Since April 2009, Afghanistan have been playing ODI cricket. Just pause there – Afghanistan… full ODI status… cricket. War ravaged failed state… top level status achieved on merit… that most complex of games. Has anything more remarkable happened in world sport since, well, ever? And they are no whipping boys, with a 9-7 win loss record to date including victories against the Netherlands, Canada, Kenya and Scotland. Unbelievably, the ICC appear to have the PR coup to end all PR coups on their hands but, as ever, even given a leg-stump half-volley like this, they’ve played and missed, with barely anyone outside the narrow confines of cricket geekhood aware of this miracle. However, Tim Albone and Lucy Martens are bringing this story to a wider audience with their film, Out of the Ashes which follows the team around the world, as they progress from the fifth division of world cricket all the way to its top table, even playing in 2010’s World T20 in the Caribbean.
Well, maybe they do. Possibly knowing that too much cricket would limit distribution to the few countries that understand the game (and, perhaps, limited by rights issues re footage of the play – though why any rights-holder would not want to be associated with this project is unfathomable), Albone and Martens choose to focus more on the contrasts between life in Afghanistan and life in the countries the team visit; and, especially, on the character of Taj Malik, irrepressible driving force, coach – not coach – then assistant coach of the, nay, his team. That editorial decision may well have broadened the film’s appeal, but the viewer is then assailed by too many of the cliches of the tour diary, now a creakingly familiar genre, leavened only by the exotic names and the spectacular cinematography whenever the team’s beautiful, barren, brutal homeland hoves into view. Anyone who has been on a cricket tour will recognise the irate reaction of a run out batsman on reaching the boundary rope, the sceptical poking at unfamiliar foreign food, the endless toting of bags from transport to pavilion, the boredom-relieving practising of forward defensives in hotel room mirrors. In scenes like this, the film makes these extraordinary men rather ordinary. Taj Malik is no ordinary man, but his relationship with the team is packaged as a rather sentimental quasi-love story of infatuation and rejection, before the uneasy resolution of being “just good friends”.
Why so negative Mr Trumpet? I’ll plead that hackles have risen since this is nearly that rarest of beasts – the great sports film. Had Albone and Martens provided just a bit more context and been willing to intervene by directing conversations explicitly, the film would have been felt more like a documentary and less like a tour diary. What led to Taj’s sacking? What happened to teenage bodybuilder Gulbudeen dropped from the team (after taking 5-7 including a hat-trick according to cricinfo) and dropped just as quickly from the film? Most of all, I wanted to know just how they pulled off this miracle on the field of play – shots of the backs of radio commentators saying things like, “The advantage lies with Jersey now” are worse than nothing.
There are lots of positive reviews about this film, and rightly so, as there is much to admire in its conception and execution, but for a cricket website, its failure to nail the unique quality of Afghanistan’s cricket and cricketers means that watching this film felt like watching the middle overs of an ODI – longish periods with little to excite the interest, interspersed with a few sixes and wickets that showed just what might have been.