At any moment I expected Borat to turn up with the Kazakhstan cricket team in tow, wearing standard issue “mankinis” rather than jockstraps.
You don’t need to know the ins and (not) outs of the game of cricket to enjoy Out of the Ashes. This documentary from directors Tim Albone and Lucy Martens, follows Afghanistan’s extraordinary exploits in trying to qualify for the World Cup in 2011. Journalist Albone took on the project because he was “fed up of reporting on the war” and believed that documenting the country’s World Cup odyssey was “just too good a story not to follow”. But when filming began in March 2008, surely not even the team’s charismatic coach could have predicted how far this cricketing fairy tale would take them.
Out of the Ashes certainly proves that there’s more to Afghanistan than bombs, bullets and horror stories about the Taliban. Of course there are shots of the rubble-strewn streets of Kabul and the primitive facilities at the National Cricket Academy to remind us that we’re a very long way from the hallowed turf of Lord’s. Fortunately, in (non-playing) coach Taj Malik, his brothers Hasti and Karim and captain Nawrouz Mangal, Afghanistan has a team bursting with charisma, determination and raw talent. In the case of muscle-bound newcomer Gulbadeen, they also have a player who worships at the altar of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Humour is an essential survival tool for the Afghan cricketers, who have to deflect the kind of patronising claptrap spouted by the pompous British Embassy official who’s seen near the beginning of the film. He jokes that the home team “plays cricket like war” and suggests that they don’t have the sophistication to get very far on the international scene. His prediction is wide of the mark. Still, the President of the Afghan Cricket Federation does explain that he sees sport as a unifying activity, a comment that highlights one of the major themes of this film.
Out of the Ashes shows us glimpses of sporting action, as the team takes on nations from the outer reaches of the cricketing world, including Japan, Singapore and Botswana. Periodically, the film cuts back to kids playing in the streets of Kabul, to remind us where the grass-roots of the game lie. But mainly this is a story about a group of men experiencing how the world at large perceives their war-torn nation. As the film-makers have suggested, it’s fair to say that this movie is as revealing about our own prejudices as it is about the side of Afghanistan that lies beyond the headlines.
The figure at the centre of this story is Taj, a fluent English speaker, an enthusiast and an eloquent spokesman for his country. He is our guide to a journey that takes the team from Kabul to Jersey, Buenos Aires and beyond. He discovered the game while his family was living in exile in a refugee camp on the Pakistani border, following the 1979 Russian invasion.
En route to their qualification matches in Jersey, the squad stops at Dubai airport, where the irrepressible Taj introduces himself to anyone and everyone, including some bemused Japanese travellers and an American, who (presumably) has only a passing familiarity with the game of cricket. At any moment I expected Borat to turn up with the Kazakhstan cricket team in tow, wearing standard issue “mankinis” rather than jockstraps. Now that would have been really interesting.
Of course, this isn’t a Sacha Baron Cohen mockumentary, but there are times during the visit to Jersey when you feel there’s a certain amount of piss-taking on both sides. For a start, no one in the Afghanistan side seems to have heard of the Channel Islands before they arrive to compete in their ICC Division 5 matches in May 2008.
The locals don’t rate the visitors at all, while the Afghans are distinctly underwhelmed by the bay at St Helier and the catering at their hotel. The sight of a full English breakfast doesn’t whet their appetites and Taj is amused by the spectacle of a bunch of Jersey’s senior citizens grooving to the strains of “Is This the Way to Amarillo”. Mind you, those moves are a good deal more decorous than the tango dancing that greets them at a later qualification event in Buenos Aires.
The team’s success in Jersey — just one step in a lengthy qualification process — leads to Taj’s dismissal. It’s a cruel reminder that if the country wants to compete with the best it must recruit a top international coach. Some of the best scenes in the film show the sacked coach hunched over a laptop or a radio, trying to pick up news of his former colleagues’ progress abroad. It’s a sight that will strike a chord with any sports fan who has ever burned the midnight oil in order to follow his team. But Taj’s loyalty was eventually rewarded and he is now the team’s assistant coach.
There are times when you lose track of how the various matches are progressing: the film-makers aren’t really interested in giving us chapter and verse on runs scored and wickets taken. What you will take away from this film is a much-needed reminder that life goes on in Afghanistan, despite the carnage and the chaos.
Whether they’re sporting their “Proud to be an Afghan” shirts, getting out their prayer mats, or just paddling in the sea, these men are doing their bit to lead their nation out of the sporting and cultural wilderness. In my book, that puts them some way ahead of the current Aussie side.
(Afghan Cricket Club: Out of the Ashes will be shown on BBC4 on Monday 7 February at 10pm, as part of the Storyville series.)