Afghan team return to rapturous welcome

KABUL: Afghanistan's victorious cricket team returned home Thursday to a rapturous welcome from hundreds of fans after securing a berth in the World Twenty20 qualifiers.

Hundreds of people, including lawmakers and sports fans waving the national flag and singing patriotic songs gathered at Kabul's airport to greet the returning heroes.

The national team are living a fairytale for the war-ravaged country, having qualified for the World Twenty20 cricket finals by beating Ireland in the final match of the qualifying tournament in Dubai on February 13.

They had already secured a place in the April 30-May 16 showpiece in the West Indies by beating hosts United Arab Emirates by four wickets before signing off in style with a comfortable victory over Ireland.

"Our national cricket team returns home today and we have come to show them our appreciation for their achievement and to further encourage them," said Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal, finance minister and Afghan Cricket Board chairman.

Afghanistan will play India and South Africa in Group C of the World Twenty20, which is the first major tournament they have reached.

"Certainly it was a dream of all the players and the Afghan people, and God fulfilled it," team captain Nowrooz Mangal told reporters of their winning streak in Dubai.

The team have drawn two of the toughest opponents, however, in India and South Africa. The first match against India is set for May 1.

Ireland, meanwhile, will face the West Indies and England in Group D.

Cricket is a relatively new sport to Afghanistan, which has been mired in conflict and civil war for about 30 years.

Most players learned the sport while living in neighbouring Pakistan, where millions of Afghans fled as refugees to escape the violence of the war against the Soviet invaders, which was followed by civil war between a multitude of factions.

In 1996, the Islamist Taliban took over the country, overthrown in a US-led invasion in late 2001, after which they regrouped to wage an insurgency now into a ninth year against Western troops and the Afghan government.

Under the Taliban, sports stadiums across the country became execution and torture grounds where people would be summarily shot, beheaded, lashed or have body parts amputated as punishment for a range of crimes.

Sometimes rough justice was meted out at half-time or following football matches.

Since the Taliban's overthrow, however, Afghans have reclaimed their love for sports, winning hundreds of medals in international competitions, according to sports authorities.

At this month's South Asian Games in Bangladesh, Afghans won 32 medals, including eight golds in karate, taekwondo, wrestling, boxing and basketball, said Ghulam Jailani Ghurub of Afghanistan's National Olympic Committee.