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WC aspirant Afghanistan preparing in Pakistan
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ISLAMABAD (AP): A deadly attack on the Sri Lankan team's convoy at Lahore last week that sent shockwaves around the cricket world has not perturbed at least one team with World Cup aspirations from traveling to Pakistan.

The national team from neighboring Afghanistan has been quietly practicing in the capital of North West Frontier Province at Peshawar since March 5, selecting it as an alternate venue last week after gunmen ambushed a convoy taking officials and Sri Lankan players to a test match in Lahore, killing six police officers and a driver.

``We were supposed to train in Lahore but after whatever happened there last week, we immediately shifted the training camp to Peshawar,'' Afghanistan cricket coach and former Pakistan test bowler Kabir Khan told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Six Sri Lankan cricketers and an assistant coach sustained injuries in the ambush, but none were life-threatening. The team was evacuated immediately and the test series against Pakistan _ the first in 14 months on Pakistani soil _ was canceled.

Reaction from around the globe suggested it will be a long time before any top-flight cricket team tours Pakistan again, with even the country's status as co-host of the 2011 World Cup in doubt.

That the Afghan team feels more safe in Peshawar than Lahore speaks volumes.

Peshawar is one of the most dangerous cities in Pakistan. It lies next to the tribal border area between the two countries and is regularly hit by suicide bombers. Afghanistan's ambassador designate to Pakistan was kidnapped there last year and remains captive.

The Afghanistan team, with their own country in turmoil since the ousting of the Taliban and their hardline Ismlamism by a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, is happy to train in Peshawar, but is taking precautions.

``We are also staying away from the media as security around the ground (Arbab Niaz Stadium) is also very tight and there are dozens of policemen guarding our team,'' Khan said.

Afghanistan is warming up for next month's International Cricket Council qualifying tournament in South Africa, where four teams can qualify for the 2011 World Cup.

The 34-year-old Khan, a left-arm fast bowler who played four test matches and 10 limited-overs internationals for Pakistan, said his players traveled in small groups to the stadium for practice to avoid any incidents.

The players wear shalwar kamiz _ the traditional pants and top worn by men and women in South Asia _ while they travel to the stadium and change into cricket clothes when they get there.

``It's all part of the security measures,'' Khan said.

The fact Afghanistan is still in training, with World Cup hopes alive, surprises Khan, because they've advanced from the lowest rung of qualifying. So far, they've moved through the division 5 event in Jersey, Division 4 in Tanzania and Division 3 in Argentina.

``To be honest with you, I was not expecting such a brilliant performance from my team,'' Khan said. ``The problem in winning these three tournaments was that we knew nothing about our opponents, but we didn't (succumb to) the pressure and took it match by match.''

Afghanistan has been bracketed with Denmark, Bermuda, Kenya, the Netherlands and United Arab Emirates in Group B for the South Africa tournament. Group A comprises Ireland, Scotland, Oman, Uganda, Canada and Namibia.

``No doubt experience wise our group looks tough as it has four teams which had previously participated in the World Cups (Kenya, Bermuda, the Netherlands and UAE),'' Khan said. ``But in one-day cricket you need fitness, you need young and athletic players and our team fulfills this criteria.''

Last month, hundreds of fans cheered and threw confetti when the Afghan cricketers returned home from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Khan believes cricket has become the national sport.

``I met quite a few Afghanis who said they fast and prayed for seven days while we played in Argentina,'' Khan said. ``People there not only want us to qualify for the World Cup, they now want us to beat teams like India, Pakistan and even Australia, so the hopes are very high.

``There's definitely extra pressure on all of us.''

Khan recently supervised an under-19 tournament in Kabul and was highly impressed with the talent _ especially in the fast bowling department.

``It's still too early to field these players in the event like World Cup qualifiers, but certainly what I've seen, the future of Afghan cricket is very bright,'' he said.

Khan has targeted Denmark as the must-win match in his group and expects his side to upset at least one other team to qualify for the Super 8 stage _ four teams from each group progress to the next round.

``The way we are training and planning for the tournament, we have set a goal to finish among top four in the event so that we could play in the World Cup in two years,'' Khan said.

Batting was the main concern for Khan when the team began its World Cup journey last year, but now the coach said his ``main headache'' is over.

``Fielding and bowling was never a worry for us, and we struggled in our batting,'' Khan said. ``But now with the likes of Riffatullah Momand and Mohammad Shehzad in our batting lineup, I think we have solved this problem.''

The Afghanistan squad will wrap up its training camp March 17 and return to Kabul before flying to South Africa on March 20.

A warmup match against Oman will precede the qualifying tournament.

``We'll have at least 11 days before the tournament begins and with a warm-up game against Oman, it will give an ideal preparation for the mega event,'' Khan said.

Squad: Norooz Mangal (captain), Khaleqdaad Noori, Karim Sadiq, Mohammad Nabi, Hasti Gul, Rais Ahmadzai, Dawlat Ahmadzai, Mohammad Shehzad, Hamid Hassan, Samiullah Shinwari, Riffatullah Momand, Noor Ali, Asghar Stanikzai, Shahpoor Zadran, Shafiqullah Shafaq.

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