Apparently Afghanistan's "national sport" is buzkashi, or riding around on horseback trying to grab the headless carcass of a goat. So it's a great shame that they didn't qualify for the Cricket World Cup which is about to be held in their back yard. They came very close, and it could have helped to transform the sporting landscape in the benighted country. Sadly for the Afghans – but happily for the rest of us – there's no World Cup for buzkashi.
Robert Mugabe once spoke of cricket's civilising influence. It didn't do him any good, but as the national coach and guru figure Taj Malik says in Afghan Cricket Club – Out of the Ashes (BBC4, Monday): "There are a lot of problems in the world. Everywhere there is complex fighting. The solution to all the problems is cricket."
This delightful film, which had the backing of cricket-mad executive producer Sam Mendes, tells the story of Afghanistan's efforts to qualify for the World Cup. It's a remarkable rise since most of the team learned to play in refugee camps in Pakistan.
"Sport is a symbol of national unity. Sport builds relations between the tribes," says Mr Massoud, the Afghan Cricket Federation president, before blowing his cover by adding: "To be honest, I had no idea about this cricket until recently." Well, he talks a good game. And with a man standing behind him holding an AK47, who's going to quibble?
Meanwhile a British embassy official watching them practise gives a suitably colonial perspective. "They play cricket like war. They judge each other by how fast they can bowl the ball and how hard they can hit it." All he needs is a pith helmet – to dodge the bouncers, if not take the pith.
The first stop on their epic journey is Jersey, where they are unfazed by the genteel surrounds. Taj's brother Hasti looks out over the Channel and says: "We have a river that is better than this. Afghanistan has the best places." During the tea interval of their first match, as they pick their way through the classic buffet, one of the team asks: "Are you sure there's no donkey meat in this?" Given the quality of some of the catering on offer on the village greens of England they are entitled to ask.
The entertainment at their hotel that night consists of a load of old women performing some kind of synchronised aerobics to "Is This The Way To Amarillo?" When the Afghans crash to defeat against Singapore and face elimination from the ICC World Cricket League Division Five play-off final, they must have thought they couldn't go any lower.
And yet they stumble over the line to beat Jersey in the final, reaching their target at 81 for 8. Geoff Boycott was on hand to present the trophy. "Pressure, eh? Pressure, pressure!" he grinned at the Afghans, as if they had no idea about tough situations.
Having risen rapidly through the ranks, however, they are outplayed by Canada in the eliminator for the last World Cup place. All seems lost, and then they hear they have been granted full one-day international status and will henceforth be taking on the world's finest anyway.
They took their bow on the global stage at last year's World Twenty20, leading to scary celebrations around Kabul as the menfolk fired their automatic weapons into the air. It may not be long before Afghanistan is known for more than war and drugs. Come on you Poppies?Reuse content