Sharjah: Afghanistan's rise from war to wickets has delighted the International Cricket Council as it looks to far, far bigger markets - mighty China and the United States.
Tim Anderson, the International Cricket Council's (ICC) global development manager, praised Afghanistan's extraordinary progress as they prepared for their first ever top-level one-day international, against Pakistan.
Friday's match in Sharjah is fitting because Afghanistan's cricketing roots lie in Pakistan, where refugees fleeing the 1979 Soviet invasion took up the sport in dusty camps near the countries' shared border.
"We are delighted with Afghanistan and they are a wonderful story for us to tell how you can overcome the challenges and work through the system," Anderson said. "They are making some great grounds in terms of infrastructure development in and around Kabul."
The match in the United Arab Emirates comes 11 years after Afghanistan joined the International Cricket Council, and follows the country winning one-day status by finishing fifth in the World Cup 2011 qualifiers. They also qualified for the 2010 World Twenty20 in the West Indies, and in the same year won the Inter-Continental Cup for associate countries before finishing second at the Asian Games in China.
The country, still ravaged by conflict, has played 18 one-day internationals since 2009 but all against associate and affiliate teams Canada, the Netherlands, Ireland, Kenya and Scotland.
"It is important for these growing nations to play bigger teams in order to progress," Anderson said, praising the Pakistan Cricket Board for agreeing to the match. Afghanistan has been followed on the cricketing path by Nepal and tiny Papua New Guinea, who will both take part in qualifying for this year's World Twenty20 tournament in the United Arab Emirates next month. And while the impoverished countries are far removed from enormous and powerful China, cricket has also made inroads in the world's most populous nation following years of initiatives.
"ICC tend to talk about China and USA in the same breath, whereas the USA has a significant cricket culture as there is a large Asian and Caribbean community so they take a lot of interest," Anderson said. "But China on the other hand has next to no cricket culture."
Despite this, cricket made its Asian Games debut in Guangzhou in 2010, with its women's Twenty20 team finishing fourth. China's women were also runners-up in last year's Asian Cricket Council Women's Twenty20 Championship.
"The Asian Cricket Council is doing a great job in China by trying to build some momentum," Anderson said. "There is a big facility in Guangzhou and having cricket in the Asian Games was a big plus. There is definite potential in China but it will take a little while to grow."
The ICC has 10 full, 59 associate and 36 affiliate members, and says there are about 700,000 male and female players in formal cricket programmes outside the full-member nations. It has set an ambitious strategic target of more than doubling the number of participants by 2015.
"The main objective of the development programme is to build the number of countries at the highest level of the game that can be competitive," said Anderson.