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Afghanistan goes cricket crazy after Twenty20 team book World Cup spot

March 7, 2010 (guardian.co.uk): Afghanistan's cricketers are being feted as national heroes on the streets of Kabul and Jalalabad. Their exploits have earned them an audience with President Hamid Karzai and dinner at the US Embassy, where the American ambassador promised to fund the construction of two cricket grounds.

All of this has been brought about by the extraordinary feat of qualifying, along with Ireland, for the Twenty20 World Cup, to be played in the Caribbean next month. Afghanistan came within a match of earning a place in next year's World Cup proper and are now in the top 12 of world cricket's newest format.

"You cannot believe the pride and satisfaction we all feel when our country does so well after enduring so much for so long," says Hilal Yasini, a prominent banker and blogger in the Middle East.

Only 20 years ago, cricket was unknown in the country. Ten years later the sport had been banned by the Taliban, while Bushkazi rugby on horseback was the traditional national game. "It is now cricket that is most popular," said the all-rounder Raees Ahmadzai. Posters of the team line the streets in Kabul and Jalalabad.

The players have been given laptops, watches and cash by fans as reward for their success.

Thousands turned up in Dubai for the final of the ICC T20 qualifier against Ireland, the first time Afghanistan had played under lights, outnumbering the Irish supporters by about 200 to one. More lined the streets, in the rain, to cheer the team from airport to hotel when they landed in Kabul after their T20 campaign. They are much loved. "In the shops whenever we buy something we get another thing free!" Ahmadzai said.

Right after qualifying for the World T20, Afghanistan chased down a mammoth 494 against Canada in Sharjah, on the fourth day of their latest first-class match. After that victory, celebrations erupted across the eastern half of the country, with which came the obligatory fireworks, singing and dancing.

The American ambassador, Karl W. Eikenberry, pledged US commitment to building two new grounds in Afghanistan. The team's coach Kabir Khan said: "During cricket the guns are put down and the fingers come off the triggers. Cricket is playing its part in bringing stability to the country."