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Afghan team returns to euphoric home crowd

AFGHANISTAN'S national cricket team arrived home yesterday to a modest but ecstatic crowd after reaching the final stage of the 2011 World Cup qualifiers.

Despite a raging insurgency, lack of funds and having no proper cricket pitch, Afghanistan embarked on an extraordinary rise in international cricket last year, winning Division Five and Four of the 2011 World Cup qualifiers.

Last week, the team continued its climb, winning Division Three in Argentina and reaching the final qualifying stage to be held in South Africa in April.

"I'm very happy. With this victory, may Allah bring peace to this country. I dedicate this victory to all Afghans," a smiling Karim Sadeq said.

The team, which had just arrived at Kabul's international airport after a long journey from Argentina, was led out of the terminal building to a small but euphoric crowd, cheering and holding banners in praise of the home team.

Some fans danced around the players to the sound of traditional Afghan music, while others placed brightly colored garlands of plastic flowers and tinsel around the players' necks.

Among the fans were several members of Afghanistan's parliament, who had braved the cold weather to greet their national team.

"I'm so proud of these guys. It shows us, and gives us courage. I'm proud of you guys. You are the real heroes of this country," Shukria Barakzai, a female MP, told the players.

Afghanistan has now qualified for a 12-team tournament in South Africa in April with four places at the 2011 World Cup - to be held jointly by India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka - up for grabs.

Afghanistan will be in Group B along with Kenya, Netherlands, Bermuda, the United Arab Emirates and Denmark. Uganda, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, Oman and Namibia are in Group A.

Asked if his national team will make it to the World Cup, Mirwais Nazari, an all-rounder in the team, said it was in God's hands.

"God willing. God willing. If we have the prayers of all Afghans, we will make it to the World Cup," a beaming Nazari said. The team plans to rest for a couple of days before resuming training for the next round.

Afghanistan has been a main focus for the International Cricket Council (ICC) in its regional development program for Asia since the country became an affiliate member in 2001.

It aims to spend US$5.625 million for the continent between 2009-16.

Never part of the British Empire, the adoption of cricket in Afghanistan was an unforeseen result of the 1979 Soviet invasion as millions of refugees flooded into neighboring Pakistan where they took up the game.


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