai-led government.
"Our youth, who've gone through difficult times, are watching these games. They can train and have big dreams.
"The majority of the population was watching this match either on television or listening to the radio. This is uniting the nation and is sending a positive message to the youth, so cricket is proving more than the game."
Cricket has gained enormous popularity in Afghanistan after players first learnt the game in refugee camps in Pakistan following the Soviet invasion of their country in 1979.
Afghanistan qualified for the 2010 World Twenty20 in the Caribbean and won the silver medal in the Asian Games in China the same year.
They have again qualified to play in the fourth staging of the World Twenty20 to be held in Sri Lanka next month.
"The whole of Afghanistan is looking forward to the World Twenty20," Zakhilwal said.
"If you see the performance of our players, and even though we may not have won these matches, but the way the players stood up to the pressure of international cricket proves that we have come a long way."
Zirak Faheem, a travelling journalist with a Kabul television station, said the game against Australia was a "significant" occasion for Afghanistan cricket and its future.
"It was indeed an excellent gesture from the Australian Cricket Board to provide Afghanistan with a one off game and I wish more such opportunities would be coming our way," he said.
"This game has brought so much joy to hundreds and thousands of Afghan fans watching the game live at the stadium and on television back home. I wish there will be more such occasions for the Afghan people to cheer them up."
Follow us @SprtNationalUAE