Posted by: tootingtrumpet | February 10, 2011

Out of the Ashes

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.

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Responses

  1. After reading the caveat on your tweet I was ready to be outraged by your criticism of a documentary that I really enjoyed. But after reading I have to concede you’ve got a point.

    The cricket scenes were dumbed down to the point that the games made no sense and the Taj Malik’s sacking/demotion did need more explanation.

    It was still a thoroughly enjoyable watch, but I suppose it couldn’t fail to be given the remarkable story it was telling.

    • Cheers Jo – it was so close to being worthy of its extraordinary source material.

  2. The reality was that it wasn’t a film of just one tour, but a succession of tours.

    It really needed another 40 minutes, at 90 it was far too short to portray a meanigful narrative.

    The lack of an explanation (just a short Jersey 80, Afghanistan 81-7 won by 3 wickets would have sufficed) is appalling. Compare this documentary with” Living with Lions”, every tour game has a summary of each game and lets the audience know how the tour is going.

    Cricket was the medium through which this tale of overcoming tremendous challenges was played out, to negate it to such a large extent was frustrating & it did not do justice to the performances of the players themselves.

    Well reviewed Gary

  3. Cheers Paul.

  4. Just received this tweet – OOTAmovie OUT OF THE ASHES
    @garynaylor999 fair points. Something we thought about. Just really wanted to show the guys and what they went through. Book has all scores.

    Very decent of them to respond with more charm than my review deserves if truth be told.

    • Decent of them, but it still fails to address the point about the length of the film, their performances as a team should not have been relegated to a book, they should have been there front and center.

      What the players went through on the field was the whole sodding point of them going to Jersey/Argentina/South Africa/ St. Lucia in the first place. They went out there to put their skills against the rest of the world and became a top 15 team in two years, where is the explanation of the progression as a team from the film-makers?

      It could viewed as symptomatic of what is wrong with our sports journalism, the personal has become the story and is almost devoid from the performance. it’s like telling the story of the Ashes series by just using footage from Swanny’s diaries & the press conferences before the tests & after the tests.

      The film is saved because of the players, not because of the editorial decisions taken by the film makers.

      No American sports film would ever dare to think “are we putting off a non-american football/baseball audience?” why should this film have been the same?

      • I think that’s a different film though Paul and definitely one I would like to see, but it’s an ESPN 30 for 30 job isn’t it rather than a broad appeal documentary? My quibbles are that ten mins more context and ten mins less cliched shots could have made the same film even better.

        The ICC should have commissioned a cricket-only doc anyway.

        • They bowled out Jersey for 80 in a 50 over game, would that not have been worth showing?

          I agree that my suggestions would have made it a different film, the simple bit of putting a result summary, as you suggested, would have improved the film quite considerably.

  5. Apologies for ranting, I think the only way I’m going to calm down is by digging out that “Living with Lions” DVD and watching Jim Telfer’s speeches.

    • That speech is frightening, now I know why I never played rugby. Just listening to the coach makes my scrotum contract.

  6. Gulbudeen is back in the Afghan side – he’s playing in that associate World Cup warmup series in the UAE. His 5/7 were mostly Bahamian tailenders. He played a couple more games before being dropped in that Div 5 tournament, but those were his only wickets.

    This doesn’t help the film (which I haven’t seen), but it looked like you were wondering about it anyway.

  7. Hey guys,

    I wanted to address some of your points here as Twitter is a bit limited.

    Firstly I can’t agree that we make Taj look ordinary. Yes, we show ordinary interactions (that’s what happened) but I think if anything they make him who he is. Taj is a man of incredible drive and passion and he is achieved what most thought impossible, but he is also just a man. You can have a laugh with him, you can have a cup of tea and you can spend hours talking cricket with him. That’s who he is and we wanted to show all of it.

    I totally understand the comments about the scorecards and I see your point. We gave it some careful consideration but felt that wasn’t the film we wanted to make. I understand for cricket buffs that might be a bit frustrating. I felt (and it seems to have been played out here) that the fanatics would check on Cricinfo, for everyone else I thought it would be too confusing. That being said I think it’s pretty clear when they win and when they lose and that’s the main point.

    “Living with Lions” is an amazing film, but it is a very different film. They are men who on a cultural level you can already relate to. They all speak the same language, listen to the same music, go to the pub and chase girls.
    Out of the Ashes is a film about the Afghan cricket team and initially they seem very different. Most people don’t think they can relate to your average Afghan, or that they would have anything in common with them. With that in mind we wanted to show a different, human side to the country. I hope we managed to do this. If nothing else we have got you guys talking about it, which is a good thing!

    If anyone would like to see the film, and is in the UK, it can still be viewed on iPlayer:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00ydj1r/sign/Storyville_20102011_Afghan_Cricket_Club_Out_of_the_Ashes/

    • Tim,

      Thank you for taking the time to respond.

      It’s a film about a cricket team, that is clearly mentioned throughout the material, don’t you think a tiny little thing like a results summary might have been useful?

      It’s not cricket buffs (or fans as we like to be called) who would find it confusing, but the viewing public as a whole, the results summaries also show just how well the team were playing, they bowled out 3 sides for under 100 in that tournament in Jersey. It would have shown (to my way of thinking at least) just how determined & talented the players were.

      How does something that adds clarity & provides a context to the players moods at that time confuse people? The public are smart and you had their attention anyway when they paid/ chose the channel to watch the film in the first place.

      It’s not that their success is so much of a surprise (teams overcoming adversity sports films have a good pedigree) but the manner & speed of their success, which does come over, I’m just wondering whether, in trying to make a non-cricket cricket film, there hasn’t been too much confusion because of a dogmatic adherence to the idea that cricket isn’t cinematic/watchable/engaging.

      I take your point about the differences between “Living with Lions” & this film, but the reason i brought up “living with Lions” as a case in point was that at every step of the way in that film, the Lions match outcomes are displayed, so that the viewer is well aware of what is going on during the focus of the events being filmed (in that instance the rugby, in this instance the cricket).

      *Appendix of results from that tournament in Jersey:

      Group B: Afghanistan v Japan at St Helier – May 23, 2008
      Afghanistan 179 (35.4 ov); Japan 87 (40.2 ov)
      Afghanistan won by 92 runs

      Group B: Afghanistan v Bahamas at St Brelade – May 25, 2008
      Bahamas 46 (24 ov); Afghanistan 49/5 (6.3 ov)
      Afghanistan won by 5 wickets

      Group B: Afghanistan v Botswana at St Brelade – May 26, 2008
      Botswana 128 (34.4/36 ov); Afghanistan 129/3 (19.5/36 ov)
      Afghanistan won by 7 wickets

      Group B: Afghanistan v Singapore at St Clement – May 27, 2008
      Singapore 145 (29.3/30 ov); Afghanistan 76 (20.2/30 ov)
      Singapore won by 69 runs

      Semi-Final: Afghanistan v Nepal at St Saviour – May 30, 2008
      Afghanistan 142 (49.3 ov); Nepal 105 (45.5 ov)
      Afghanistan won by 37 runs

      Final: Jersey v Afghanistan at St Saviour – May 31, 2008
      Jersey 80 (39.5 ov); Afghanistan 81/8 (37.4 ov)
      Afghanistan won by 2 wickets

  8. Tim – Thank you very much for taking time to reply to my post above and some of the subsequent comments.

    Re Taj – I agree that he is an extraordinary man who has achieved extraordinary things. My point about him being made to look ordinary is that we saw a man whom many of us will have recognised from cricket clubs – passionate, dedicated, slightly unhinged, much loved but occasionally difficult and utterly committed. What was it that Taj had that brokered this skillset into the inspiration for (I reiterate) possibly the most extraordinary sporting tale of all time? Now that might be a different film and I shan’t ever level a barb at a film-maker because they made their film instead of the one I wanted making, but there’s (rightly) so much Taj in the film, but no real answers to that question. Hence Taj looked, if not quite ordinary, certainly a type we recognised doing utterly unrecognisable things.

    Re the scorecards – I take your point, but I’d have to say that giving so many glimpses of the games and the progress through the rounds without the scores (even as subtitles) seems a little perverse – speaking as a cricket tragic!

    The passion that the film has provoked (here and elsewhere) shows how much cricket fans want this story to be told, want to honour brave and skilled men and applaud your work in bringing this story to a wider audience. You have achieved your goal and I congratulate you for it!

    (You do know that cricket fans – and I’m as guilty as any of them – struggle to maintain perspective. When Taj said that cricket can solve the world’s ills – I just nodded).

    Thanks again for visiting us at 99.94 and for your considered thoughts.


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