February 18, 2015

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) The Afghanistan national cricket team's first appearance at the World Cup was a losing one, but its inclusion among the ranks of elite countries in the sport was a victory in itself even before a ball was bowled on Wednesday.

The Afghans got off to a promising start, and for a while the fairytale ending seemed a potential reality. But hampered by inexperience, they lost by 105 runs to Bangladesh, which has been playing in World Cup tournaments since 1999.

While they entered the tournament as underdogs, they were the sentimental favorites of many. Even the U.S. embassy in Kabul mistakenly tweeted its congratulations to the Afghan team for their win over Bangladesh in the early stages of the match, then admitted they were premature in doing so.

While the red and green of Bangladesh supporters appeared to dominate the drum-pounding stands at Canberra's Manuka Oval, the unusual spectacle of cricket fans parading the intricate black, red, green and white flags of Afghanistan, many with ornate gold edgings, also featured prominently.

The Afghan flag is still a novelty at international cricket games and the sight of it lends a sense of normality and national cohesion that the war-ravaged Central Asian country has yet to grow into.

Afghanistan's English coach Andy Moles said his team was better than what it showed Wednesday.

''I think we've moved past that,'' he said at a post-match media conference when asked about the excitement of his team's debut. ''Honestly we're here to compete. We genuinely thought this is a game that we could win tonight.''

The Afghan diaspora in Australia came from far and wide to see their country's proudest moment in a short cricket history.

The earliest Afghan immigrants came to Australia in the 19th century to drive the pioneering camel trains that helped open up the country's arid interior. But many Afghans in Australia are refugees of recent wars who live in the largest cities on the coast.

Many, such as Naqib Akbrai, 30, drove the 300 kilometers (190 miles) from Sydney, Australia's largest city, to support the Afghanistan team in the national capital of Canberra.

''It's a big game. It's a dream come true,'' he said as he waited with friends for the Manuka Oval gates to be opened to a sellout crowd of 12,000.

For Akbrai, Afghanistan's debut match in the most prestigious event in limited-overs cricket was a victory for his war-weary homeland, regardless of the result.

''Afghanistan playing in a World Cup, it's all we could ask for,'' he said. ''We're really positive. Hopefully we should win. I'm sure about 80 percent of Afghanistan is watching the game on TV today.''

Roman Sadath, 31, flew from Melbourne, Australia's second-largest city, for the game. He waited at the gate to meet his friends who made the 800-kilometer (500-mile) journey by road.

''The most important thing is that they qualified for 2015. If they win any games, that's good,'' said Sadath, who migrated to Melbourne 18 years ago.

The rivalry between the two camps of cricketing supporters was largely friendly, with everyone recognizing the match as a momentous occasion. The Afghan team has come a long way quickly in the face of many challenges including security threats, ruined infrastructure and persistent poverty.

The first official act of the game went Bangladesh's way when it won the toss to decide which team had the choice of batting or bowling first - Bangladesh elected to bat.

Afghanistan's first wicket after an hour of cricket brought an appreciative roar from an excited crowd.

Mirwais Ashraf created history in the 15th over when he had Bangladesh opener Tamim Iqbal (19) acrobatically caught by wicketkeeper Afsar Zazai to take Afghanistan's first World Cup wicket.

The 26-year-old fast bowler struck again in his next over to trap Anamul Haque (29) leg before wicket as Bangladesh slipped to 52-2.

Afghanistan will have another chance to win its first game at the World Cup on Sunday when it plays Sri Lanka in Dunedin, New Zealand.

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