x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Afghans relishing chance to take on the best in the world

Coach Kabir Khan is looking forward to another fairytale script in the ACC Trophy Elite before the World Twenty20 next month.

The Afghans are 31 days away from sharing the stage with the game's famous players.
The Afghans are 31 days away from sharing the stage with the game's famous players.

It is a marker for the extraordinary ascent of the Afghanistan cricket team that this tournament ranks a distant second in the order of their priorities over the next month and a half. There once was a time when the chance simply to play matches was celebrated with fervour. Now, after sealing qualification in Dubai last month, the Afghans are 31 days away from sharing the stage with the game's most famous players at the World Twenty20 in the West Indies.

Since winning the qualification tournament in the UAE, these shores have officially become home to the Afghanistan national team. For the foreseeable future, they will play their home fixtures in Sharjah. They are comfortably better supported than the UAE even, judging by the 6,000-strong Afghan cheer squad at that Qualifier final in Dubai Sports City. Dislocated they may, but the ripple effect is becoming a tsunami back at home.

"A lot of youngsters are coming towards cricket in Afghanistan," said Kabir Khan, the head coach. "It is playing a huge role in the future of Afghanistan. "It shows at junior level as well. The Under 19 team qualified for the World Cup as well in New Zealand. That shows the huge amount of talent in the country. "We just need some facilities, and some help from our neighbouring countries, like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or India."

That need is already starting to be sated. Earlier this month Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal, Afghanistan's finance minister, laid the foundation stone on the nation's first cricket stadium. The ground, which is being built in a township 15km east of Jalalabad, will cost an estimated US$5 million (Dh18.3m) to complete, using funds from the Afghan government. The site is in the centre of Afghanistan's main cricket playing community, near the border with Pakistan.

It may be a long time before the great and good of the inter- national game are playing there, but the wider populace will not have to wait for much longer to see their compatriots take on the best. On May 1, Nowraz Mangal and his men will line up against MS Dhoni - fitness permitting - Yuvraj Singh, et al, in the Caribbean. They are not ruling out another fairytale. "The last 12 months have been a dream for us," added Kabir, a former head coach of the UAE.

"We are a [full one-day international] nation, and the boys often ask me, 'Why don't we challenge them?' "When they are at the peak of their performance I think, 'why can't they challenge themselves against Test playing countries?' They are very talented." pradley@thenational.ae