Afghanistan & UAE lead way in race to World Twenty20
In June 2009, the Netherlands cricket team experienced their greatest moment to date, beating the World Twenty20 hosts England in the opening match of the tournament at Lords.
Fast forward to the present day and there are four ICC Associate Member teams hoping to gain the chance to replicate the success of the Dutch by claiming one of two spaces to compete in this year’s World Twenty20.
The World Twenty20 Qualifier is currently taking place in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Thursday saw eight teams wittled down to four. UAE, Afghanistan, Ireland and the Netherlands have seen off Kenya, USA, Scotland and Canada to move into the second round of the competition – the Super Fours.
With both finalists booking themselves a place at the World Twenty20 in the West Indies in May, this stage of the competition far surpasses the importance of the final which follows.
Last year’s World Twenty20 saw Ireland and the Netherlands claim the scalps of Bangladesh and England respectively and highlighted the worth of Associate teams in the competition.
However, this time around, the Dutch (seeded number two) and Irish (seeded number one) have a fight on their hands to even make the competition with UAE and Afghanistan both going into the Super Four stage of the qualifiers unbeaten.
Having reached the second stage of both the 2007 World Cup and the 2009 World Twenty20, Ireland entered this qualifying tournament as firm favourites. However, a first day loss to Afghanistan put them on the back foot and has meant they have had to play catch up ever since. Failure to reach the World Twenty20 would be a great setback for the Irish on their quest to gain Test status in the not too distant future.
The Netherlands meanwhile also suffered a shock defeat to UAE in the group stage which meant that qualification to the Super Four stage was only secured with their final group victory against Kenya. Any hopes of replicating their victory over England will require wins in both their remaining games.
Indeed, holding a two point advantage over their more experienced rivals as they enter the Super Fours, it is UAE and Afghanistan who are in pole position having already exceeded expectations in getting this far.
Having last played the leading international sides in the 1996 World Cup, UAE have defied their seeding of seven out of the eight competing Associate teams as they attempt to participate in an elite competition for the first time in 14 years.
They trounced the Netherlands in their opening game before overcoming Kenya to book their place in the Super Four stage.
Playing with home advantage, UAE need just one more victory over Afghanistan or Ireland to rack up a points haul which is likely to be enough to see them qualify for the final.
However, it is Afghanistan, seeded sixth, who have been stealing the headlines.
After starting in Division Five of the World Cricket League in May 2008 their rise to prominence has been extraordinary. Successive victories in that league, Division Four and Division Three have seen them move from a ranking of 130th in the world to 13th in the space of sixteen months and given them the opportunity to participate in the World Twenty20 Qualifier.
Despite the well-known turmoil in their country, the Afghanistan team has continued to outperform its more established rivals, overcoming Ireland and Scotland in the group stage as well as completing a much-publicised victory against USA – a victory which some would argue had connotations beyond simply the sporting arena.
Indeed Hamid Hassan, Afghanistan’s star bowler in the tournament, has said the performance of his side can be compared to that of the movie Rocky.
“We both started at the bottom and gradually made our way up the rankings,” he said. “It is easy to forget how far we have come in the last two years.”
The ascent to their current position among the top of the ICC Associate teams began amidst great hardship with many of the players learning cricket in Pakistani refugee camps when displaced by the Taliban.
Despite the fact that no cricket is actually played in Afghanistan, the sport is one of the most popular and there are hopes that cricket can paint a path to a more stable future for the country.
“I think the increasing popularity of cricket is important,” said Afghanistan coach Kabir Khan. “It can play a part in bringing peace to the country, bringing normality. Cricket can play a major role in a peaceful Afghanistan.
“These players have a real hunger for the game. Throughout their lives they have seen real lows and a lot of hard times during the war and afterwards. They want to prove to the world that there is more to Afghanistan than war.”
While the top cricketing nations sit back to see which of the sport’s minnows they will face in a few months time, the four remaining Associate teams are set to do battle over the next two days.
Victory will mean qualification to the World Twenty20, the pinnacle of many cricketers’ careers, and for some, the hope of making a big difference beyond the world of cricket.
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