REUTERS - The journey of Afghan cricket, from the refugee camps in Pakistan to a first 50-over World Cup, is nothing short of a fairytale.
The sport was still banned by the Taliban when Australia beat Pakistan in the 1999 World Cup final at Lord’s in London but in March they will share the field with the four-times winners and co-hosts in Perth.
Further glamour Group A clashes against England and Sri Lanka await, along with a match against co-hosts New Zealand, just reward for those who fought long and hard to put the sport on the map in the war-torn nation.
The journey begun in 2000 when the Taliban finally permitted cricket to be played, and a year later the International Cricket Council accepted them as an affiliate member.
From there, the team, featuring many players who grew up in refugee camps in cricket-obsessed Pakistan after fleeing the country during the war with the former Soviet Union in the 1980s, rapidly rose from the fifth division of the World Cricket League in 2008 to the top flight.
The success has helped the sport’s popularity skyrocket and become a great unifier in a country still ravaged by unrest.
Andy Moles, a former opening batsman who played 12 seasons with home country Warwickshire in England, took over as coach last year despite being advised not too by his brother, an anti-terrorism expert.
“I only go out when I have to and I stagger my times so there’s no real pattern to my movements. I just try and be sensible, really,” he told British newspaper the Independent last year of the difficulties.
”I spoke to one of the players who was late to our last camp. I asked him the reason why and he turned round and told me that he had to go to the funeral of his cousin, who was shot dead by a drone.
“Other players have had members of their family kidnapped for ransom. These guys certainly haven’t had it easy.”
Their only realistic hope of a win in Group A will be against Scotland or Bangladesh but perhaps their biggest victory came before the tournament when the ICC added them and Ireland to the 2019 World Cup qualification system with the 10-test playing nations.
Another barrier knocked down on the mission to becoming a heavyweight in the sport.
“There was no cricket here until 12 years ago and now we’re at a cricket World Cup – it’s a fairytale,” Moles said.
“Everyone wants to see that continue.”
Writing by Patrick Johnston in Singapore; Editing by Peter Rutherford