Past the finishing post
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP):
Against the backdrop of war and hardship, a severe lack of facilities and funds, cricket in Afghanistan has grown at a phenomenal pace in a dozen years.
The national team that is now preparing for its first World Cup, the biggest stage for limited-overs cricket, has the kind of a conviction that belies its status as one of the Associate teams - second-tier national teams that rarely compete against the top countries.
Coach Andy Moles said it was a "magnificent achievement" to qualify but doesn't think his group of players will be content just to rub shoulders with cricket's most elite players.
"We are not going to win the tournament this year, but that is a target for eight to 10 years' time from now," Moles said.
Afghanistan captain Mohammad Nabi said the short-term goal was to reach the second round.
"It's our main plan. If we beat Bangladesh in the first match, then we hope to beat Scotland, and maybe one of the big teams if we happen to win against them, then we will go to the second round," Nabi told a news conference in Adelaide, Australia, on Saturday.
Moles said it was possible. "First time there, to hit the super eight would be a massive achievement. That would be like winning the World Cup for Afghanistan," he said.
Afghanistan will be among 14 teams competing for cricket's top prize in the February 14-March 29 tournament, which is being staged in 14 venues across Australia and New Zealand.
The Afghan squad is in a tough Pool A with four-time World Cup winner Australia, 1996 champions Sri Lanka - finalists in the last two editions - England, New Zealand, Bangladesh, and Scotland. Only the top four teams in each group advance to the quarter-finals, and that's likely to require at least three wins in the group phase.
Afghanistan open against Bangladesh, who are competing in their fifth World Cup, in Canberra on February 18. Less than a week later at Dunedin, on New Zealand's south island, the Afghans take on Scotland in a game featuring two Associate teams. While it won't be one of the bigger games at the World Cup, it will be closely followed by supporters of both teams.
"Yes, it's the biggest tournament in the world as well, and for Afghanistan to play the 50-over World Cup for the first time is a dream," Nabi said. "Everyone is waiting for us back home as well."
Cricket became popular in Afghanistan after the national team grew in international stature with a string of achievements in just over a decade, including unexpected performances in the Twenty20 format.
Nabi said a good performance would also give Afghanistan's profile a boost as well.
"You saw the news, there is fighting everywhere," Nabi said. "If there can be some positive news like Afghanistan playing cricket in the World Cup, then it will totally change minds back home and in the world as well."
The team played in the 2009 World Cup qualifiers, after rising rapidly through the World Cricket League, starting in Division Five in May 2008. The team failed to qualify for the 2011 World Cup.
In 2013, Afghanistan beat Kenya to place second in the WCL Championship to qualify for the 2015 Cricket World Cup, becoming the 20th team to gain entry into the tournament overall.
Nabi said his Afghan squad would continue to take an attacking mentality into the World Cup, where it won't take a backward step against the traditionally powerful teams.
"England are a big team and mostly in World Cup tournaments, they have been defeated by some small teams, so this time around, we will try our best to be the one to beat them," he said.