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So, how come Ireland are now playing Afghanistan at cricket?

They may not be able to play cricket in their homeland but that has not stopped Afghanistan reaching the top five in the second tier of world cricket.

The squad that is taking on Ireland in Sri Lanka this week may all live in Pakistan, but, to a man, they were born in Afghanistan and have already beaten the Taliban — well, at least, got their blessing to represent the country on the world stage in, if not the most popular sport in Asia, certainly its most successful.

Still an affiliate nation in the cricketing world, they became the first and only such country — that’s behind the Test nations and the Associates, of which Ireland is the best — to achieve one-day international status by finishing fifth in this year’s World Cup Qualifying tournament in South Africa.

They missed out by one place in achieving their goal of playing in the 2011 finals in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, but for now the only way seems to up for the Afghanistan Cricket Federation and its players.

Their first ODI was against Scotland in the South Africa tournament and it yielded a second successive victory over the shocked Scots. Not that Ireland had anything to boast about. Despite reaching the finals as top qualifiers, their only defeat in a ‘live match’ was against the Afghans in Krugersdorp.

Ireland are convinced they would not have lost that match on any other ground in use in that competition — it was the most spin-friendly surface — but, undoubtedly, Ireland were surprised if not under-prepared. No-one is surprised anymore.

Eight months before their victory over Ireland, Afghanistan were in World League Five — that’s for teams ranked 35-46 in the world — but that was always only going to be a starting point.

Brought up in Pakistan — the squad consists almost entirely of Afghan refugees — they had been playing in the second tier of Pakistan’s domestic cricket since 2001, the year the ICC gave them affiliate status.

They won their first match two years later and began playing in Asian regional tournaments. By 2006, they were runners-up in the Middle East Cup and toured England, playing county Second XIs and won six of their seven games.

The ICC could ignore them no longer and invited them to start at the bottom in their quest for a World Cup place. Winning all six of their completed matches, they automatically moved up to World League Four and this time a 100 per cent record eased them into Division Three and one tournament away from mixing it with the big boys of Associate cricket.

Although they lost their first match to Uganda, Afghanistan won the next four to head the points table on run-rate and take their chance in the top 12, where the top four joined the 10 Full members at next year’s finals.

With confidence growing, capped by the six wickets win over Ireland, the Afghans won four of their last five games, but having lost three of their first five, they fell one win short of finals glory.

Their reward for being a top six Associate nation, however, was entry into the Intercontinental Cup and with a draw and a win in their first two games, it will be Ireland who have everything to prove over the remaining three days in spin-friendly Dambulla.

Belfast Telegraph