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After 55 matches in the Pepsi ICC World Cricket League Championship spanning just over two years, it has come down to the very last match to determine which side will join Ireland in qualifying for the biggest cricket spectacle on the planet – the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 – to be staged in Australia and New Zealand from 14 February to 29 March.
Friday’s match between Afghanistan and Kenya at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium, starting at 0900 local time (0500 GMT), will determine whether Afghanistan will earn an automatic qualification for ICC’s flagship event or whether the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will break a 19-year drought to return to the ICC Cricket World Cup stage.
The standings are such that if Afghanistan manages to defeat Kenya, it will make history by qualifying for the ICC Cricket World Cup for the very first time. However, if Kenya wins the match, then the UAE will advance to Australia and New Zealand.
Irrespective of which side qualifies, one thing is guaranteed: for the first time in the history of the tournament, at least five Asian sides will participate in an ICC Cricket World Cup.
The side that earns an automatic qualification on Friday will find a place in Pool A alongside four-time champion Australia and co-host New Zealand, as well as Bangladesh, England and Sri Lanka. Qualifier 4, also part of Pool A, will be confirmed in February next year, during the final of the ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifier New Zealand 2014.
Afghanistan has good momentum leading up to Friday’s do-or-die match, having won five consecutive 50-over matches.
Afghanistan, which was playing in the Pepsi ICC World Cricket League Division 5 in 2008, has also had an excellent build-up to the most important ODI in its brief cricket history over the past week.
In Monday’s Twenty20 International against Kenya, it won by a margin of 106 runs and carried the momentum through to Wednesday, when it romped to victory in the first of the two WCL Championship ODIs by eight wickets inside 18 overs after skittling Kenya out for 89.
An added irony for Friday’s match is that one of two former team-mates – Aqib Javed and Kabir Khan – will sign off the day smiling ear-to-ear, while the other will be back to the drawing board to prepare a strategy for the ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifier 2014.
The reason is simple: The UAE is coached by Aqib while Kabir is Afghanistan coach, and the two played together in Pakistan in the 1990s.
Kabir, who also had a stint with the UAE until March 2011 before Aqib joined in April 2012, laughed off the idea of any personal rivalry. “It does remind me of our good old days when Aqib and I used to battle for one fast bowler’s slot in the playing XI as Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis were automatic selections.
“But times have changed and we’re now professional coaches and have loyalties towards our respective sides. Obviously, I have never played in a World Cup and, as such, for me this will be the biggest achievement of my career,” said Kabir, who played four Tests and 10 ODIs between 1994 and 2000.
“Aqib and I are good friends and discuss a lot of cricket. While he consults on the UAE players and how he can improve the cricket system here, I try to pick his brains on ways and areas to improve my fast bowlers,” he added.
Aqib Javed, who featured in 22 Tests and 163 ODIs from 1988 to 1998, agreed that he has enjoyed a healthy rivalry with Kabir on the field. “Throughout my playing days, I was always on a trial – thanks to bowlers like Kabir. It’s a vicious circle of life that we’re again fighting for a position but in a different role and for a different reason. But instead of thinking about ifs and buts, I prefer moving on and setting new and fresh targets for myself,” said Aqib.
Kabir admitted that Thursday night will be a long one for him. “I know it will be a restless night and there will be lots of butterflies in my stomach because the stakes are so high. I think it will be easier to qualify in familiar conditions like Sharjah than New Zealand, which is going to be tough.
“I’m sure the entire nation and hundreds of our fans across the globe will be following our match on Friday and praying for our success.
“The team has been in a pressure-cooker situation for the past 16 months and every match has been a must-win for us. I’m not only happy with the way the boys have responded and bounced back, but the points table is such that a victory will promote us to the World Cup without a need to worry about the net run-rate that would have come into play if we had tied with the UAE on points as well as number of wins.”
Aqib was gracious in admitting that Afghanistan looked good to qualify for the ICC Cricket World Cup and admitted that the fast-emerging nation deserved to be amongst the best in the world. “The way Afghanistan is playing, it looks solid and unstoppable. If it qualifies for the World Cup, it will be a great achievement and honestly, a well-deserved one too.
“If we fail to qualify from this tournament, I will still be a proud man because of the way the side has responded since I have taken over. We’re guaranteed third position in the Pepsi ICC World Cricket League Championship and we finished fourth in the four-day first-class ICC Intercontinental Cup.
“Thanks to these performances, people have started to consider us as serious contenders. I think in the world of Associate Members, we are third behind Ireland and Afghanistan,” Aqib said.
Afghanistan (from) - Mohammad Nabi (captain), Mirwais Ashraf, Hamid Hassan, Amir Hamza Hotak, Nowroz Mangal, Mohammad Shehzad, Karim Sadiq, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Samiullah Shinwari, Sayed Ahmed Shirzad, Mohammad Asghar Stanikzai, Shahpur Zadran, Afsar Khan Zazai and Rahmat Shah Zurmati
Kenya (from) – Collins Obuya (captain), Ragheb Aga, Dhiren Gondaria, Irfan Karim, Shem Ngoche, Alex Obanda, Nehemiah Odhiambo, Nelson Odhiambo, Elijah Otieno, Morris Ouma, Rakep Patel, Gurdeep Singh, Hiren Varaiya and Dominic Wesonga
Umpires – Buddhi Pradhan and Ruchira Palliyaguru
Match referee – Graeme LaBrooy
Match will start 0900 local time (0500 GMT)