Colombo - Asian cricket chiefs have formally backed war-torn Afghanistan for associate membership of the International Cricket Council (ICC) to reward their rapid progress in the sport, an official said.
The support for Afghanistan's elevation to the second tier of ICC membership, one rung below test level, comes after their players - many of whom learned the game in refugee camps - took part in their second World Twenty20 this month.
Associate membership, for countries "where cricket is firmly established and organised", would be a huge step forward for Afghanistan after they won affiliate membership in 2001 and earned the right to play one-day internationals in 2009.
The Asian Cricket Council (ACC) chief executive Ashraful Haq announced the move to back Afghanistan after a meeting of its development committee in Islamabad this week.
"Afghanistan has been the strongest side among the affiliate members of the ICC, so we are backing them for promotion and we hope that they will live up to that promotion," Haq told reporters.
Afghanistan will now apply for associate membership and their bid will be decided next June, at the annual ICC talks. The world body currently has 10 full members, 36 associates and 60 affiliate members.
Afghanistan's captain Nawroz Mangal was one of the players who took up cricket in camps in Pakistan, after his family fled the Russian invasion of their country in 1979.
Now Afghanistan's matches, including one-dayers against Pakistan and Australia in the United Arab Emirates this year, are closely followed across the country - and even by Taliban militants, who banned cricket under their rule.
At the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan lost to India and England as they went out in the first round.
Haq said the ACC was also impressed with the development of China, and hoped the country would be playing "high-level cricket" within a decade.
"I'm hoping in the next 10 years they will start playing a high level of cricket. I am not sure if they will be a test nation by then, but surely they are somewhere near playing top-level cricket."
He added: "Cricket is getting popular among Asian countries and we would be processing the applications of Tajikistan, Chinese Taipei and Cambodia in the near future. The development of Oman is high on the agenda of the ACC.
"We want cricket to be played everywhere. The ACC are here for the minnows, and are working to promote them. While Afghanistan have reached such heights, Oman will be next in line, as they have got all the facilities there."