Dubai: Afghanistan qualified for their second consecutive Twenty20 World Cup with a 47-run win over Namibia on Thursday, inspired by the bowling of Dawlat Zadran who took two of his three wickets in the first over.
The win marks another milestone for Afghanistan, who in the past five years have been one of the most inspiring stories in sport.
Made up of war refugees who learned the sport in Pakistan, the team has gone from playing an event against Japan, Botswana, Singapore and Jersey among other lesser-known teams to making its one-day international debut against Pakistan last month.
The impoverished South Asian nation will now travel to Sri Lanka later this year to play in the Twenty20 World Cup. Afghanistan lost both of their group matches, to India and South Africa, at the 2010 edition.
"It's really a big day for us," Afghanistan captain Nawroz Mangal said through a translator. "Coming to this tournament as defending champion, it put a little pressure on the team, especially in the shorter format of 20 overs where it's anybody's game. The boys did well and they proved they are deserving winners, and a deserving team to go to the World Cup."
Ireland trounced Canada by 10 wickets while the Netherlands defeated Scotland by 3 wickets. Ireland and Netherlands will play on Friday in Sharjah, with the winner meeting Namibia on Saturday for the second spot into the World Cup.
Afghanistan batted first and made a strong start, with openers Karim Sadiq (28) and Javed Ahmadi (24) helping the team reach 57 without loss. But Namibia skipper Sarel Burger and Christi Viljoen each took three wickets to restrict Afghanistan to a 146.
Things went wrong in the first over for the Namibians. Opener Raymond van Schoor was out on the first ball of the innings and Gerrie Snyman for a duck four deliveries later. Dawlat Zadran, who took both wickets, finished with 3 for 5 off 3.1 overs.
Namibia never recovered and was bowled out for 99. Aftab Alam claimed 4 for 25.
"At the start of batting, we were under pressure after losing three or four wickets in the first six overs," Burger said. "You don't have a lot of time to catch up. After that we lost wickets consistently. We had a little partnership in the middle stages. But after Nicholaas Scholtz was out, I fell just after that, and from there it went downwards."
Afghanistan had been stung by their exclusion from the Asia Cup, complaining they should have been allowed to play alongside Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India.
"If you look at the rankings, we are above the West Indies at the moment but we have to prove it when we play them," said Kabir Khan, who returned to coach the team after a two-year absence in the UAE. "We have to prepare well. We have to shape up the boys.
"We want to have a good tournament and give full and tough matches to the opposition. If we win one or two, I don't mind. But if we lose, we want to lose giving 100 per cent."
The team's success has helped cricket replace football as the national sport, and even the Taliban have come out in favour of the game â€” saying its frequent breaks mean it doesn't interfere with prayer times in the Muslim nation. Cricket clubs have sprung up across the country and the government is building new grounds to keep up with the growing demand from 70,000 club cricketers.
As in Pakistan and India, business slows to a crawl when the national team plays, and the players have become celebrities. Crowds line the streets when the team returns home, and a government minister and several legislators even flew into Sharjah to attend the ODI against Pakistan, which Afghanistan lost by seven wickets.