LONDON (Reuters) - Good news stories from Afghanistan are rare, but one of them is the national cricket team’s remarkable rise to the sport’s top table which is the subject of a new documentary.
“Out of the Ashes” is a heartwarming film that follows the rag-tag, inexperienced Afghan team on its odyssey around the world trying to qualify for senior status.
Victories surprisingly outweigh defeats along the way, turning the team and coaching staff into heroes at home, and the film captures how important success is for a group of men whose enthusiasm and pride in their country is overwhelming.
The Taliban’s insurgency against Western forces, the focus of international media coverage in Afghanistan, is barely mentioned in the 90-minute movie which has its world premiere at the Edinburgh film festival on Thursday.
“It’s what the Afghans want to tell the world,” said co-director Timothy Albone, who spent three years in Afghanistan as a reporter for the Times newspaper.
“They want to talk about what they are doing and what their interests are. We gave the characters the chance to say what they wanted to say about Afghanistan, and they didn’t want to talk about the war.
“They are normal people like us with many of the same concerns and interests,” he told Reuters.
Ironically, it was conflict in Afghanistan that turned many of the players to cricket in the first place.
Forced to flee their country during the Soviet invasion and ensuing civil war, they settled as refugees in cricket-crazy Pakistan where they learned the arts of bowling, batting and fielding.
Taj Malik, the team coach at the start of the film, tries to hone their skills at a run-down cricket academy in Kabul, where a single bowling machine often stands idle due to power cuts and players dive on old mattresses during fielding practice.
He struggles to cope with his dismissal as coach, but Malik emerges as a hero of sorts as he faithfully follows his team’s progress on the radio and continues to teach children cricket on a cracked concrete pitch in Kabul.
Out of the Ashes follows the team on its first trip outside the country, to the Channel Island of Jersey where it surprises local supporters and wins in 2008.
The players’ unbridled joy makes it clear how much victory means, while their reaction to the local food and customs is a source of regular amusement.
Eyeing food prepared for them at a game with deep suspicion, one of the Afghan delegation asks warily: “Are you sure there is no donkey meat in this?”
One player is particularly bemused by cultural differences between Afghanistan, a conservative Muslim country, and Argentina, where he sees girls in bikinis and couples kissing in the street.
All miss their homes and families in Afghanistan, despite the unfamiliar creature comforts they enjoy on the road.
“The people are wonderful and funny and we want to show a different side of Afghanistan from what people see in the news,” said co-director Lucy Martens, who is now based in Kabul.
“They are funny, pure people.”
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato