SHARJAH // The country's oldest international cricket stadium will stage probably the most eagerly-anticipated match of the season when Pakistan play Afghanistan on Friday.
Thousands of Pakistan and Afghan expatriates are expected to pack the Sharjah Cricket Stadium for the first one-day international (ODI) between the two sides.
Afghanistan have played 18 ODIs since gaining status in 2009, but all their matches have been against Associate and Affiliate teams Canada, the Netherlands, Ireland, Kenya and Scotland.
The prospect of playing Pakistan, the World Cup champions of one-day cricket in 1992, has excited the Afghanistan players.
"It is a big game," said Mohammed Nabi, the all-rounder who captains the Afghan Cheetahs in the Pakistan T20 league. "We want to play well and give them a hard time. We will try to beat them."
Of their 18 ODIs to date, Afghanistan have won 11 and lost seven. Shafiqullah Stanikzai, the team manager, said his players are up for the challenge against their subcontinental neighbours.
"It's a great opportunity for Afghanistan players and they can't wait for [the game]," Stanikzai told Agence France-Presse. "It's a tough challenge for the team but we will show our qualities and fight to the last. The Afghanistan team is an entertainment package and we will try to give the best possible fight to Pakistan."
Mohammed Shahzad, the Afghan wicketkeeper who impressed against England for an ICC Combined XI in one of the warm-up games for the recent Test series, is hoping to gain exposure from playing such a high-profile game.
"I would like to get contracts from clubs in England," he said. "Just like Mohammed Nabi and Hamid Hassan, I want to make a name for Afghanistan and do well with such professional contracts.
"The boys are very pumped up, and we are confident because we have a team who can beat any international side in one-day cricket."
The cricket relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan goes back a long way, as the game was made popular in Afghanistan by refugees who spent years living in Pakistan when Soviet troops invaded their country in 1979.
In the past three years cricket has progressed in the war-ravaged country. Afghanistan finished fifth in the World Cup qualifiers in 2009 to win the right to play one-day cricket, and the following year they won the qualifying tournament to earn an opportunity to play in the World Twenty20 held in West Indies.
Stanikzai said Afghanistan are progressing fast.
"With this opportunity we hope to build our team and next month we will feature in the World Twenty20 qualifiers and hope to win that again to play the main tournament," said Stanikzai of the World Twenty20 to be held in Sri Lanka in September and October.
Afghanistan's team will be led by Nawroz Mangal. Other key players include Karem Sadiq, Nabi, Mohammad Shahzad and the fast bowler Hassan.
Mohsin Khan, the Pakistan coach, said his team will not take the Afghans lightly. "Afghanistan's team is coming up very fast and we will take them very seriously," said Mohsin, hoping his team carry on their good work from the 3-0 Test series win over England.
"This one-day [international] against Afghanistan will give us an opportunity to switch to the one-day mode before the series against England."
Pakistan have brought called up the all-rounders Shahid Afridi and Hammad Azam for the one-dayers.