Afghanistan’s magical cricket ride stops off at LC de Villiers Oval in Pretoria, South Africa, today with Canada the latest rivals of a team that refuses to give up on its World Cup dream.
It is one of four 2011 World Cup Qualifier Super 8 fixtures in South Africa and carries huge significance for the Afghans after they ended a three-match losing streak by stunning six-point pacesetters Ireland on Saturday.
A 22-run triumph, inspired by five-wicket Hameed Hasan, earned a side that was in the fifth level of world cricket just a year ago their first two Super 8 points.
But coach Kabir Khan conceded after his team brought a five-match winning run by the Irish to a halt that his “miracle men” will probably have to defeat Canada, Scotland and Namibia to realize their Cup dream.
Another three wins would raise the points tally to eight and offer a realistic chance of a top-four finish on the eight-nation standings and a place among giants like title holders Australia at the world ODI showpiece.
Pakistan is among four co-hosts of the 2011 World Cup and it is there that many of the Afghan team honed their skills using cloth for a ball and shoes for a wicket after fleeing violence at home.
“Canada is a massive game for us and we will approach it with a lot of confidence. After defeating Ireland, who can say what will happen?” medium-pacer Hasan said.
He singled out mental strength as a key factor in the revival of a team well beaten by Kenya, the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) within five days during the first round of the final qualifying tournament.
“We showed great character to recover from those defeats and have learnt a lot about our batting, bowling and fielding as well,” Hasan said after claiming the wickets of major Irish threats Andrew White and Kevin O’Brien.
While Canada shook off the loss for the rest of the tournament of injured batting star John Davison to finish seven-wicket winners over Kenya, they were outplayed by Ireland last week.
An Irish side coached by West Indian Phil Simmons faces the UAE in Johannesburg today while the Krugersdorp clash of Kenya and Scotland brings together teams with four points each. Namibia prop up the table with two points, behind Afghanistan on net run rate, and need to follow a 49-run win over the Emirates with another victory against the Dutch in Benoni to have a hope of finishing among the top four.
On Saturday, Afghanistan made 218-7 in their allotted 50 overs while Ireland, who began as hot favorites after five consecutive first-round wins, were held to 196 in 47.3 overs.
Coach Kabir Khan had warned Ireland his team did not accept being no-hopers and so it proved as the race for a top-four spot was thrown wide open, with Canada replacing Ireland as leaders and Scotland and Namibia also winning.
Afghanistan began their innings poorly at Krugersdorp west of Johannesburg, losing openers Noor Ali (18) and Karim Sadiq (6) cheaply, but Raees Ahmadzai (50), Asghar Stanikzai (47) and Mohamed Shehzad (46) came to the rescue.
White (2-27) and Peter Connell (2-36) were the most successful Irish bowlers who, after capturing five wickets for the loss of 101 runs, let the Afghans off the hook.
Ireland also began dismally with the bat, losing their first two wickets with only six runs on the board, and at 73-5 were in trouble before White (56) and O’Brien (52) salvaged the innings.