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Afghanistan: A team called hope

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PITCH IMPERFECT: Since most Afghanis can't afford even the most basic cricketing gear, they play in sandals and traditional salwar-kameez

MS - the initials have instant recall back home among fans of Indian skipper Dhoni. But they probably know little of another M S - Afghan wicket-keeper Mohammad Shahzad who models himself on Dhoni.

When he finally got an opportunity to meet the real M S in person, it was, in his words, a dream come true.

It's not just Shahzad who has passion for the sport. Afghanistan's Pakistani coach, Kabir Khan, put it eloquently in his first press conference at St Lucia, "I have seen these boys cry at refugee camps. They have suffered pain and have lost loved ones. Now it is their time - they can't lose anymore. We are here to win." Sure, they may have lost to India and South Africa, but these Afghans have won many a heart.

The sentiment voiced by the coach was in evidence when the Afghan and Indian flags were brought out together for the first time in the history of cricket as the two sides clashed at the picturesque Beausejour stadium at Gros Islet in St Lucia.

With each Afghan player, hand on chest, singing the national anthem, the real Afghanistan - not the nation ravaged by the Taliban, but one of faith and hope - was on show before the world. It was a new dawn in Afghan history and cricket had helped bring it about.

If St Lucia was anything to go by, Shapoor Zadran, the left arm quickie with a Shoaib Akhtar-like action and, Noor Ali, who scored a gutsy half-century against a quality Indian attack, are players to watch out for in the future. It is already rumoured that some IPL teams may enlist the services of Shapoor for season four. But more amazing than these two standout performances was the intensity that the team showed on the field.

As the skipper, Nowroz Mangal, speaking in Pushto at the post-match press conference, said, "We had always wanted to meet Dhoni, Yuvraj and the likes of them. We may have lost, but we certainly put in our best."

The consensus among experts was that the Afghans had indeed done so. Former cricketer Ravi Shastri summed it up nicely, "If you can score 100 plus in your inaugural game against one of the world's premier sides, there's little doubt about your ability. You will take time, but you will surely get there."

Of the 15 Afghans who have made the World Cup squad, several are from refugee camps. For them, sport isn't just a mere profession. It is an option between the bomb and the bat.

The best compliment for the Afghans came from South African skipper Graeme Smith and coach Corrie Van Zyl. A side that has already caused quite a few upsets in making it to the final phase of the World Cup can't be taken lightly, was Van Zyl's assesment.

Smith indicated that the South Africans had studied detailed footage of each of the Afghan players and had sent an analyst to the India-Afghanistan game as part of their homework. The Afghans returned the compliment by restricting the South Africans to 139 runs in Friday's game with Hamid Hassan leading the way.

For a team that has just stepped into the international arena and played a solitary encounter against a major side, these compliments are just tributes to their ability and intent. That the Afghans are determined to stay in the big league was evident when Aimal Shinwari, the English-speaking CEO, almost pleaded with journalists in Barbados to write about the Afghan adventure.

Unlike other teams participating in the competition, who have all opted to stay away from the media, the Afghans have pulled out all stops to ensure that the media gets every opportunity to interact with the players.

The players have even been learning how to deal with questions from journalists. They seem to have done a good job. Names that were unheard of in the lead-up to the tournament have started to ring bells and, with more opportunities coming their way, Afghanistan cricket has taken a giant leap forward in the West Indies.

The new cricketing kid on the block has had an interesting Caribbean adventure. Having won their warm-up match against Ireland, they demonstrated that they weren't afraid to belong at the highest level.

This fearlessness was evident when they clashed against India and South Africa, two of the favourites going into the tournament.

With backing from the ICC, which should result in more games scheduled with the best teams in the coming months, chances are that Afghanistan will cause more than one upset in the next Twenty 20 World Cup in 2012.

Only then will Kabir Khan, Nowroz Mangal, Shapoor Zadran and Noor Ali breathe easy. For them, the determination to make the grade is fundamentally different from any other team playing in the competition. For them, cricket is, literally, life.

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