Review: Out of the Ashes

Not bowled over by cricket doc

By Jonathan Foreman, November 1, 2010
The miraculous rise of the Afghanistan cricket team is a wonderful story let down by the filming

The miraculous rise of the Afghanistan cricket team is a wonderful story let down by the filming

If it were not for documentaries like Havana Marking's Afghan Star (about the local version of Pop Idol) which was a sensation last year, we in the UK could be forgiven for thinking of Afghanistan as simply a war zone rather than a fascinating country in which extraordinary changes have taken place since the overthrow of the Taliban regime.

The newest and perhaps the sweetest of these films is Out of the Ashes, which depicts the astonishing rise of the Afghan national cricket team between 2008 and 2010. In those two years Afghanistan went from the 90th ranked team in the world to participation in the World 20twenty tournament.

Made by Tim Albone - a former Times correspondent - Leslie Knott and Lucie Martens, and executive produced by Sam Mendes, the film follows the team from their then laughable facilities in Kabul to their first ever foreign trip - a division five tournament in Jersey, where the players were stunned by the greenery, the clean streets, and the "naked" women walking by. It follows them as they go to other tournaments and do progressively better.

Much of the film focuses on Taj Malik, the team's endearing founder and initially the coach, who took up the game while living in a Peshawar refugee camp and who believes that cricket is the solution to the world's problems.

Inevitably, given Kabul's spectacular setting, the film includes breathtaking shots of the Afghan capital. But unfortunately everything else about the film, and in particular the footage of the cricket matches is lamentably amateurish. Indeed it is impossible to get any sense from the film of how good or bad the Afghan team actually is

You see players hit apparently powerful shots but the camera never follows the ball through the air or out to the boundary. You never hear a score. You don't once get a shot of an Afghan player fielding.

In between the cricket sequences, some scenes have an uneasy self-conscious feeling as if the filmmakers had just said, "Ok guys I want you to walk past the camera in the rain now - and leave the umbrella behind." Worse is the footage that is missing: as you see the team arrive in places like St Lucia, Tanzania and South Africa, you want to know what their reactions were to these places and the people they saw there. (After all, none of the team would have seen many black people before except in American uniforms, and in Africa they would have encountered poverty that challenged anything they knew from home or the refugee camps in Peshawar.)

It is as if the filmmakers had a great idea and were admirably persistent but simply lacked sufficient skill and experience to make Out of the Ashes into the film it should have been.

One thing you do get is a sense of the patriotic feeling of the men in the cricket team. Given how often pundits in Britain and America claim that Afghanistan is not a real country and that Afghans put tribal and regional identity before their national one, this comes as a gratifying surprise.

Last updated: 2:58pm, February 18 2011