Basheer Stanikzai proudly calls it his “magician” team.
“Nobody could do what Afghanistan has done,” said Stanikzai, manager of Afghanistan’s cricket team, as his squad gets ready for its debut in the 2015 International Cricket Council World Cup beginning Saturday.
Afghanistan will play its first World Cup match against Bangladesh next week (Feb.18).
“If we win our first game in the World Cup, maybe it’s a good start in the World Cup as well,” captain Mohammad Nabi told VOA.
Such a win, along with a bit of luck against some of the other higher ranking teams in its pool, could give Afghanistan a fighting chance to reach the second round, something that would be considered a huge achievement for the nascent troop.
What already is considered an achievement is the team’s rapid rise in international cricket, given its history.
Afghanistan’s cricket team became an affiliate of the International Cricket Council in June 2001, only months before the September 11 attacks on the United States and the subsequent U.S.-led military campaign against the Taliban regime.
Several members of the team, including the current captain, know the effects of war first-hand. They grew up in refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan - a result of decades of conflict in their homeland between the U.S. and its allies against the former Soviet Union and later a civil war among various Afghan factions.
Nabi described life in those camps as “tough,” but also the place where he caught the cricket "bug."
“We started cricket in school and streets. And in the home as well, because we have a lot of cousins who played together in the big yard,” Nabi said. He was 10 years old.
The cricket team has managed to win the support of both the Afghan government and the Taliban.
“We have got unofficial messages like that; you can say that there’s no issue,” explained Stanikzai. Even players who live in remote areas have never been threatened or faced any harassment while travelling by road, which makes Stanikzai confident that cricket can bring “unity and peace” to Afghanistan.
At the least it will bring a unifying pastime. Tens of thousands welcomed the team when it returned home after qualifying for the World Cup. International matches are now regularly broadcast live in Afghanistan. The audience can be in the millions.
The country also has moved from counting on the talent of individual players to developing a comprehensive program to develop talent. In the ICC Development Program’s 2013 annual awards, the country won both the awards for the best development program as well as for best junior participation initiative.
Now the team is planning to improve its international ranking by playing more frequently with some of the other lower ranking members of the ICC, like Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and Ireland.
It also is hoping for a healthy dose of cricket with neighboring Pakistan in the coming years.