DUBAI // The pitch invasion that marked Afghanistan's qualification for the World Twenty20 - at the expense of the UAE - was one of the happiest you will ever see. As many as 3,000 UAE-based Afghans saw their new heroes continue their remarkable rise in the sport by booking their place alongside the best cricket-playing nations in the world.
As victory was finally achieved, a number of them hurdled the barriers that ring the playing area, danced on the outfield, kissed pictures of Hamid Karzai, and shouted "Afghanistan, zindabad!" They were relieved that their side got over the finish line. Although they always looked comfortable chasing a target of just 101 to win they reached it with only three balls left. When they made a move on the players themselves, Kabir Khan, the team's coach, wisely ushered his players into the sanctuary of the dressing room.
One man stood out among the crowd. Taj Malik Khan, the assistant coach of the Afghan side, was not going to miss any of this. He is one of the original driving forces of cricket in Afghanistan and was one of the pioneers who brought the sport back from Pakistan when the Soviet army retreated from his land in February 1989, thus repatriating millions of Afghan refugees. He was the coach when they first played inter- national matches, while the Taliban were still in power. He maintained his commitment to the game he loves despite the obvious obstacles, as well as the fact his father had ordered him to concentrate on his studies.
"Maybe he was correct, cricket was a strange game then," he said. "These are the best moments of my life. We had an ultimate aim, to go to the World Cup. "We had huge support back in Afghanistan. I am so happy, I can't put it into words. This is an historic day for Afghanistan. We are the people who have made history. We have achieved something that nobody can believe." Taj is not the only survivor from the early days. Raees Ahmadzai was born in Kacha Gari, a camp in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province which provided refuge to thousands of displaced Afghans. His official age of 25 is an approximation made by his mother, based loosely on who the Afghan president was at the time.
"It is our mission to show the world that we are decent people, that we want to do good for the world," said Ahmadzai. The result was harsh on a UAE side who had battled so bravely to reach this point. They had come within a game of playing at an ICC global event, for the second time in the past year, only to have it snatched away from at the last. Their hopes were all but ended by the second top order collapse in two days, as they lost three wickets within the first two overs.
"It is difficult to explain the feeling without using cliches, but the players are as devastated as you can imagine, bitterly disappointed," said Colin Wells, the UAE coach. "We have come close and then lost a couple of games of cricket." firstname.lastname@example.org