Book Review: Out of the Ashes, Tim Albone
‘It is a cliché but to them it really is more than sport. Afghanistan has something to prove. They are playing for their very identity and to change the way the world perceives them. What better way to change people’s perceptions than through cricket?’ (p.82).
This is the companion book to an extraordinary 2010 documentary made by Tim Albone, a Times journalist working in Afghanistan, about the country’s cricket team. When the team started in 2001 it was the bottom-ranked in the world – 90th. At the start of this year it was ranked 14th. This has been achieved on a near non-existent budget: despite billions of dollars of aid, Afghanistan still has the one of the lowest GDPs in the world. The country still has no national academy or 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 from 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. Malik had spent over half of his life in the Kacha Gari refugee camp in Pakistan. His family were among the six million refugees from the 1979 Soviet war. 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 all around. But it was in this cricket-mad country that Malik 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 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 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 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 counties and artificial wickets from the English Cricket Board, and had them delivered to the country on massive C-130 Transport planes. A game was organised between Malik’s scratch side (containing two of his brothers) and ISAF. Malik’s players had never played with a hard ball before: still, they won convincingly.
Next, Malik invited teams from all over Afghanistan to play in a tournament on the Chaman-i-Hozori, by the burned-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 – mostly fostered in the Pakistan refugee camps – 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 David vs Goliath story of 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’. Malik comes across a group of pensioners line dancing in the hotel and is at first shocked, then once again laughing uproariously: the elderly of Afghanistan are venerated by their families, and would never act in such an unseemly fashion.
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 bowling and agricultural batting. 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 efficiently and 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 which 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 the Afghanistanis’ opponents and spectators in the face of the team’s passion, we learn that their occasionally dubious sportsmanship 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 man 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 American troops and their treatment of the Afghans. And 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. The ISAF admit 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 Taj 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. Nevertheless, once the story reaches its scarcely-believable conclusion you are left having read an uplifting tale of belief, doubt and joyous redemption.
For The National, 2011