KABUL Short of funds and experience but bursting with confidence, Afghanistan's fledgling cricket team are already itching to take on the best sides in the world.
"If we had just 50 percent of the facilities that other international teams have, then nobody would be able to beat Afghanistan," declared national cricket federation president Shahzada Masood.
Buoyed up by what they claimed as victory in the Asian Cricket Council's (ACC) Twenty-20 Cup earlier this month, Afghanistan officials hope to attract aid to help the development of the recently imported but already popular sport.
Officially, the ACC final against Oman on November 2 was declared a draw because Afghan fans invaded the pitch in Kuwait before the umpire could pronounce the match over after Oman, needing three runs to win, had missed the last ball.
Afghans, however, celebrated the result as a victory.
Their enthusiasm impressed former England all-rounder Matthew Fleming, who ended a four-day fact-finding trip to the country for the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) on Sunday.
"Clearly they are bursting with talent and interest is booming on the back of that victory," said Fleming at the national team's practice nets next to the bullet-riddled Kabul stadium where the Taliban used to hold public executions.
"This is my first time in Afghanistan and I had no idea what to expect but the first thing I saw was an area of flattish ground and they were playing cricket," said Fleming.
MCC wants to help to develop the game in the country. The relationship began with a match in Mumbai in March 2006 when Afghanistan thrashed an MCC XI led by former England captain Mike Gatting by 171 runs.
Two members of the Afghan team, Hamid Hassan and Mohammad Nabi, subsequently spent time at Lord's on the MCC's Young Cricketers scheme.
In June this year, fast bowler Hassan became the first Afghan cricketer to play at Lord's, appearing for MCC against a Europe XI.
The absence of cricket in Afghanistan was a sign that the Afghans, unlike neighbouring imperial India, had never been conquered by the British.
While the hard-line Taliban banned most traditional sports, cricket was one of the things they brought with them from the Pakistani refugee camps where many of their recruits originated.
A new wave of refugees fled to Pakistan to escape the ongoing violence and, in their turn, brought the sport back with them when the Taliban were toppled in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
The Afghan national team have done well in competitions across Asia, including Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Kuwait. Last year, they won six of seven matches on a tour of England against local sides including university teams and county reserves.
In the last decade, the number of registered players in the country has grown to more than 12,000, according to the Afghan Cricket Federation.
The MCC is considering providing equipment and support for schools and helping the federation to complete the building of a pavilion and stands at the national cricket ground.
Where most games are played in a whirl of dust on patches of waste ground, Afghan cricket authorities have brought in soil and laid grass in an effort to create a showpiece national ground. But they have run out of money and it stands half built, the grass patchy and thin.
Despite the problems, national coach Taj Malik sees a bright future for the game.
"Cricket is a new sport here but now it is very popular," he said. "When we won the championship it was appreciated by the whole nation and everybody in Afghanistan now loves their cricket team.
"We are expecting to beat the big teams, we want to beat Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh first because they are in our region, then also we are hoping to play New Zealand," said Malik. "We are sure if we do not beat them, we can fight them."
(Editing by Clare Fallon)
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