How cricket fever swept Afghanistan

The Independent

On the eve of a new film about the sport that inspired a shattered nation, Julius Cavendish reports from Kabul

Gunships growl above the city, Humvees roll by blasted buildings and a radio programme passes a dismal verdict on Afghanistan’s deepening troubles. In a car stuck in Kabul’s traffic, an impish-looking man gives his prognosis: “Everywhere there is fighting, you know,” Taj Malik says. “The solution of all the problems is – cricket!” And then he doesn’t so much laugh as gurgle with joy.

Mr Malik is the coach of the Afghan national team, and he has spent much of the last few years dragging his squad on a quixotic mission to qualify for the ICC World Cup. On the way, the group have given a country doing a brisk trade in bad news a real-life fairytale.

Tomorrow, a documentary about their rise, Out of the Ashes, will be premiered at the Edinburgh film festival. But while the film opens with Mr Malik’s paean to his beloved sport in a Kabul snarl-up, his team first grew in far less hospitable circumstances. Go back to the side’s early days and you’d have to travel to the refugee camps outside Peshawar, near Pakistan’s north-west frontier. It was on these stony, rubble-strewn plains that many of the players first picked up bat and ball. Even at an early age Malik was living and breathing the sport, playing truant to play cricket.

In the aftermath of the 2001 invasion, the notion of a national cricket team began to coalesce as millions of Afghan refugees returned from exile. The team swapped the pitted concrete wickets of the Kacha Gari refugee camp for four nets and a temperamental bowling machine in Kabul – known collectively as the Afghan National Cricket Academy.

The facilities in Kabul were so bad, in fact, and Afghanistan still so insecure, that the team had to travel eight hours back to Pakistan to play practice games. Many of the players still live in Pakistan. But there was a sense among the players, the film-maker Tim Albone recalls, of “a sense of national pride and a need to show their commitment to their fellow countrymen”.

By 2008, the team was en route to Jersey for the first in a series of qualifying tournaments that would ultimately see them climb 76 places in the world rankings. Except in the most fervent believer’s heart there was no sense of the things to come – and it was a complete surprise when they won their group, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in a game against the hosts. Minutes earlier, as a batting collapse threatened to dash their hopes, tension mounted and tempers frayed. “Why did you send me to play with a bisexual?” one player screamed at Malik after his teammate ran him out.

But in the end they defied spectators who had predicted they would “be back in Afghanistan by Saturday”. Along the way the team also showed the passion and sense of wonder that have made their story all the more compelling – and that the film-makers Tim Albone, Lucy Martens and Leslie Knott captured with a lingering eye for detail, whether this is Mr Malik stepping gingerly on to an escalator for the first time at Dubai International airport, or creasing up when he spots blue-rinsed pensioners line-dancing at a hotel in Jersey.

Malik is the team’s heartbeat – a bundle of nerves who cries when his team wins, cries when they lose and smokes two packets of cigarettes in a game. He claims his players remind him of Australia’s cricket team.

During a victory procession after a qualifying stage in early 2009, Albone rode with Malik, who had been replaced as coach and was forced to follow his team’s progress on his mother’s radio. “Nine months ago, Taj, when you told me you wanted Afghanistan to get to the World Cup, everyone said you were crazy,” Albone said. “Exactly!” Malik laughed. “Nobody was expecting Afghanistan [to reach] this stage. I told the Western media, “You will see this team in the World Cup. Afghanistan will join the strong teams in the world. This is a warning for other teams.”

Three of Mr Malik’s brothers have played at different points, the most prominent being Karim “boom boom” Saddiq, a big hitter currently opening the batting, and the team’s delinquent prodigy. When he isn’t punching windows or making his views on team selection known in the Afghan press – as was the case when his brother Hasti Gul was dropped – he’s keeping wicket, bowling and vice-captaining the side.

Then there is Nowroz Managl, the captain, who would rather have been an engineer if only he’d been academic enough – but is so dedicated to his team that he skipped the birth of his son to attend a cricket training camp.

There is Raes Ahmadzai, who has co-founded an NGO running cricket training across Afghanistan, and is mobbed by dirty-faced children in the street in Kabul, chanting “Ahmadzai, give me a bat! Give me a ball!”

And there is Gulbadeen Naib, the rookie with a bodybuilding regime to make Schwarzenegger blush, and behind his boyish good looks a sad personal story that involves a disappeared father and a terminally ill mother. When he was dropped from the team he said the hardest thing for his family to grasp was “how one who has flown so high can fall”.

Almost as inspirational as the cricket team’s improbable success is that of the Out of the Ashes crew. The three initial members, relatively inexperienced, followed the story for over two years, doing bit jobs and borrowing money for plane fares to whichever continent the ICC qualifying matches were taking place on. Even though the narrative was easy to follow, “it was such a complicated project because we were always broke”, Martens says. “Everyone was always somewhere else.” Knott was in Canada trying to find a buyer for the footage. Albone had gone to Iraq to report on the war. At the last minute the three of them flew out to Tanzania to track the team’s progress, and after that “it was clear we couldn’t go back anymore; we had to continue”.

Now the Oscar-winning Hollywood director Sam Mendes has thrown his weight behind the project. He persuaded Albone, Martens and Knott to finish the narrative by following the team for one last adventure that would see Afghanistan take on the giants of the game at the World Twenty20 tournament in the West Indies. The team was bundled out quickly enough in matches against India and South Africa but perhaps the best measure of their success is the number of cricket games taking place in the streets of Kabul – and in rural districts blighted by poverty and war.

If Malik ever needed vindication for his impossible dream, this is it. “If we win, I think people will understand that the Afghan people are not only famous in war,” he said early in the qualifying campaign. “They can win in sport as well.”

Sporting nation

* Featuring horses and a headless goat, buzkashi certainly does not lack excitement. The game involves riders battling for control of the decapitated animal, and then trying to place it in a designated zone or break away from the pack. Said to date back to the time of Genghis Khan, it is popular in the north of the country.

* It may have been one of the few leisure activities not to be banned by the Taliban, but spectators at football matches were often forced to say prayers and the stadiums were regularly used to stage public executions. The national side did not play a competitive international from 1984 until 2002, but have entered qualification for the last two World Cups.

* Thanks to its affordability and the number of new gyms to spring up in recent years, bodybuilding is a growing sport with Arnold Schwarzenegger idolised. Under the Taliban, bodybuilders had to train wearing beards and traditional clothes – now they can compete in the annual Mr Afghanistan competition.

‘Out of the Ashes’ will premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival from 17 June and will be shown on BBC4’s Storyville strand later this year

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