- Ireland eye end to long wait for Test status
KABUL: Afghanistan's fairytale rise in world cricket could this week see them acquire coveted Test status, a massive boost for a nation long divided by war and riven by ethnic rivalries.
No longer rank minnows, Asghar Stanikzai's team are up for consideration following their victories over Ireland in the Intercontinental Cup in March, paving the way for their potential entry into cricket's elite.
Both Afghanistan and Ireland are bidding to become the 11th and 12th nations to join the Test club, nearly two decades after their immediate predecessors Bangladesh, if confirmed by the International Cricket Council (ICC) at a meeting in London.
"A committee is working inside the cricket board, and we will work on our proposal to present it to the ICC in the future, and hopefully full membership and Test status are on the way," chairman of the Afghan cricket board, Atef Mashal told AFP during a recent interview.
"We can not give any time frame at the moment, it is upon the ICC, they will decide when to give Afghanistan the Test status, and it is not in our hands," Mashal said.
Unlike the sport's other major players, Afghanistan was never a colony of the British Empire.
Instead many Afghans' first contact with the sport took place during the 1980s and 1990s, as refugees who had fled to Pakistan to escape the Soviet invasion.
Cricket struggled under the hardline Islamist Taliban, who viewed sports as a distraction from religious duties -- and famously shaved the heads of a visiting Pakistani football team as punishment for wearing shorts.
But it has become hugely popular in the country since the regime was toppled in a US-led invasion in 2001.
Recent successes, particularly in last year's ICC World Twenty20, have further raised the country's profile.
Spinners Rashid Khan, who idolises former Pakistan international Shahid Afridi, and Mohammad Nabi both made their mark in the Indian Premier League.
Khan was sixth-highest wicket-taker in his debut IPL with 17 scalps, and the pair broke into the top 10 of the ICC one-day international bowling rankings during the just-concluded tour of the West Indies.
Their former batting coach and former Pakistan skipper Rashid Latif said a place among the Test nations was well deserved and would benefit them in the future.
"Afghanistan deserves Test status because their performances are good. Once they get to play Tests, more and more players will come forward just like happened in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh -- Kenya suffered because they were not awarded," he told AFP.
"I think it will be the ICC's best decision of the century," he added.
Khan and Nabi are both Pashtuns, the country's dominant ethnic group with deep ties to Pashtuns across the border in Pakistan.
In years gone by Afghanistan maintained a younger sibling relationship with its eastern neighbour.
Kabir Khan, a former Pakistan international, coached the team from 2008-10 and oversaw their stratospheric rise from Division 5 od world cricket to ODI status.
More recently, however, the team has followed broader geopolitical currents and pivoted toward India, Pakistan's historic rival.
Last year, Afghanistan's national team shifted its base from Sharjah in United Arab Emirates to Noida, Delhi, while India's former batsman Lalchand Rajput replaced Pakistan's Inzamam-ul-Haq as their national team coach.
There are nevertheless questions about how well Afghanistan will do in the game's longest format.
Bangladesh famously floundered for their first decade while New Zealand took 26 years to win their first Test.
Pakistani cricket writer Ahmer Naqvi, said it was important to be patient.
"For any team to make its mark, it takes a while to really get a hang of it no matter how good you are at the shorter versions."
But, he added: "It's extremely important to provide Test status for Afghanistan and perhaps Ireland, because it is also a virtuous circle" of greater funding, organisation and structure.
Currently, all of the national team's players are Pashtuns from the eastern provinces -- Nangarhar, Kunar, Logar, Kunduz and Paktia.
Tajiks comprise the country's second biggest ethnicity and are more likely to participate in football where they dominate the national team.
They do participate at club level but none have yet broken through to the top -- a crucial test in country that has long struggled with ethnic tensions.
But for now, many are pleased to watch their team soar.
Shabir Ahmad, a 24-year-old Tajik tailor in Kabul said: "When our team is playing, we forget our pain, bomb blasts and explosions in our country.
"The game of cricket does not belong to one particular ethnic group but to the entire Afghanistan."