Afghanistan leap ahead with Pakistan tour

Only a decade ago cricket did not officially exist in war-ravaged Afghanistan, but on Wednesday the country takes another giant leap forward when they pad up for their first match on tour in Pakistan.

Freshly arrived in Islamabad, the team take on Pakistan's second team in the capital Wednesday, the garrison city of Rawalpindi on Thursday and the textile town of Faisalabad on Sunday in three one-day matches.

Cricket, a passion on the sub-continent, trickled slowly into Afghanistan, introduced by refugees who learned the game in camps in Pakistan after fleeing the 1979 Soviet invasion and returned home as devotees.

Colourful Afghan fast bowler Hamid Hasan likens the meteoric ascent to Hollywood rags-to-riches film "Rocky" starring Sylvester Stallone.

"I think that there is a similarity in the story of Rocky and the Afghanistan cricket team -- we both started at the bottom and gradually made our way up," said Hasan.

"But this is the start, Afghanistan cricket is destined to go up and up."

The rapid strides and fast development have been acknowledged not only in the cricket world, but by the United States in its fight to reverse a Taliban insurgency and build up Afghan government capability.

"If we are searching for a model of how to meet tough international challenges with skill, dedication and teamwork, we need only look to the Afghan national cricket team," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last year.

It has been refugees such as Allahdad Noori, Taj Malik, Raees Ahmadzai and Nawroz Mangal who are regarded as the real pioneers of the Afghan game.

The Kachra Gari refugee camp on the outskirts of Peshawar was a hub and it was there that Noori, Mangal and Ahmadzai watched Pakistan win the 1992 World Cup in Australia, inspiring them to make Afghanistan a major force in the game.

Noori, a currency dealer, worked hard to win Afghanistan recognition in Asia, helping them to associate membership of the Asian Cricket Council in 2003 while Malik is regarded as the founder of the team and their first coach.

But like many aspects of life in Afghanistan, cricket was not immune from the vagaries of the Taliban, fighting a near 10-year insurgency since the 2001 US-led invasion evicted them from power for sheltering Osama bin Laden.

"We had to fight very hard to convince (the Taliban and the authorities) that cricket can prosper in Afghanistan," said Noori, such as batting aside fears that commitments might see players skip their prayers.

Malik assembled his men and despite allegations that players had Pakistani passports and were not Afghan born, Afghanistan made their way into division five of the International Cricket Council -- the lowest level -- in 2008.

"The famed zeal of Afghans was there and we fought hard to make it to the international level, thanks mainly to Pakistan who provided us grounds and other facilities to get international reckoning," said Malik.

Between 2008 and 2010, cricket in Afghanistan moved forward in leaps and bounds.

They won division five (Jersey, May 2008), division four (Tanzania, October 2008) and division three (Argentina, February 2009) to earn a place in the World Cup 2011 qualifiers.

Then under new coach Kabir Khan, the former Pakistan fast bowler, Afghanistan finished fifth in the 12-team competition.

They missed out on a World Cup berth but they won one-day status -- rising an astonishing 93 places from being in division five a year before.

A month later in May 2009, President Hamid Karzai announced the formation of the Afghanistan Cricket Board -- officially recognising the game in the country and promised to help find grounds and other infrastructure for the team.

In February 2010, Afghanistan won the World Twenty20 qualifiers in the United Arab Emirates, beating a formidable Ireland for their biggest step at international level -- a chance to play with the elites in the West Indies.

Although India and South Africa proved too much for Afghanistan in the World Twenty20, the chance meant a lot to the youngest cricketing nation.

"It has been a fairytale rise and with the determination and the will to succeed, I can say that Afghanistan will spring more surprises at the international level," said current captain Mangal.

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