By Sudipto Ganguly
MUMBAI (Reuters) - Surrounded by thousands of makeshift tents in the dusty refugee camp he called home, not even in his wildest dreams could Mohammad Nabi have believed that his decision to while away the hours with a miniature cricket bat would lead him to play in the 2015 World Cup.
Like most of his team mates, Nabi got the first taste of the sport while living in a refugee camp in Peshawar, after his parents had fled Afghanistan while the country was ravaged by the Soviet war.
With no access to television or other forms of entertainment in the camps, a simple game involving a bat and a ball seemed to be the obvious option for the children to spend time.
"I picked up cricket on the streets in Pakistan. We used to play with tennis balls," Nabi, who captained the team during the qualification campaign, told Reuters.
Cricket gained prominence in Afghanistan as the refugees started returning to the country in the 1990s.
But the idea of rubbing shoulders with top players such as Younus Khan, Misbah-ul-Haq or Michael Clarke in the sport's most prestigious and glamorous tournament would still have been a far-fetched dream.
After all it was only in June this year that the International Cricket Council, the world governing body of the sport, granted Afghanistan Associate status, which is the second tier of membership behind the 10 test-playing nations.
But the lack of pedigree or facilities did not stop cricket's greenhorns from beating Kenya in Sharjah this month to qualify for their maiden 50-over World Cup.
The unexpected qualification has only fired their ambition as the war-torn country eyes regular competition with top-tier cricket teams to reach the next level.
"We believe it will be the start of a new phase for Afghanistan," Noor Muhammad Murad, the chief executive of the country's cricket board, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Thousands of ecstatic fans, for whom insurgency and bomb attacks are part of a daily routine, flocked to the stadium in Kabul to welcome their heroes on their return from Dubai.
ASSOCIATES NO MORE
Playing against associate members does not excite the Afghans any more as they believe that competing against stronger opponents is the only way to improve before the World Cup.
But that plan is yet to materialise as none of the Asian countries have shown interest in playing against them.
Noor has written relentlessly to cricket boards of neighbours India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and even plans to visit them in the near future to nail down a chance to play against the more established nations of the sport.
"If you compare our situation with Scotland, we have clean-swept them. But England is giving them a chance to play ODIs, Australia is giving them chance, Pakistan is giving them chance," Noor rued.
"We need the experience. We are eligible for the Asia Cup but we are not allowed to play."
Top-tier countries maybe worried about lack of interest in a match against Afghanistan but Noor tried to allay those fears.
Most new entrants end up being the whipping boys when playing against prominent teams in tournaments like the World Cup but Afghanistan has vowed that they will not be travelling to Australia and New Zealand to just make up the numbers.
"Afghanistan will ensure that they will play a very competitive game in the World Cup and not let the competition seem easy against our team," Noor said.
With more than 15 months left for the tournament, most would be happy to sit back, enjoy the accolades that are pouring in and delve in celebration but not the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB).
The ACB rather wants to use the occasion as a springboard to develop the sport in the country.
The World Cup qualification has brought in added funds from the ICC and they plan use it to invest in a 500-day programme to prepare for the 2015 tournament and improve cricket facilities.
While most of the fund will be spent in conducting foreign tours, super-skill training and coaching programs, some money will also be earmarked for improving the mental strength of players.
Afghanistan currently has two international stadiums and nine turf grounds which pales in comparison with neighbouring India, where 49 grounds have hosted international matches and where academies grow in major cities like mushrooms every month.
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)