(Reuters) - Afghanistan’s cricketers have long been heralded as a beacon of hope for a nation torn apart by conflict but they have earned the right to be taken more seriously than a mere human interest story at their second World Cup.
Having won last year’s World Cup Qualifier tournament by beating West Indies in the final, the Afghans will arrive in England looking to make the transition from plucky underdogs to knockout round contenders.
It will be a tough task, not least because they have very little experience of the conditions in the host nation, but there is no doubt there is plenty of talent in their squad.
Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Mohammad Nabi are a spin-bowling unit the equal of any in the world and the latter is a genuine all-rounder with the second most runs for an Afghan in one-dayers.
Rahmat Shah, Mohammad Shahzad and Asghar Afghan are their batting mainstays but in Hazratullah Zazai and Hashmatullah Shahidi they have promising young talents who might provide some fireworks.
Whether that talent, under new leadership since last month, can cohere into a unit capable of taking on the more established nations in the game and reach their goal of a semi-final spot remains to be seen.
Their first fixture against defending champions Australia in Bristol on June 1 should be a reasonable gauge of the progress they have made over the last four years.
In 2015, their World Cup debut, Afghanistan gave Sri Lanka a shock by dismissing both openers for a golden duck and recorded their maiden win against Scotland before being brought down to earth with a big bump by co-hosts Australia.
David Warner scored 178 at the WACA as the Aussies racked up the biggest total in tournament history, 417 for six, for the biggest winning margin in World Cup history, 275 runs.
That pretty much sealed Afghanistan’s exit but they have since beaten Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, played out a thrilling tie with a weakened India team and last year became the 12th test playing nation.
Former West Indies all-rounder Phil Simmons will guide them through this year’s tournament, having coached Ireland to wins over Pakistan, Bangladesh, England, West Indies and Zimbabwe at three World Cups.
The Trinidadian is no stranger to board interference, having also previously coached Zimbabwe and West Indies in troubled times, but he is unlikely to have welcomed the surprise captaincy change effected last month.
Gulbadin Naib replaced Asghar Afghan as skipper in a move that initially caused some public consternation from senior players.
“I just have to get on with (making) sure the squad is preparing in the same way I wanted them to prepare barring the change,” Simmons told the Cricinfo website.
“I am trying to make sure the captaincy change does not have an impact on our World Cup preparation.”
Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by Ken Ferris