Andres Leighton/AP
Afghanistan's Dawlat Ahmadzai, third left, is congratulated by teammates after bowling out Ireland's Alex Cusackn, unseen, during a warm up match ahead of the Twenty20 Cricket World Cup in Georgetown, Guyana, Wednesday. The Twenty20 Cricket World Cup is scheduled to start today.

In rare victory for Afghanistan, cricket team qualifies for ICC World Twenty20

Afghanistan’s cricket team, the ultimate underdog, is competing with the world's best at the ICC World Twenty20 opening today in Guyana. Afghanistan faces heavyweight India on Saturday.

Two years ago, Tim Albone began shooting a documentary about what seemed like a charmingly hopeless cause: the Afghan cricket team’s attempt to qualify for the cricket World Cup.

No matter that the best cricket facilities in war-torn Afghanistan were barely on a par with the baked earth strips where most of the players had learned the sport in Pakistani refugee camps.

They still haven’t made it to the World Cup, but the underdog team is lining up with the world’s best at another major international championship: the ICC World Twenty20 in Guyana. The 12-nation tournament opens today, with Afghanistan facing off against heavyweight India on Saturday. The story represents a stark contrast from much of the grim news out of Afghanistan.

"Defies belief"

"To get to the World T20 defies belief," says Mr. Albone, who with two other filmmakers captured the team's odyssey in their documentary "Out of the Ashes." He compares the team's feat to a minor league baseball team winning the World Series. "It is a truly amazing achievement, and one that means so much to Afghans. We hear so much about the war, drugs, and corruption."

"Two years ago they were ranked alongside Vanuatu and Mozambique," he says. "Today they are getting ready to play India."

Tournaments over the past year in Jersey, Tanzania, and Argentina carried the team to the brink of qualifying for the World Cup, but they agonizingly missed out on one of four qualifying spots. The fairy tale had, it seemed, ended.

Fairy tale ending after all

But then came the happily-ever-after.

After thrashing the United States in February in Dubai, then winning an unlikely victory over the United Arab Emirates days later, the team grasped a qualifying spot in today’s shorter-formatted tournament in the West Indies. A day later when the 12 players arrived back in Kabul, roads came almost to a standstill as cars beeped, spectators cheered, and the team bus ground its way slowly home.

During a victory procession after a qualifying stage in early 2009, Albone rode with former coach Taj Malik, who launched the team on its adventure.

“Nine months ago Taj, when you told me you wanted Afghanistan to get to the World Cup, everyone said you were crazy,” Albone said.

“Exactly!” Malik laughed. “Nobody was expecting Afghanistan [to reach] this stage. I told the Western media, “You will see this team in the World Cup. Afghanistan will join the strong teams in the world. This is a warning for other teams. Afghanistan will be not a joke for you."


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