Dubai: Afghanistan take another big step toward cricketing respect on Saturday when it plays Australia in a one-day international, only the second time the team of mostly war refugees facing a Test-playing nation.
The violence-wracked country qualified this year for its second consecutive Twenty20 World Cup, but isn't expected to beat Australia. Even so, coach Kabir Khan said playing well will give the team confidence ahead of the T20 tournament in Sri Lanka in September and show that it has moved beyond simply being a feel-good story for the sport. He also hopes it will inspire a younger generation to take up the sport.
Afghanistan played its first ODI against a Test nation earlier this year when it faced Pakistan, losing by seven wickets.
"The Australia match is a day where Afghan cricket can go a step higher than where we are. Some of the players have seen Australia on TV and they are stars. Now they will get a chance to play against them."
Made up of players who learned the game in Pakistan refugee camps, Afghanistan has gone from the World Cricket League Division 5 in 2008 to playing its first ODI this year against a Test playing team, Pakistan.
The team's success has helped cricket replace football as the national sport, and even the Taliban have approved cricket where frequent breaks mean the sport doesn't interfere with prayer times in the Muslim nation.
Cricket clubs have sprung up across the country and the government is building new grounds in order to keep up with the growing demand from 70,000 club cricketers. A new crop of players are also showing potential, with the under-19 team set to play Sri Lanka for ninth place at the under-19 World Cup on Friday. Two years ago, the team finished 16th.
"Any country's future depends on its youngsters and the quality of its youngsters," Khan said, adding that several players from that team including skipper Javed Ahmadi have been included in its World Cup team.
"The way this team has performed for last seven or eight years, we need a very good strong backup otherwise we will lose that place. A lot of teams at this stage have lost their place . We have loads of examples of that in world cricket like Kenya going down, Bermuda going down."
Acting Australia coach Steve Rixon said his team was glad to do its part to bolster the prospects of Afghanistan cricket. But he said Australia was there to win and show why it once was the No. 1-ranked ODI team in the world. It currently sits fourth.
"Afghanistan has come in as a minor contender but they are there and they are competing at the top level," Rixon said.
"We have to come in with every ounce of respect for the opposition," he said. "I like the idea that little minor nations are getting a chance to come in and play against the bigger boys. I think that is great for cricket."
Vice captain David Warner said it would be a mistake to take a team like Afghanistan lightly. "They are the type of people that could bring anything to the table and we are looking forward to that challenge," Warner said.
Warner said the biggest hurdle is coping with spin bowling. Afghanistan has several quality spin bowlers including allrounder Mohammad Nabi and Samiullah Shenwari. Its top fast bowler Hamid Hassan is out injured but expected to be back for the World Cup.
"Everyone says we struggle against spin bowling and we know they are going to have a lot of spin bowlers," Warner said. "We have practiced very hard the past couple of weeks against spin bowling . We know over here we are going to have to be at our best."
In Afghanistan's favor, the team is relatively unknown and playing at Sharjah Cricket Stadium which will be packed with Afghan expats. Afghanistan has also been in the United Arab Emirates for several weeks and adjusted to the hot and humid conditions, while the Australians only recently arrived.
"This is a good game for us," Afghan skipper Nawroz Mangal said. "We have learned from our mistakes and hopefully we will perform better this time."
While the team's meteoric rise has been the talk of the cricket world, Afghanistan still faces almost insurmountable hurdles in reaching the elite status of a test nation. Currently, it is an affiliate member alongside the likes of Qatar and Peru.
Three decades of war means there are few places to play and security fears have prevented it from hosting an international match. A cash-strapped government has little money to invest in cricketing infrastructure, and the national side has struggled in the past few years to find enough quality opponents to play.
The team also has at times fallen short of expectations. It was expected to beat Ireland in March at the World Twenty20 qualifier final but questionable fitness and poor fielding ending up costing it the match. It lost to Ireland by five wickets, prompting Khan to redouble efforts to improve fielding and bring in an Australian fitness coach to improve strength and conditioning ahead of the World Cup.
Khan said the team now appears ready to better its World Cup showing from two years ago when it crashed out after losing to South Africa and India.
"Last time, qualifying was good enough," he said. "This time, if not winning we should be close to winning and give a very good fight to show how much we have improved in the past two years."