Kabul - Afghanistan's fairytale rise in world cricket could
this week see them acquire coveted Test status, a massive boost for a nation
long divided by war and riven by ethnic rivalries.
No longer rank minnows, Asghar Stanikzai's team are up for
consideration following their victories over Ireland in the Intercontinental
Cup in March, paving the way for their potential entry into cricket's elite.
Both Afghanistan and Ireland are bidding to become the 11th
and 12th nations to join the Test club, nearly two decades after their
immediate predecessors Bangladesh, if confirmed by the International Cricket
Council (ICC) at a meeting in London.
"A committee is working inside the cricket board, and
we will work on our proposal to present it to the ICC in the future, and
hopefully full membership and Test status are on the way," chairman of the
Afghan cricket board, Atef Mashal said during a recent interview.
"We cannot give any time frame at the moment, it is
upon the ICC, they will decide when to give Afghanistan the Test status, and it
is not in our hands," Mashal said.
Unlike the sport's other major players, Afghanistan was
never a colony of the British Empire.
Instead many Afghans' first contact with the sport took
place during the 1980s and 1990s, as refugees who had fled to Pakistan to
escape the Soviet invasion.
Cricket struggled under the hard-line Islamist Taliban, who
viewed sports as a distraction from religious duties - and famously shaved the
heads of a visiting Pakistani football team as punishment for wearing shorts.
But it has become hugely popular in the country since the
regime was toppled in a US-led invasion in 2001.
Recent successes, particularly in last year's ICC World
Twenty20, have further raised the country's profile.
Spinners Rashid Khan, who idolises former Pakistan
international Shahid Afridi, and Mohammad Nabi both made their mark in the
Indian Premier League.
Khan was sixth-highest wicket-taker in his debut IPL with 17
scalps, and the pair broke into the top 10 of the ICC one-day international
bowling rankings during the just-concluded tour of the West Indies.
Their former batting coach and former Pakistan skipper
Rashid Latif said a place among the Test nations was well deserved and would
benefit them in the future.
"Afghanistan deserves Test status because their
performances are good. Once they get to play Tests, more and more players will
come forward just like happened in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh -- Kenya suffered
because they were not awarded," he said.
"I think it will be the ICC's best decision of the
century," he added.
Khan and Nabi are both Pashtuns, the country's dominant
ethnic group with deep ties to Pashtuns across the border in Pakistan.
In years gone by Afghanistan maintained a younger sibling
relationship with its eastern neighbour.
Kabir Khan, a former Pakistan international, coached the
team from 2008-10 and oversaw their stratospheric rise from Division 5 od world
cricket to ODI status.
More recently, however, the team has followed broader
geopolitical currents and pivoted toward India, Pakistan's historic rival.
Last year, Afghanistan's national team shifted its base from
Sharjah in United Arab Emirates to Noida, Delhi, while India's former batsman
Lalchand Rajput replaced Pakistan's Inzamam-ul-Haq as their national team
There are nevertheless questions about how well Afghanistan
will do in the game's longest format.
Bangladesh famously floundered for their first decade while
New Zealand took 26 years to win their first Test.
Pakistani cricket writer Ahmer Naqvi, said it was important
to be patient.
"For any team to make its mark, it takes a while to
really get a hang of it no matter how good you are at the shorter versions."
But, he added: "It's extremely important to provide
Test status for Afghanistan and perhaps Ireland, because it is also a virtuous
circle" of greater funding, organisation and structure.
Currently, all of the national team's players are Pashtuns
from the eastern provinces - Nangarhar, Kunar, Logar, Kunduz and Paktia.
Tajiks comprise the country's second biggest ethnicity and
are more likely to participate in football where they dominate the national
They do participate at club level but none have yet broken
through to the top - a crucial test in country that has long struggled with
But for now, many are pleased to watch their team soar.
Shabir Ahmad, a 24-year-old Tajik tailor in Kabul said:
"When our team is playing, we forget our pain, bomb blasts and explosions
in our country.
"The game of cricket does not belong to one particular
ethnic group but to the entire Afghanistan."