The players danced in unison before jubilant fans and ran across the field holding a giant flag. A thousand miles away, the same flag was waving everywhere in the capital, a sea of people celebrating a rare triumph in a country weary of war.
Afghanistan reached its first Cricket World Cup on Friday by beating Kenya in the last match of a qualifying tournament in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.
This is a team composed mainly of players who grew up playing cricket in refugee camps in Pakistan. In Afghanistan, there are only a handful of turf fields.
“This is a big day in my life,” said Mohammad Nabi of the Afghan team. “It’s a gift to a young (Afghan) generation.”
In Kabul, more than a thousand fans had gathered to watch the game on a huge screen. The victory sent roaring fans into the streets.
“We don’t want fight, we want peace,” said Tahir Mustafa, a Kabul resident who was watching the match.
Afghanistan defeated Keyna by seven wickets in the World Cricket League Championship. It edged UAE for the second automatic qualifying spot in the eight-team competition that started in June last year. Afghanistan and Ireland, the championship winner, advance to the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
“This is the best day of my coaching life,” said Kabir Khan, a former Pakistan test cricketer.
Afghanistan Finance Minister Mohammad Omar Zakhilwal, also a member of the national cricket board, knows what the victory means to his country.
“Our people have seen years and years of sadness and now we are among the best 12 cricketing nations in the world,” he said. “We will encourage businessmen and the government to support cricket.”
Come 2015, the Afghans will be in a World Cup pool with Australia, New Zealand, England, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and another qualifier to be determined.
Nabi was quick to warn the big teams in his pool to watch out for Afghanistan.
“Maybe we know about the weaknesses of some teams. … We will do better and do our best to beat some full member teams,” he said.
It was only five years ago when Afghanistan was playing in World Cricket League Division 5 — the lowest ranked tournament among the affiliate members. Since then Afghanistan has made rapid progress, and its status was raised to an Associate member of the International Cricket Council.
“Afghanistan’s journey has been a remarkable one,” ICC chief executive David Richardson said in congratulating the team.
UAE also played an important part in the Afghans’ progress, with Sharjah their home base for at least two years. They have competed there against Australia and Pakistan.
In 2010, Afghanistan qualified for the World Twenty20 in West Indies, and last year played in the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka. Afghanistan didn’t win a match in either.
Khan hopes ICC full-member neighbors such as India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka will help Afghanistan prepare for the World Cup by playing one-day matches with them.
“It’s always helpful when you play against full-member countries,” he said. “Unfortunately, we don’t get much chance to play against them,” he said.
With time to prepare, Khan hopes Afghanistan makes a statement in 2015.
“We just want to leave our mark and we want other teams to notice us,” he said.
Hamid Hasan helped restrict Kenya to only seven runs in the first 10 overs with superb swing bowling.
“I’ve already lost all my words, but I am so, so happy. This is the happiest day of my life,” Hasan said. “To me it’s an unbelievable dream come true.”
Amir Shah in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.