Afghanistan were granted the Associate membership of the International Cricket Council at the governing body's annual conference in London on June 28 (Friday). The announcement follows a request made by the Asian Cricket Council last year, in lieu of the giant strides the country has taken in the development of the game at all levels.
The elevation means Afghanistan, who have risen from an affiliate to associate membership in just 12 years, will receive an annual funding of US$850,000.
Along the way, Afghanistan have also been beneficiaries of ICC's Target Assistance and Performance Programme (TAPP), an initiative aimed at assisting the lower ranked Full Members and higher ranked associate and affiliate countries, entitling them to a grant of US$ 422,000 to develop cricket at the grassroots level.
From playing in division five alongside teams such as Botswana, Japan and Nepal in the ICC World Cricket League in 2008 to competing with the likes of Ireland, Scotland and Netherlands in the ICC Cricket World Cup qualifier a year later, the country's rise has been meteoric.
Despite missing out on the 2011 World Cup on account of an inferior net run rate to Kenya, the side's progress has largely been based on the array of talent on offer coupled with the initiatives taken by the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) to promote the game.
Afghanistan made their One-Day International debut against a Test-playing nation when they played Pakistan at Sharjah in February 2012. Although, they went down by seven wickets, their performance was encouraging. That, many believe, has been brought about by the ACB, who have made giant strides in transforming the existing administrative and coaching structure within the country.
"We've developed a lot of players in our squads who have come through the ranks at the Under-19 level. We've also developed some skilled coaches," said Shahzada Masoud, the Afghanistan Cricket Board chairman, in an interview to Wisden India.
Masoud believes support from the Full Members is vital for their development. "We want the Full Members from the Asian Block to help us with technical support, such as coaches, umpires, scorers, video analysts, trainers, etc," said Masoud. "If we have these, we can train our own in provinces, villages and these will be very important for our development."
The country now boasts of ten coaches with level-two qualifications certified by the Asian Cricket Council (ACC). In addition, they also have on board Umesh Patwal, a Mumbai-based coach, who is their batting consultant. "Developing home-bred coaches is top priority," said Masoud. "If they're highly skilled, they can bring that down at the player level."
Despite access to facilities in Afghanistan being limited, the team has been well supported by the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), who have facilitated training and organised matches.
In March this year, Afghanistan played limited-overs matches against Pakistan's second team in their lead-up to World Cup 2015 qualifying rounds in the United Arab Emirates, a country which has been their base since 2010.
"Sharjah has been a happy hunting ground for us," said Masoud, which recollecting Afghanistan's famous chase of 494 in a day against Scotland in 2010. "But the problem in playing in Sharjah is it is very expensive for us, especially given the lodging and training facilities. Pakistan works out to be a lot cheaper.
"We've basic facilities back home unlike other countries. That is why we're reliant on Global Cricket Academy in Dubai, but all that comes at a cost, which is why it is very important to develop facilities back home."
The ACG has signed an MoU with the education ministry to make cricket a part of the school curriculum, a move that Masoud believes has generated tremendous interest. "The number of schools that have signed up under the initiative is very encouraging. We've seen massive growth and a lot of them look up to national cricketers for inspiration. (MS) Dhoni is a big star, people just love him here. They keenly follow the IPL, and even we had two-three players playing in the Bangladesh Premier League, so the signs are good."
Apart from the growth the sport has seen at the school level, Masoud believes nothing would match the experience of top-flight cricket, in getting more people to pursue it at a professional level.
"Last year during the ICC Annual conference, we requested the Australian board to play us in a fixture during their series against Pakistan in UAE and they readily agreed. The match was televised and the entire country was glued to the game. We lost the game but we showed how good we can be if given a chance. Of course, the people do demand for televised matches of Full Members.
"People don't mind seeing the team lose, but they want to watch their heroes. We've had a couple of such matches. We are looking forward to more such opportunities. We're happy to play with India's A team. As you're aware, cricket schedule is choc-a-block, so the board is in talks with several boards to organise more matches."
Afghanistan have featured in the last two editions of the ICC World Twenty20 and, with five wins in 10 matches in the ICC World Cricket League, they are on track for qualifying for the 2015 World Cup.
"The ICC promised to look into our status as a cricket nation and help us build on from here during the ICC annual conference in June 2013," said Masoud. "From there on, a lot of it will depend on if we qualify for the 2015 World Cup and how well we shape up. If we do that, we hope to be a Test-playing nation in five to seven years."