KARACHI - The story of Afghanistan's rise in cricket has been nothing short of a fairytale, but the real work will begin only after their debut in next year's World Cup, according to Rashid Latif, the ex-Pakistan skipper who is a coach with the Afghan team.
Latif has been charged with helping the Afghans prepare for the tournament at a training camp in Karachi, a role he is reprising after previously leading the team to a silver in the 2010 Asian Games. Afghanistan's rapid ascent from the fifth division of world cricket in 2008 to qualifying for next year's showpiece event in Australia and New Zealand has been hailed as one of the sport's biggest success stories. The tale is made poignant by the country's war-torn history, with many Afghans first exposed to cricket in Pakistani refugee camps during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
Sport was largely stifled under the isolated Taliban regime that ruled from 1996 to 2001 and cricket took off after they were overthrown. But Latif warns the team needs to stay focused on their long-term development in order to avoid the fate of other up-and-comers before them. "I don't want them to go down after ascending, like Kenya," he said of the nation which reached the semi-final of the 2003 World Cup but later fell away, losing its right to play one-day internationals.
"I hope the World Cup is not a make-or-break for Afghanistan," the former wicketkeeper said. "Their real cricket will start after the World Cup." He added the Afghans could prove to be formidable opponents against top teams "in the next five years".
Bangladesh made their World Cup debut in 1999 and famously beat Pakistan, attaining Test status the following year only to remain cricket's whipping boys since then. Latif said beating Bangladesh when they meet in their opening World Cup group match was a real prospect. "For me they should target Bangladesh and another qualifier team, but play in a manner that if kids are watching on television back home they can feel proud of them," he said.
For team manager Shafiq Stanikzai, cricket is an important unifier for Afghanistan that cuts across divides in a country long riven by ethnic rivalries and still struggling to bring peace after decades of war. "Cricket is responsible for bringing the youngsters towards sport and sport means peace -- and that's what the bigger picture is," he said. "Unity is the core element of this team and the reason behind our success is unity and teamwork."
Afghanistan have featured in three World Twenty20 events since 2010 but qualifying for the more prestigious 50-over World Cup is their biggest sporting achievement to date. The Sharjah qualifier in October came a month after victory over India in the South Asian Football Federation Cup last September, another high. Regular coach Kabir Khan, an ethnic Pashtun who played four Tests and 10 one-dayers for Pakistan in the 1990s, said both achievements showed the country's potential and success in one sport had a ripple effect.
"I will say that cricket is responsible for all this, if one sport is doing well the others follow." Latif says the harsh conditions the Afghan players had faced in their own lives meant they had what it took to handle the pressures of the top-flight. "They are mentally tough and well built too. As a coach I came to teach, but I have learnt from them," he said.
"They get their mental toughness because when they were in camps they had to fight just to eat."