The Afghanistan team enjoyed a lot of crowd support during the ODI against Australia. © AFP

If the Afghanistan Cricket Board is to be believed, cricket is the uniting force in war-ravaged Afghanistan and has the power to further stabilise the country if foreign teams tour.

Afghanistan took a big step at the international level by playing Australia in Sharjah on Saturday, only their second limited-overs match against a top team, following their first against Pakistan in February. Despite their 66-run defeat, Afghanistan put up a fight, hinting they can improve if given more chances against top teams.

Omar Zakhilwal, President of the Afghanistan Cricket Board, believed the match against Australia would go a long way in promoting the game and, in turn, peace in his country. “It’s a great occasion,” said Zakhilwal. “The one-day matches with Pakistan and Australia will go a long way in promoting cricket, which is bringing peace in our country.”

Cricket attained enormous popularity in the country, which was mired in conflict since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001 with United States-led coalition forces still fighting insurgency and extremism.

In 2009, Afghanistan finished fifth in the 2011 World Cup qualifiers, earning the right to play One-Day Internationals. Afghanistan then qualified for the 2010 World Twenty20 held in the Caribbean, followed by a silver medal finish in the Asian Games in China the same year. They have since earned the right to play the fourth edition of the World Twenty20 to be held in Sri Lanka next month.

“The whole of Afghanistan is looking forward to the World Twenty20. If you see the performance of our players, and even though we may not have won these matches, but the way the players stood up to the pressure of international cricket proves that we have come a long way,” said Zakhilwal. “The youth are drawn away from hostilities by cricket. Today they watch, tomorrow they will play.”

Zakhilwal, also the finance minister in the Hamid Karzai-led government, said the Australia match sends a positive message to the world. “The message is that with determination and with a cause, these youngsters, who’ve gone through difficult times, can train and have big dreams,” said Zakhilwal. “80-90 percent of the population were watching the match on television and listening to the radio. This is uniting the nation and is sending a positive message to the youth, so cricket is proving more than the game.”

Zakhilwal said his Board owed a big thanks to Cricket Australia for agreeing to the match. “For them to give us this opportunity and come all the way from Australia to play is a great help. If any other country comes forward and plays, it will be good for our cricket,” said Zakhilwal.

Cricket officials in Afghanistan were in touch with India for assistance in moving to the next level. “We are in discussion with India to play a match and we also hope they invite our players into the Indian Premier League because that will establish them further,” said Zakhilwal. “If any team comes to Afghanistan and plays then it will be good for us. There are so many misconceptions about Afghanistan, teams can feel fully secure in Kabul, they will have lot of fans who will cheer for them.”