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19 Feb, 2015

Afghanistan cricketers, some ex-refugees, inspire on World Cup debut

Canberra, (International Cricket Council website), 19 February 2015 – The Cinderella story of world cricket did not achieve the fairy tale finish many hoped for on Wednesday, but Afghanistan’s maiden appearance at the ICC Cricket World Cup had a far greater significance than the score at the end of the Manuka Oval match.

The Afghanistan team has become a source of inspiration, not only for their fans back home, but for Afghans around the world. (See full match highlights here).

Its rapid rise up the cricket ranks has resulted in an equally fast growth of the sport’s popularity in Afghanistan, while its qualification for the 2015 World Cup has given Afghans a rare chance to see their nation highlighted on the biggest stage.

How much this means was obvious at Manuka Oval on Wednesday. Afghanistan fans were many, they were vocal and they were proud.

They came dressed in Afghanistan kit, arriving well before the gates opened baring flags and faces that displayed sheer excitement at being part of the historic match.

Melbourne man Javed Khan, along with a collection of friends and family, piled into their cars on Monday afternoon for the seven-hour drive to Canberra.

They arrived late at night to discover there was no accommodation available and instead slept either in their cars or outdoors.

For them, it was worth it for the chance to see Afghanistan bowl its first World Cup ball.

“I feel proud, I feel ecstatic and happy to see our players represent our nation,” Khan said.

“Our country has been through a lot of ups and downs over the last 20 or 30 years, so it’s good to see a sporting group come up and represent the country in a positive way.”

Having followed the team’s fortunes since it was formed, Khan said he help high hopes for the team.

“Hopefully they can keep improving over the next four or five years and become a top six nation in the world.”

His sentiments were echoed by other Afghanistan fans who had endured long journeys to Canberra for the game.

The roar when Hamid Hassan bowled Afghanistan’s first ball filled Manuka Oval and continued throughout an innings that produced many highlights – particularly some terrific catches from wicketkeeper Afsar Zazai.

Even when their batsmen were in dire trouble, the fans loudly cheered every run, doing their best to drown out the larger and equally boisterous Bangladesh crowd.

This was a match that was joyful to attend. Absent was any sort of animosity between fans, rather, the most animated spectators from both camps could be seen grinning and patting each other on the back.

At point large, a large contingent of Afghanistan and Bangladesh fans paraded around the edge of the ground together, flags waving.

Even for those not supporting either team, it was impossible not to get caught up in the infectious enthusiasm.

There was dancing, there were drums and there was a sense that all those in attendance appreciated Afghanistan and what its players had been through before finding themselves playing in a Cricket World Cup.

The country’s national cricket team was formed just 14 years ago, shortly after it was liberated from Taliban rule.

Many Afghanis became familiar with the game – and fell in love with it – while living in refugee camps in Pakistan after fleeing the Taliban. When they returned, the game came with them. Captain Mohammad Nabi is just one of those players whose life has followed that storyline.

The team only debuted in Division 5 of the ICC World Cricket League in 2008 but flew up the ranks, securing its Cricket World Cup berth with a win against Kenya in October 2013.

It is an ascent that has had an effect on the entire country, coach Andy Moles said before Wednesday’s match.

“It’s been well-documented the hardships that the players and the general public have at home and all over Afghanistan,” Moles said.

“It’s a well-received sport amongst the population in Afghanistan, and the players know that through good performances it will be a massive uplifting and just a general well-being in the country.”

Wednesday’s result will not slow the meteoric rise of Afghan cricket.

The team is hopeful of achieving a maiden World Cup win before the tournament is over and if they do, the celebrations in Afghanistan will far outdo those that accompanied their qualification for the tournament.

There are many who believe Afghanistan could challenge for a place in Test cricket in the not-so-distance future. Either way, its story is one worth following.