A few years ago, any talk of Afghanistan playing in the ICC Cricket World Cup would have been laughable. But not any more.
Thanks to the World Cricket League, which is part of the ICC Development Program, Afghanistan has a chance of appearing alongside the 10 Full Members and three other qualifiers when the Asian subcontinent stages the event in 2011.
The Division 5 event starts in Jersey on 23 May with 12 teams battling it out to qualify for the May 31 final which will guarantee them a place in the next stage of qualification.
It's still unlikely but far from impossible Afghanistan will reach the 2011 event and the way cricket is taking off, there is perhaps only a matter of time before we see it taking part in a major ICC event. But even more than that, the WCL Division 5 is an opportunity for this war-torn country to show the world a different side.
'After all the turbulent times after the invasion of Russia, I consider it as the dawn of a new era in which our sportsmen will taste international exposure and introduce the new and moderate Afghanistan to the world,' said captain Norooz Khan Mangal, a 23-year-old top order batsman.
'Like any other team, we are traveling to Jersey with the objective to win the tournament and take the first step in the right direction. But at the same time, we would like to make more friends and try to learn good things from the other participants,' he said.
'We consider ourselves good and ready for not only the WCL Div. 5 but also for the tough season ahead because we have the conviction that we can progress in this tournament. We have to respect the game and our opponents. We will go match by match and event by event.'
Afghanistan is one of six teams in Group B, along with the Bahamas, Botswana, Japan, Singapore and hosts Jersey. Group A is made up of Germany, Mozambique, Nepal, Norway, the USA and Vanuatu
Afghanistan was admitted as an ICC Affiliate Member in 2001. After playing its early cricket in Pakistan with the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) funding its tours, Afghanistan started showing signs of improvements in 2006 when it beat a MCC team, led by former England captain Mike Gatting, by 171 runs in a 40-over-a-side match.
In 2007, Afghanistan qualified for the ICC WCL Div. 5 after finishing third behind the UAE and Hong Kong in the ACC Trophy. In the same year, it came close to qualifying for the ICC U/19 Cricket World Cup 2008 in Malaysia when it lost in the final of the ACC U/19 Elite Cup final to Nepal in Kuala Lumpur.
In November 2007, Afghanistan shared the ACC Twenty20 Cup with Oman in Kuwait after both the teams tied on 157 runs and a pitch invasion prevented a bowl-out to decide the winner.
Afghanistan, as part of its preparations for the WCL Div. 5, played 14 warm-up matches in Peshawar, Pakistan last month before attending a training camp at the National Cricket Academy in Kabul which has two turf pitches and a bowling machine.
'The tour to Peshawar was a good one in which we won 13 out of 14 40-overs-a-side matches. In our domestic cricket, we have mostly 20-overs-a-side matches so the tour to Peshawar was a huge learning experience.
'We learnt how to pace and calculate our innings and also how to bowl in certain situations and conditions.
'But while doing this we didn't change our attacking style of batting except bringing in more method and purpose. I am happy to say that we adapted to the new format pretty quickly and scored more than 250 runs in most of the matches,' said Mangal.
Talking about the lack of experience of his team, Mangal added: 'We are new at this level but so are many of the other teams taking part in Jersey. All the teams start on even terms and I think the sides that stick to the basics will qualify for the final which will be enough to earn it promotion to WCL Div. 4.
'The beauty of the WCL format is that you learn with every tournament and by the time you qualify for the ICC Cricket World Cup, you have some sort of experience under your belt. But it's an ongoing process with no short-cuts and we are happy to follow the same path which the top teams have followed.'
According to Mangal, Afghan men are naturally strong and athletic which means fast bowling is their forte.
'Hamid Hassan regularly bowls at 140kph while Dawlat Ahamdzai, Hasti Gul Abed and Ahamd Shah Ahmadi are the other pacers with lots of potential and promise.
'Amongst the batsmen, Karim Khan Sedeq and Nabi Eisakhil stand out. They like to play aggressively and if they fire in the tournament, we will have an excellent chance to return from Jersey with flying colours. While saying this, I am aware that it's a team game and we have to gel together like a unit and back each other.'
Mangal says it is common knowledge in Afghanistan that the national team is going to Jersey to play in an ICC tournament. 'People are talking about it, the media is writing about it and it's an atmosphere we have never experienced before. While it is raising the bar of expectations, it also shows that our people like sports and closely follow cricket. India and Pakistan remain the most favourite teams in our part of the world while Shahid Afridi is an immensely popular player.'
Other teams in Group B include the Bahamas, Bostwana, Japan, Singapore and hosts Jersey.
The Bahamas qualified for WCL Div.5 after finishing the top Affiliate in the Americas region. The team has been participating in the American Affiliate Tournament for the last seven years. It has also played in the Americas Senior Associate Tournament several times and has previously beaten Argentina, an Associate country.
Coached by Solly Chotia, a Level 3 coach from South Africa who just retired as Director of Development at Easterns Cricket Academy, Botswana qualified for the WCL Div.2 after finishing second in the ICC WCL Tournament Africa Region Division Two in Tanzania in 2006.
Japan is captained by Koh Irie and the team also includes chief executive of Japan Cricket Association Naoki Alex Miyaji. Coached by Richard Laidler, Japan qualified after winning the ICC-EAP Cricket Trophy 2007.
Singapore qualified for the WCL Div. 5 after a good performance in the ACC Trophy. Captained by all-rounder Chaminda Ruwan, Singapore's other key players include Chetan Suryawanshi and 18-year-old Anish Param who is touted as a future star.
Coached by former South Africa batsman Peter Kirsten, host Jersey beat Italy twice in March 2007 to fulfill the Associate Membership Playing Criteria before being elected as an Associate Member in June. A year earlier, Jersey finished second in the European Championships Division 2 Tournament in Glasgow.
Immediately after being admitted as an Associate Member, Jersey hosted and won the ECC U/19 Division Two and the ECC U/23 Division Two Tournament in Guernsey.