MIAMI, (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s journey from dusty borderland refugee camps to cricket’s global elite will be completed today when they face the game’s millionaires, India, in the Twenty20 World Cup.
The war-torn nation has risen swiftly through the ranks of the game’s minnows to reach the international tournament in the Caribbean where they will also face South Africa in the group stage.
Afghanistan’s progress from being ranked 29th in the world and playing, just two years ago, in Division Five of the ICC’s structure, is a heartwarming example of sport giving some cheer to a country that has been blighted by violence and political strife.
But according to their Pakistan born coach Kabir Khan there is no question of the Afghans, who started their qualification progress playing against the likes of Japan and Vanuatu, being in the West Indies to simply enjoy the experience.
“The players and all of us are excited about the first game against India. We are not just coming here to participate in the tournament. We want to give them tough cricket, fight hard and maybe make an upset,” he said.
For several players their involvement in a game, which does not have a strong tradition in their country, began in the camps of North West Pakistan as they and their families escaped conflict following the US led invasion of Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban regime in 2001.
Captain Nowraz Mangal learnt to play the game in one of those camps, bowling with a ball made out of cloth and shoes for stumps.
Mangal and his team-mates have spent several weeks in Dubai and Pakistan getting themselves prepared, physically and mentally, for a tournament involving the game’s greatest players.
Khan says the team should cope with the psychological pressures of playing in front of large crowds in an event that will be televised globally.
“They are mentally very strong, top level cricket is all about the mental side of the game. They are fairly used to (pressure) as wherever we have gone there have been big crowds following us, they will just have to get use to having the crowd against them as well.”
India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni brings his side straight to the Caribbean from the lucrative IPL competition and unlike many other teams, the Indians have not had time for a warm-up game.
But Dhoni said today’s game at Gros Islet in St.Lucia will in no way be about easing into the tournament.
“If you ask me, I would not consider our opening match against Afghanistan as a practice game. I don’t take my opponents lightly. At the end of the day you have to win whichever team you play,” he said.
“I don’t know much about them. It is good in a way because if we know too much about a side then you are thinking too much about them. However, our preparation will remain the same as if we were playing the best opponent in world cricket,” he said.