How cricket fever swept Afghanistan

On the eve of a new film about the sport that inspired a shattered nation, Julius Cavendish reports from Kabul

Gunships growl above the city, Humvees roll by blasted buildings and a radio programme passes a dismal verdict on Afghanistan's deepening troubles. In a car stuck in Kabul's traffic, an impish-looking man gives his prognosis: "Everywhere there is fighting, you know," Taj Malik says. "The solution of all the problems is – cricket!" And then he doesn't so much laugh as gurgle with joy.

Mr Malik is the coach of the Afghan national team, and he has spent much of the last few years dragging his squad on a quixotic mission to qualify for the ICC World Cup. On the way, the group have given a country doing a brisk trade in bad news a real-life fairytale.

Tomorrow, a documentary about their rise, Out of the Ashes, will be premiered at the Edinburgh film festival. But while the film opens with Mr Malik's paean to his beloved sport in a Kabul snarl-up, his team first grew in far less hospitable circumstances. Go back to the side's early days and you'd have to travel to the refugee camps outside Peshawar, near Pakistan's north-west frontier. It was on these stony, rubble-strewn plains that many of the players first picked up bat and ball. Even at an early age Malik was living and breathing the sport, playing truant to play cricket.

In the aftermath of the 2001 invasion, the notion of a national cricket team began to coalesce as millions of Afghan refugees returned from exile. The team swapped the pitted concrete wickets of the Kacha Gari refugee camp for four nets and a temperamental bowling machine in Kabul – known collectively as the Afghan National Cricket Academy.

The facilities in Kabul were so bad, in fact, and Afghanistan still so insecure, that the team had to travel eight hours back to Pakistan to play practice games. Many of the players still live in Pakistan. But there was a sense among the players, the film-maker Tim Albone recalls, of "a sense of national pride and a need to show their commitment to their fellow countrymen".

By 2008, the team was en route to Jersey for the first in a series of qualifying tournaments that would ultimately see them climb 76 places in the world rankings. Except in the most fervent believer's heart there was no sense of the things to come – and it was a complete surprise when they won their group, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in a game against the hosts. Minutes earlier, as a batting collapse threatened to dash their hopes, tension mounted and tempers frayed. "Why did you send me to play with a bisexual?" one player screamed at Malik after his teammate ran him out.

But in the end they defied spectators who had predicted they would "be back in Afghanistan by Saturday". Along the way the team also showed the passion and sense of wonder that have made their story all the more compelling – and that the film-makers Tim Albone, Lucy Martens and Leslie Knott captured with a lingering eye for detail, whether this is Mr Malik stepping gingerly on to an escalator for the first time at Dubai International airport, or creasing up when he spots blue-rinsed pensioners line-dancing at a hotel in Jersey.

Malik is the team's heartbeat – a bundle of nerves who cries when his team wins, cries when they lose and smokes two packets of cigarettes in a game. He claims his players remind him of Australia's cricket team.

During a victory procession after a qualifying stage in early 2009, Albone rode with Malik, who had been replaced as coach and was forced to follow his team's progress on his mother's radio. "Nine months ago, Taj, when you told me you wanted Afghanistan to get to the World Cup, everyone said you were crazy," Albone said. "Exactly!" Malik laughed. "Nobody was expecting Afghanistan [to reach] this stage. I told the Western media, "You will see this team in the World Cup. Afghanistan will join the strong teams in the world. This is a warning for other teams."

Three of Mr Malik's brothers have played at different points, the most prominent being Karim "boom boom" Saddiq, a big hitter currently opening the batting, and the team's delinquent prodigy. When he isn't punching windows or making his views on team selection known in the Afghan press – as was the case when his brother Hasti Gul was dropped – he's keeping wicket, bowling and vice-captaining the side.

Then there is Nowroz Managl, the captain, who would rather have been an engineer if only he'd been academic enough – but is so dedicated to his team that he skipped the birth of his son to attend a cricket training camp.

There is Raes Ahmadzai, who has co-founded an NGO running cricket training across Afghanistan, and is mobbed by dirty-faced children in the street in Kabul, chanting "Ahmadzai, give me a bat! Give me a ball!"

And there is Gulbadeen Naib, the rookie with a bodybuilding regime to make Schwarzenegger blush, and behind his boyish good looks a sad personal story that involves a disappeared father and a terminally ill mother. When he was dropped from the team he said the hardest thing for his family to grasp was "how one who has flown so high can fall".

Almost as inspirational as the cricket team's improbable success is that of the Out of the Ashes crew. The three initial members, relatively inexperienced, followed the story for over two years, doing bit jobs and borrowing money for plane fares to whichever continent the ICC qualifying matches were taking place on. Even though the narrative was easy to follow, "it was such a complicated project because we were always broke", Martens says. "Everyone was always somewhere else." Knott was in Canada trying to find a buyer for the footage. Albone had gone to Iraq to report on the war. At the last minute the three of them flew out to Tanzania to track the team's progress, and after that "it was clear we couldn't go back anymore; we had to continue".

Now the Oscar-winning Hollywood director Sam Mendes has thrown his weight behind the project. He persuaded Albone, Martens and Knott to finish the narrative by following the team for one last adventure that would see Afghanistan take on the giants of the game at the World Twenty20 tournament in the West Indies. The team was bundled out quickly enough in matches against India and South Africa but perhaps the best measure of their success is the number of cricket games taking place in the streets of Kabul – and in rural districts blighted by poverty and war.

If Malik ever needed vindication for his impossible dream, this is it. "If we win, I think people will understand that the Afghan people are not only famous in war," he said early in the qualifying campaign. "They can win in sport as well."

Sporting nation

* Featuring horses and a headless goat, buzkashi certainly does not lack excitement. The game involves riders battling for control of the decapitated animal, and then trying to place it in a designated zone or break away from the pack. Said to date back to the time of Genghis Khan, it is popular in the north of the country.

* It may have been one of the few leisure activities not to be banned by the Taliban, but spectators at football matches were often forced to say prayers and the stadiums were regularly used to stage public executions. The national side did not play a competitive international from 1984 until 2002, but have entered qualification for the last two World Cups.

* Thanks to its affordability and the number of new gyms to spring up in recent years, bodybuilding is a growing sport with Arnold Schwarzenegger idolised. Under the Taliban, bodybuilders had to train wearing beards and traditional clothes – now they can compete in the annual Mr Afghanistan competition.

'Out of the Ashes' will premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival from 17 June and will be shown on BBC4's Storyville strand later this year

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: 'Time Heist' sees a darker side to Peter Capaldi's Doctor
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

KS1 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Supply Teacher re...

KS2 Teaching Supply Wakefield

£140 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Primary Teachers Needed for Supply in Wakefield

£140 - £160 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1&2 Supply Te...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam