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Hands on heart, Afghanistan's cricket team makes history by playing 1st match at World Cup

02/18/2015 10:48 EST | Updated 04/20/2015 05:59 EDT
As Afghanistan's national anthem rang out around Manuka Oval in Australia's national capital of Canberra, the country's proud cricketers stood with their hands on their hearts, making history.

Afghanistan started its first Cricket World Cup in the 50-over format on Wednesday — taking on Bangladesh — a huge achievement considering the team comprises many players who picked up the game in refugee camps outside their long-suffering country.

Mohammad Nabi, who spent time as a child at such a camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, led an Afghan lineup that had absolutely nothing to lose. And Nabi started off his World Cup by failing to win the coin toss to determine which team batted first.

Predictably, Afghanistan eventually lost the game, with Bangladesh winning comfortably by 105 runs after the Afghans could only manage 162 runs in reply to Bangladesh's 267.

"We're disappointed with our performance today, that isn't a true reflection of how we play," Afghanistan's English coach Andy Moles said. "We haven't disgraced ourselves, but that wasn't a true reflection of the work that we do in preparation and the way we play our cricket."

The result may not have mattered — just being there was enough for some of the Afghanistan supporters, including 30-year-old Naqib Akbrai, who drove from Sydney to support his team.

"It's a big game. It's a dream come true," he said. "Afghanistan playing in a World Cup, it's all we could ask for. We're really positive. Hopefully we should win. I'm sure about 80 per cent of Afghanistan is watching the game on TV today."

Hours before the match, news from Afghanistan was not good with reports of Taliban suicide bombers attacking a police station near Kabul and killing at least 20 people. The players and fans are hoping to use the Cricket World Cup to promote a positive image of their country.

On Thursday, the United Arab Emirates will become the last of 14 teams to play its first match when it opens in Nelson, New Zealand, against Zimbabwe, which is coming off a 62-run loss to South Africa.

UAE last played at a World Cup in 1996, beating the Netherlands by seven wickets for its only win. Captain Mohammad Tauqir and leading batsman Khurram Khan share the distinction of being the World Cup's oldest players at 43.

"It's long back (since) we last played World Cup," Tauqir said. "I think it's an honour for me and for the whole team to represent the country."

With South Africa, India and Pakistan widely tipped to take the top three places in Pool B, Zimbabwe will likely have to displace Ireland and the West Indies for the fourth spot to advance to the quarterfinals, which begin on March 14. Ireland has already beaten the West Indies.

Meanwhile, a tropical cyclone that could form off the north Queensland coast could have an impact on Saturday's match in Brisbane between Australia and Bangladesh. The match would feature Australia captain Michael Clarke's first appearance at the tournament after recovering from hamstring surgery.

Bangladesh could use the break — the country didn't get any favours from the World Cup schedule-makers. The Bangladesh team was one of three that hadn't played its first matches until Wednesday, giving it just a couple of days to prepare to take on four-time champion Australia.

Forecasts call for up to 100 millimeters (four inches) of rain on each of Thursday and Friday and an 80 per cent chance of rain showers on Saturday. A cyclone watch was already in effect for a wide area just to the north of Brisbane.

The wet weather may delay a tough call for coach Darren Lehmann — who to drop for Clarke? The player most mentioned is stand-in skipper George Bailey, although Lehmann was seen speaking at length with out-of-form allrounder Shane Watson after training on Wednesday.

"We'll work out what the best 11 is once it clears up," Lehmann said.

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Associated Press writer Rod McGuirk contributed to this story from Canberra.

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