Tuesday 2 November 2010

Going in to bat: "Out of the Ashes"

It's been a tough few months for cricket, but there's a lot of optimism coursing through Tim Albone and Lucy Martens' new documentary Out of the Ashes, which follows the Afghanistan national side as they set out for their first tournaments on foreign soil - and from there, to what proved a very creditable debut on the world stage at last year's World Twenty20 in the Caribbean. In the hotseat as we join the team is irrepressibly sunny coach Taj Malik, who - learning curves be damned - genuinely appears to believe his side is going to win the lot, and seems determined to speak to every stranger on his way; his players, meanwhile, are hopeful of not just getting their hands on some silverware, but on some of the local women to boot. (In this, they are much like every other sportsman who ever bestrode the globe.)

Despite evidently sparse training facilities, and an early interview in which the country's sports minister is warily patrolled by a guard touting an automatic rifle, cricket would look to have occupied a secure position in Afghan society; this firm foundation may be one of the reasons for the team's rapid ascent from international cricket's fifth division. As one player remarks, the game (with its appreciably cast-iron laws) was deemed a suitable pastime under Taliban rule, so long as its participants "had a beard and got to prayer on time". The team Malik sends out on international duty proves - for coach and filmmakers alike - an ideal mix of reflective older hands and bold, bolshy new talent: in the latter camp, there's the powerful batsman Gulbadin, an amateur bodybuilder whose idols tend more towards the physique of a Schwarzenegger rather than Sobers. Together, we watch them negotiate alien food, weather, culture (there's a very Lost in Translation moment in a hotel, where Malik and colleagues are compelled by the sight of a Jersey pensioners' group performing "Is This the Way to Amarillo?") not to mention pitch conditions, each new match and sequence weighing the team's relative inexperience against the spirit that has for so long kept the Afghan nation free from outside rule. (In his brief cameo, even the notoriously ornery Geoffrey Boycott looks impressed.)

What Albone and Martens offer is an extended view from the boundary, getting themselves close enough to players and management to capture the genuine elation or disappointment whenever a wicket falls, and to chart the process of change and improvement essential to any up-and-coming sporting outfit. We see the development of new facilities at the heart of Kabul - a vast improvement on the crumbling national stadium, where infidels were once stoned to death - and more poignantly, the eventual replacement of Malik with the former Pakistani pro Kabir Khan, a development that marks a sad break from the past, while signalling the renewed ambition of the game's administrators in Afghanistan. If there's a minor weakness, it's that the match sequences eschew the statistical commentary that defines this particular game, but then the story's so much bigger than mere scorecards could convey - and the film, a richly human achievement, can't fail to put a smile on the faces of even non-aficionados.

Out of the Ashes plays at London's ICA this week, before touring selected cinemas nationwide.

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