Afghanistan: Out of the Ashes

In the beginning there is rubble, lots of it, some of which has been piled in a block about a foot high; makeshift stumps. A concrete strip. Not a single blade of grass. A coach called Taj Malik, looking over his shoulder into the camera, and some cricketers, not in whites but in shalwar kameez. The ending? Well, that was in progress late last evening, but it is unlikely to be a fairytale one.

Between the beginning and the, as yet, unedited finale is one of the most fascinating cricketing films you will see. It is called Out of the Ashes and it charts the remarkable story of the Afghanistan cricket team, currently in St Lucia for the World Twenty20, and playing South Africa last night in what, miracles notwithstanding, will be their final match of the tournament.

The film is remarkable on two fronts: most obvious is the narrative itself, which moves from Afghanistan and the Kacha Gari refugee camp in Northern Pakistan, where some of the players first learnt the game, to Jersey, Tanzania, Buenos Aires and South Africa as the Afghan team rose 93 places from the fifth division of the World Cricket League to one-day international status.

Then, there is the level of access itself, as the film makers are allowed in the dressing room, on the coach and in the players’ homes- anywhere, in fact, that the story goes. This is unusual, since the combination of monetary demands or editorial control usually mean that innumerable and insurmountable difficulties come between the viewer and the inner sanctums of modern-day sport.

One of the film-makers is Tim Albone, a former journalist for this newspaper, who was covering Afghanistan when he heard about the cricket team’s efforts to reach the World Cup. He joined forces with Leslie Knott, a freelance photographer based there, and Bungalow Town productions, and, for the final chapter of the story in St Lucia, they’ve enjoyed the input of the Oscar-winning director, and cricket lover, Sam Mendes.

Filming in Afghanistan, in the middle of a war, does not sound like the easiest of tasks, but Albone told me this week that only once, returning from Jalalabad, when they were held up by a roadside bombing did they feel threatened. Otherwise, he says, the war was a footnote to the story. ‘We wanted to give the Afghans a voice,’ he says, and, of course, they wanted to talk cricket rather than war.

The film is not sentimental and the story speaks for itself, and it is the details of discovery that are often the most telling: the look of wariness as one of the players steps onto an elevator for the first time in Dubai airport; the joy they feel in Tanzania when they get to swim in the ocean for the first time, and the bemusement when they come across traffic lights for the first time in Jersey. ‘Something to do with rules and regulations,’ says one, thinking, no doubt, of the chaos on the roads in Kabul.

It would have been easy to fall into cliche, and portray the Afghan team as something they are not. Being to a man Pashtun, they are proud and fiercely competitive and short-tempered when things go wrong. ‘Why did you send me out to bat with a fucking bi-sexual!’ screams one after being run out during the tournament in Jersey. And as you watch one player blame the coach for a defeat in that tournament, you realise that the Afghan dressing room is like every other cricketing dressing room when things go wrong.

It is the coach, Taj Malik, who is the Godfather of the team and the heartbeat of the story. There is no more heartbreaking scene in the film that when Malik, having been replaced as coach, is seen in a mud hut in Northern Pakistan trying to get the radio feed to listen to his former charges in South Africa. Thankfully, having realised that their success on the field was down to more visceral reasons- heart, soul, passion- than technique or mere ‘professionalism’, Malik is now back with the team as assistant coach

Above all, the story suggests that the ICC’s policy of trying to spread the game to the furthest corners of the earth is a sound one. Cricket cannot continue to stare at its navel and prosper. If only a dozen or so nations play the game at the highest level it is uniquely vulnerable to terrorist threats and the like. And, as Out of the Ashes shows so wonderfully, in even the stoniest, least fertile ground, cricketing seeds can flourish.