Afghanistan One Step Away And Very Likely To Play ODI World Cup Cricket 2015
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Afghanistan stands on the verge of the greatest achievement yet in its spectacular ascent as a cricket-playing nation: If it beats Kenya in a one-day international match in the United Arab Emirates on Friday, it will advance to the 2015 Cricket World Cup.

On Wednesday, Afghanistan inflicted a huge defeat on Kenya, a shadow of the team that was a World Cup semifinalist a decade ago. It will be a major shock at this point if the Afghans fail to advance.

It has been only 12 years since Afghanistan won recognition from the International Cricket Council, the game’s governing body. And while security concerns mean it is unable to play international matches at home, interest there is still huge. The Afghanistan Cricket Board’s Web site crashed twice on Wednesday, as fans tried to get the latest updates from Sharjah Cricket Stadium in the U.A.E., and officials expect just as much attention on Friday.

“We expect the country to come to a complete standstill,” said Noor Mohammad Murad, the chief of the Afghanistan Cricket Board.

Afghanistan has played in global tournaments before, reaching the World Twenty20 in 2010 and 2012, but the World Cup is much more prestigious.

“It has been my dream to play in a World Cup,” said the Afghan captain Mohammad Nabi earlier this week. “To play in a World Cup in Australia and New Zealand would be the perfect icing on the cake.”

Nor does Afghanistan’s ambition end with qualifying for the tournament.

“Our side has the potential to upset at least one full member,” said Nabi, referring to the 10 nations, including India, England, Australia and South Africa, that play test cricket.

Reaching the World Cup would also conclude unfinished business, after Afghanistan fell just short of qualifying for the 2011 tournament. (Its run was chronicled in the documentary film “Out of the Ashes.”) The Afghans rose through the I.C.C.’s World Cricket League structure before finishing fifth in Division One — a single, tantalizing place short of the qualifying slots.

An Afghan loss on Friday would see the U.A.E. advancing to the World Cup, though Afghanistan still could grab a spot in the 14-team tournament, as two teams will advance from a 10-team qualifying competition in New Zealand next January.

Afghanistan, though, wants to go via the shortest and fastest route. “We want to qualify directly and start planning for the I.C.C. World Cup,” said its coach, Kabir Khan.

Afghanistan won only three of its first eight matches in the current Division One championship but has since won five straight.

“The pressure has been on since the beginning and the boys are used to it,” said Khan.

It has already been a memorable year for Afghan cricket. In June it was elevated from affiliate to associate member of the I.C.C. The promotion not only recognized its astonishing progress from newcomer to one of the strongest countries outside the test ranks, it also brought increased funding from the I.C.C.

In September it beat the India under-23 team in the Asia Cricket Council’s Emerging Teams Cup, which matched the four leading non-test nations in Asia with under-23 teams from the four test countries.

And there is more to come.

In November it will play in the qualifiers for next year’s World Twenty20, and with six places up for grabs to the non-test nations, Afghanistan is expected to advance.

Then in December comes a one-day international against Pakistan, the neighbor that inspired the rise of cricket in Afghanistan after exiles learned the in game in the refugee camps.

And after that is the final of the Intercontinental Cup, the championship for non-test nations. Afghanistan, the current champion, will play Ireland, which topped the standings in a regular season stretching over three years.

Since Ireland has already qualified for the World Cup and both countries made it to the last World Twenty20, there is little doubt that the two are the strongest teams among the second-tier nations.

Their meeting in Sharjah will be, in effect, for the non-test cricket championship of the world.

Ireland has more experience in longer formats and a powerful group of full-time professional players. Afghanistan is more familiar with conditions in the Gulf and has an increasing depth of talent. “One of our strong points is that everyone is contributing and we’re not a team that is relying on one player,” Nabi said.

Ireland will start as favorite, but beating the odds has become an Afghan habit.

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