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Afghan cricketers defy odds, and Taliban, to realize World Cup dream

By Jonathan Stayton, CNN
updated 4:40 AM EDT, Tue October 8, 2013
Afghan cricket fans packed into Kabul's International Cricket Stadium on October 4 to watch the win over Kenya on big screens.
Afghan cricket fans packed into Kabul's International Cricket Stadium on October 4 to watch the win over Kenya on big screens.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Afghanistan triumphed over Kenya to win the right to play at the 2015 World Cup
  • Far cry from 1979 when Afghan exiles played in camps in Pakistan during Soviet invasion
  • Cricket and sport was banned during Taliban rule in Afghanistan (1996-2001)

(CNN) -- From playing bat and ball in quiet corners of refugee camps to cricket's most glamorous tournament; Afghanistan's national team, like the country, has come a long way.

The team's rise to the biggest stage of them all, the 2015 World Cup, has been nothing short of remarkable -- and equally heartwarming.

The scenes of jubilation on the pitch as Afghanistan recently brushed aside a disappointing Kenya team couldn't have been farther from the reality of life for many Afghans after decades of conflict and turmoil in their country.

The first Afghans learned the game in Pakistani refugee camps, having fled the Soviet invasion of 1979.

READ MORE: Afghan cricket's battle for acceptance

Sport was banned completely under the strict Islamic fundamentalist rule of the Taliban, between 1996 and 2001, with pitches and arenas more likely to host an execution than a training session or a match.

From refugee to Afghan cricket captain

But as the Taliban lost its grip, sport blossomed, with cricket among those leading the way.

Cut strips appeared across the country and children would use roads as wickets, discarded pieces of wood as bats and wickets.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Afghan cricket has gone from strength to strength. Just 12 years ago, the team didn't even officially exist. Then a few Afghan expats set up a team in Pakistan and applied for accreditation to global cricket's organizing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC).

In 2001, Afghanistan became an ICC associate member, which meant cricket was recognized as an established sport in the country. It was a start, but little more than that.

In 2008, the team played its first matches in division five of the ICC's global league -- against Japan and the tiny island of Jersey, a self-governing British Crown dependency off the coast of northern France. That's as low as world cricket goes.

I didn't expect to play in a World Cup when I started playing cricket.
Mohammad Nabi, captain

But by winning the league, the players gave themselves a chance of qualifying for the 2011 World Cup. Ultimately that proved to be a step too far, too soon, as they came up short.

But it wasn't all bad news. The team did enough in the qualifiers to be granted the status of an international one-day team. They went on to qualify for the world Twenty20 tournament, a shortened form of the game, in 2010 and again in 2012.

Despite some respectable performances, they did little to surprise the bookies and fell during the initial knock-out stage.

But now, what appeared to be nothing more than a dream just a few short years ago has finally become reality. Afghanistan triumphed over Kenya by seven wickets at the recent World Cricket League Championship in Sharjah, UAE to win the right to play at the 2015 World Cup. They will be part of a group that includes co-hosts Australia and New Zealand, as well as Bangladesh, England and Sri Lanka.

"I can't express my feelings. It is a very big day in my life. I'm sure there will be huge celebrations back home," the team's talismanic captain, Mohammad Nabi, told the ICC website.

"I didn't expect to play in a World Cup when I started playing cricket. But now I can cherish this moment and look forward to playing against the best sides in some of the best playing facilities."

The Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) is a far cry from the refugee camps many Afghans can relate to.

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