x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Tracing Afghan cricket from nothing to 14th in the world in 10 years

Tim Albone's Out of the Ashes recounts the remarkable journey of Afghanistan's cricket team from its humble beginnings to competition on the international stage, providing a nuanced picture of a battle-scarred nation along the way.

Afghan cricket players and officials celebrate after Afghanistan beat the UAE by four wickets in the ICC World Twenty20 qualifier at Dubai International Cricket Stadium.
Afghan cricket players and officials celebrate after Afghanistan beat the UAE by four wickets in the ICC World Twenty20 qualifier at Dubai International Cricket Stadium.

This is the companion book to an extraordinary documentary film made by Tim Albone, a journalist working in Afghanistan, about the country's cricket team. When the team took to the field in 2001, it was the lowest-ranked in the world, occupying 90th place. At the start of this year it had climbed all the way up to 14th. This has been achieved on an almost non-existent budget. Despite billions of dollars of aid flooding into the country, Afghanistan still has one of the lowest GDPs in the world, while its cricket team has neither a national academy nor a stadium.

What this book adds to the film is a political context that colours the heroic endeavours we saw from the players on the field. It takes place over a longer period: between 2001 and 2011. Nato took control of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in 2003, and in the summer of 2006 the forces moved into the southern Afghanistan provinces - a process likened by one British commander to kicking a hornet's nest.

After a five-year hiatus, the Taliban had regrouped and fought back with renewed vigour. Meanwhile, the international community had underestimated the needs of a country with few schools, hospitals or even paved roads. As one disaster after another befell the nation, the cricket team's fortunes followed an altogether different trajectory. That Afghanistan has competed on the world cricket stage at all has been primarily down to the work of one man, Taj Malik, the team's inspirational coach. Malik was raised in the Kacha Gari refugee camp in Pakistan. His family were among the six million refugees from the 1979 Soviet invasion. The camp, on the edge of Peshawar, was a tough place. The family home was a mud hut with three rooms and no electricity, water or sewerage system. Poverty and disease were ever-present. But it was in this cricket-mad country that he fell in love with the game, playing with a stick and plastic bags wrapped up to make a ball.

The first steps towards the creation of the team are not in the film: Albone, who has written for The National, evidently got wind of it a little later in its development. It's a shame, because the retrospective retelling in the book is quite startling in terms of the love and enthusiasm involved. In 2001, Malik travelled across the border to Jalalabad, holing up in an anti-Taliban military base. He made the dangerous journey to Kabul, the city he had left behind, once a stop-off on the hippie trail. To his horror he found it was now reduced to rubble.

Here he successfully gained approval from the Afghan Olympic Committee to set up the team, winning them over with his charm and perseverance. In terms of making the game grow, the odds were stacked against him. The Dari speakers that dominate the interim government (though President Hamid Karzai is not one) were suspicious of the game; most of the refugees that fled to Pakistan were Pashtu speakers. There was a sense that it was a Pakistani game, and Pakistan supported the Taliban.

Malik received unexpected help from a cricket-loving military policeman, Major Andrew Banks of the British Embassy. He single-handedly gathered kit donations from English county teams and artificial wickets from the English Cricket Board, and had them delivered from the United Kingdom. A game was organised between Malik's scratch side (including two of his brothers) and Isaf. Malik's players had never played with a hard cricket ball before, but they still won convincingly.

Next, Malik invited teams from all over Afghanistan to play in a tournament on the Chaman-i-Hozori, by the burnt-out shell of a Soviet helicopter. The best players were to be selected for the national side. How the teams came together on the correct days with the correct number of players "remains a bit of a mystery, even to those involved". Malik was surprised by the amount of potential on display. With no money, and at the risk of ridicule or, at worst, serious harm, he had set up his team.

This is the point at which Albone's film joins the team. It follows them to Jersey, where they're taking part in the WCL Division 5 tournament. It's a fantastic journey - both a comedy about a clash of cultures and a story of extraordinary sporting heroism.

The humour comes from the interaction between the players, most of them conservative Muslims, and the parochial island of Jersey. They see a man walking a dog on the beach, and ask its name. Chip, comes the reply. As the man walks away, Nowroz (one of the players) howls with laughter - the only pet dogs they have ever come across in Afghanistan are fighting dogs, with names like Rambo or War.

On the field, the Afghans should be outclassed by their better-financed, better-prepared and more experienced opponents. But they are proud of their country, and desperate to show it in a more positive light than that portrayed by the headlines of war and suicide attacks. They play the game without inhibition - all tearaway fast bowlers and big-hitting batsmen. Through pure determination, they somehow prevail.

Such a tale - the drama on the field, the comedy off it - loses a little in the translation to page. Albone tells the story well enough, but he is no great prose stylist. That said, the book still forms a great companion piece, because the extra space allows him to introduce issues that would have complicated the film and which could have detracted from its emotional appeal to a western audience. It's a more nuanced picture.

For instance, while the film only shows the bemusement of Afghanistan's opponents and spectators in the face of the team's passion, we learn that their sportsmanship occasionally engendered hostility:

"Malik doesn't go so far as to say Jersey is racist - he knows what it's like to be looked down upon because he grew up as a refugee in Pakistan and was looked down upon by many non-Pashtu Pakistanis. Jersey is nowhere near as bad as that - but he does think it is isolated and not used to visitors such as the Afghans."

We also learn in the book that one of the team's favourite pastimes involves watching videos of Taliban insurgents shooting down helicopters. None of the players actively support the Taliban, but many are critical of the US troops and their treatment of the Afghans.

Most shocking of all, we hear the extraordinary story of Rahmat Wali, a former player who was tied up and shot dead by Isaf troops; they believed he was responsible for helping the Taliban make improvised explosive devices. His brother swears this is not the case. Details of the troops involved are never verified.

Isaf admits the raid took place, but refuses to disclose the nationality or unit of the soldiers involved. It says further investigation is "not warranted". If the early days of Malik's team are one side of the international community's involvement in Afghanistan, this is a harrowing reminder of the other - a side of which the western media reports far less frequently.

It's under this cloud that the team compete in their next tournament, in Tanzania, without Malik. The film, perhaps inadvertently, gives the impression that the man who created Afghanistan cricket has been subject to the most monstrous betrayal: sidelined for the most part by the authorities as they look to cash in on the success that he engendered.

The book shows that the situation is more complex: his own players had a significant role to play in his removal as they felt they needed a more professional coach and, moreover, Malik had been involved with another individual in a bitter struggle for control of the team almost from the word go.

From this point on, rather like the film, the book loses a little of the intimacy that made the Jersey section of the narrative so compelling. It seems that Albone never expected his subjects to go quite so far, or perhaps his presence was deemed unacceptable among a team striving to be ever more professional.

Alan White's work has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, The Observer, Private Eye and The Oldie.