MUMBAI (Reuters) - Afghanistan have high expectations of achieving success on the cricket pitch and despite being relatively new to the sport, their breakthrough 50-over victory against a test-playing nation was met with only muted celebrations among the players.
Cricket gained prominence in Afghanistan after the refugees who had fled while the country was ravaged by the Soviet war started returning home in the 1990s.
And it was only in June last year that the International Cricket Council (ICC), the world governing body, granted Afghanistan associate status, which is the second tier of membership behind the 10 test-playing nations.
Making their Asia Cup debut in this year’s edition and playing only their fourth one-day international against a full member side, Afghanistan stunned hosts Bangladesh with a 32-run victory on Saturday.
However, the landmark triumph itself failed to surprise cricket’s newest party-poopers.
“We were expecting this,” Noor Muhammad Murad, the chief executive of the country’s cricket board, told Reuters from Fatullah in Bangladesh on Sunday.
”Whenever I spoke to the team, they told me they were confident of at least beating the lower-ranked full members.
“That’s why the players were hesitant and the celebrations were restrained.”
Noor, however, will be throwing an official dinner for the team later on Sunday to formally salute the victory.
Back home the reaction was far more enthusiastic as thousands of fans flocked to Kabul’s cricket stadium, forcing authorities to open the gates for them to celebrate while President Hamid Karzai also called to congratulate the team, Noor said.
For a team made up of cricketers who got their first taste of the sport while living at refugee camps in neighbouring Pakistan, Afghanistan have improved rapidly and also qualified for their maiden 50-over World Cup in Australia and New Zealand next year.
And victories like the one on Saturday would force the top cricketing nations to sit up and take them seriously, Noor said.
“We have a comprehensive plan in place for the World Cup. We are working on fitness and each player has been set personal targets,” Noor added.
One aspect the team would definitely need to improve on is their fielding.
Afghanistan had Pakistan under pressure in their Asia Cup opener but dropped crucial catches to let them off the hook and fluffed several more chances on Saturday to help Bangladesh reduce the margin of the victory.
“We have noticed the errors and have to work on our fielding. We plan to add a specialist fielding coach to our support staff from April,” Noor said.
The mood in Bangladesh was one of gloom and disappointment, evident from the headline “Afghans tame toothless Tigers” in English newspaper Dhaka Tribune.
Bangladesh skipper Mushfiqur Rahim termed the lost as the “most embarrassing” of his career.
“I don’t think I can remember a worse instance. This is the most embarrassing defeat,” Mushfiqur told reporters. “I did not think even for a second that we could lose this match.”
India and Sri Lanka are the other two nations competing in the Asia Cup which reaches its climax with the final in Mirpur on March 8.
Additional reporting by Ruma Paul in Dhaka; Editing by John O'Brien