By Shihar Aneez
COLOMBO, Sept 18 (Reuters) - Rising from the ruins of war to challenge the world's cricketing establishment, Afghanistan's rag-tag team hope to inspire the conflict-ravaged nation with a strong showing at the Twenty20 World Cup in Sri Lanka.
Afghanistan take on the might of India in their first group match in Colombo on Wednesday, having qualified for their second successive T20 World Cup.
The team's success against the odds, with many of its players born during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation and knowing little of peace in their home nation, has drawn legions of Afghan youth to take up the game in recent years, according to captain Nawroz Mangal.
Mangal said some 70,000 youngsters had started playing cricket after his team's breakthrough qualification for the 2010 T20 World Cup in West Indies.
"Right now it is more than 500,000," Mangal said, referring to the country's cricket-playing population.
"After participating in this World Cup, if we do better I expect 30 to 40 percent of the population to start playing cricket."
Mangal led the team to a 51-run victory against a Sri Lanka 'A' team on Saturday, with vice captain Mohammad Nabi scoring a 22-ball half-century with five sixes and wicketkeeper-batsman Mohammad Shahzad compiling a similarly quickfire 48.
TENNIS BALL CRICKET
Born in a refugee camp in the Pakistani frontier city of Peshawar, all rounder Nabi started playing cricket aged 10.
"I played a lot of school cricket there as well as street cricket and everywhere with a tennis ball in Peshawar," 27-year-old Nabi told Reuters.
He made his first-class debut with the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) in 2007, having caught former England captain Mike Gatting's eye by scoring a century against the team during a tour of India.
"There is a lot of improvement in Afghanistan cricket," said Nabi, who played a leading role in securing the national team's berth at the 2010 T20 World Cup.
"Everyone likes cricket. There are a lot of fans now. In sha'Allah (God willing), we will try hard in this tournament to do something for our nation and we want to win one match and go to the super eight (round)."
Despite lacking basic infrastructure and having to play international matches in neighbouring Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, the team are feeling the burden of expectation from hopeful home fans, according to wicketkeeper Shahzad.
"The people want us to win everything in the World Cup, because people can't understand cricket," said Shahzad, who plays for Nangarhar Cricket Club in the eastern city of Jalalabad, where one of the country's two main cricket grounds is located.
Afghanistan were eliminated from the 2010 tournament in the first round after losing both of their group matches to India and South Africa.
They face another uphill battle to break into the 'Super Eight' second round in Sri Lanka, with defending champions England the third member of their Group A. Afghanistan face England on Friday.
Shahzad said their team had worked out the weaknesses in both their of the both opponents.
"England struggle a little bit against spinners. India have a very good batting line up, but they don't have a good bowling (attack)," he said. "India every time go for part-time bowlers."
With violence at its worst levels since U.S.-backed forces ousted the Islamist Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan skipper Mangal said he hoped his team could help bring stability to the war-torn country.
"This would be a positive sign to bring the youth into sports instead of them having wrong influences," he said.
"I would say this could be a positive step towards bring peace to the country as well." (Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal in Colombo; Editing by Ian Ransom)