Afghanistan has a point to prove
Missing out on the Asia Cup has added to Afghanistan's motivation to win the World Twenty20 qualifier for another shot at cricket's major teams.
Afghanistan, which plays Namibia on Thursday with one of two World T20 spots on the line, hoped recent international success would have been enough to convince the Asian Cricket Council to include them in the Asia Cup, which has run at the same time as World T20 qualifying.
But the Asia Cup, which ends with the final on Thursday, was restricted to India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and host Bangladesh.
Coach Kabir Khan said his Afghan team was upset after being informed that the region's test teams didn't want to expand the Asia Cup to include them.
"I think it's a shame. They should have given us that chance," Khan said.
"The Asia Cup is an ODI tournament and we have ODI status. We have earned that position by winning tournaments and going up in the rankings. If you don't play against those top teams. how are we going to improve? If we play teams below us, competitive-wise and talent-wise, and we keep on winning again and again, nobody will test our skills and ability. It's very important we play in those tournaments."
A media manager for the Asian Cricket Council, Shahriar Khan, said the Asia Cup could not accommodate Afghanistan because the team received ODI status long after contracts were signed for the competition from 2010 to 2014. Khan also said budgets and broadcast contracts had already been negotiated and team schedules were set.
"There is no way possible to bring in a fifth team at the last minute because scheduling is so tight," Khan said. "If you have five teams, that means an extra four days which is impossible. We are not spurning Afghanistan. The Afghanistan cricket administrators know the situation."
The snub, though, has done little to hurt Afghanistan's confidence at the World T20 qualifier. It has won all seven of its group matches, including a four-wicket win over the Netherlands, its biggest group challenger.
"Of course we are happy. We are unbeaten," wicketkeeper Mohammad Shahzad told The Associated Press.
"We have played well against every team and reached the semifinals. It doesn't matter who comes to the semifinals. We will beat them. We are feeling well. Our batsmen's form is good. Our bowlers' form good. Inshallah, we are doing well."
Afghanistan made its World T20 debut as a qualifier in the 2010 Caribbean event but lost both of its group matches to India and South Africa.
Made up of war refugees, Afghanistan has gone from the World Cricket League Division 5 in 2008 to playing its first ODI last month against a test-playing team, Pakistan.
The team's success has helped cricket replace football as the national sport, and even the Taliban have come out in favour of the game – saying its frequent breaks mean the sport doesn't interfere with prayer times in the Muslim nation.
Cricket clubs have sprung up across the country and the government is building new grounds in order to keep up with the growing demand from 70 000 club cricketers.
As it is in Pakistan and India, business slows to a crawl when the national team plays, and the players have become celebrities.
Crowds line the streets in places like Jalalabad when the team returns home, and a government minister and several legislators flew into Sharjah to attend the ODI against Pakistan, lost by seven wickets.
"We are proud in this war-torn country to have our young competitors struggling to compete," said Kasim Zazai, a Kabul businessman following the team.
"I know these players. They are not rich people. They are from normal families. But they are fighting to bring victory for Afghanistan. I'm proud to see the Afghan flag raised around the world."