x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Afghanistan enjoy the attention at World Twenty20 Qualifier

Players encouraged by crowd support as coach Kabir tell his side to 'make it simple' against Namibia in first qualifying final. Sports round-up audio

Afghanistan players, in blue, are in good form and do not consider huge crowd numbers as pressure
Afghanistan players, in blue, are in good form and do not consider huge crowd numbers as pressure

DUBAI // Afghanistan, the unlikely cricket team whose rise from refugees displaced by war to playing at the 2010 World Twenty20 led to a film being made about them, are a single match away from being able to write the sequel.

The Afghans marched inexorably into Thursday's qualifying final against Namibia at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium, after picking up a seventh consecutive win in the qualifying competition yesterday.

If they defeat the African challengers, Afghanistan, who won this competition when it was first staged two years ago, will be guaranteed a trip to the global showpiece to be held in Sri Lanka in September.

The convoluted qualifying process in this tournament means the losing team will still get another crack at reaching the World T20, via the last preliminary decider on Saturday.

However, Kabir Khan, the coach who left a similar role with the UAE to take charge of Afghanistan ahead of this tournament, wants to secure safe passage at the earliest opportunity.

"We want to make it simple for ourselves [by beating Namibia] otherwise it will be difficult and we will have to go back and start again," the coach said.

"There is a lot of pressure and expectation on us because we went last time [to the World T20 in the West Indies]. People think it should be easy, but it is very difficult."

Although the protagonists are still largely the same, their status has changed markedly since Afghan cricket first took root in the refugee camps of Pakistan's north-west frontier during the Soviet occupation of their country.

Now the national cricketers are celebrities, as evidenced by the acclaim Mohammed Shahzad received for his man of the match display in the 15-run win over Bermuda.

The burly wicketkeeper is one of the younger players in a well-established Afghan side, but he has quickly become the darling of the supporters who follow their team in droves.

The attendance for the morning fixture against Bermuda was the largest there has been for a match at the Global Cricket Academy.

While air-horns sounded and a bagpiper played his tune, Shahzad provided the visual entertainment, bullying the Bermuda attack and posting five sixes in his 38-ball 64.

"I've been saying to the boys, 'Come on, we can do it if we work hard'," Shahzad said.

"We don't feel pressure because everyone is in very good form and we have reached this stage without losing a game."

Shahzad idolises the India captain MS Dhoni, and there are echoes of the Indian superstar in the Afghan player's method.

Both keep wicket. Both love hitting sixes. Both specialise in the "helicopter shot". And both attract a crowd when they try to move anywhere.

"I'm not a very big star," Shahzad said.

"I am a small star in Afghanistan, but Mahendra Singh Dhoni is a star of the world and my favourite cricketer.

"Hopefully we can get to the World T20 then when we get there we can play well, just like Dhoni."

Afghanistan's serene progress in this competition to date has been a boon for Kabir, who decided to give up a comfortable job in Sharjah overseeing UAE cricket last month.

With the incentive of earning a place at a global competition in his first assignment, as well as being followed by the most partisan support in all of cricket's new world, perhaps it was an easy decision to make.

"All of the players love it, they love the crowd," said Kabir, who was at the helm in his first spell in charge when Afghanistan won the first edition of this tournament.

"I have experienced it myself, playing in crowdless games, then all of a sudden the crowds come in, you feel pressure and sometimes players don't adjust to it.

"Our players enjoy it. They want the crowds to come in and the music to be there and it gets the best out of them."