Afghanistan upbeat ahead of World Cup qualifiers

Afghanistan’s fledgling cricket team wrapped up training in Pakistan on Tuesday, confident of success at next month’s World Cup qualifying tournament in South Africa.

The cricketers from the war-ravaged nation, most of whom learned the game in Pakistan as refugees and once converted downed military helicopters into changing rooms, will assemble in Kabul on Thursday for a flight to Johannesburg.

Coach Kabir Khan said the squad, which has defied the odds to chalk up a rapid rise in world cricket, were ready for action after being put through their paces in Peshawar ahead of the April 1-19 event.

“Our boys have covered all areas and are in high spirits to achieve what we could have never thought of two years ago—- a place among the best in the 2011 World Cup,” said Kabir, a former Pakistan international.

Afghanistan are in Group B in the 12-team competition in South Africa and start their campaign against Denmark on April 1. Bermuda, Kenya, the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are also in their group.

Canada, Ireland, Oman, Scotland, Namibia and Uganda are in Group A.

The top four teams will qualify for the 2011 World Cup.

The four-yearly World Cup is due to be jointly hosted by Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, but the International Cricket Council (ICC) has cast doubt on Pakistan’s hopes of remaining a co-host in the wake of the recent Lahore attacks on the Sri Lankan cricket team.

“We have progressed by leaps and bounds and if we play to our potential we can qualify for the World Cup,” said Kabir, who played four Tests and 10 one-day matches for Pakistan in the 1990s.

Kabir said his side would have the advantage of being an unknown entity.

“We have not played much cricket at international level so other teams do not know much about us, but we know a lot about other teams. I especially know a lot about the UAE team because I was their coach for two years.”

Afghanistan won the ICC division five event in Jersey, division four in Tanzania and division three in Argentina en route to South Africa.

Kabir is eyeing victory in the Denmark match to get his team off to a flying start.

“The first match against Denmark is a must win for us because if we win that we need to beat one more team to reach the Super Eight stages and that would make our work much easier,” said Kabir.

“Until last year, batting was our main worry.
Now it is not,” added a confident Kabir, who hailed opener Riffatullah Momand’s arrival in the team. “Momand and Mohammad Shehzad have stabilised our batting,” he said.

Momand played first class cricket in Pakistan for Habib Bank until last year and also toured Australia with Pakistan “A” before deciding to play for the country of his birth.

“Momand can give us good starts and that is what you need in one-day matches. I have high hopes with this team and hopefully we will return with a World Cup berth.”

Cricket-mad Pakistan has spearheaded efforts to help neighbouring Afghanistan develop the sport, providing equipment and opportunities to participate in events.—Sapa-AFP

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