Film Review: Out of the Ashes

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The Cricket World Cup is well underway in South Asia with the top countries racking up runs and wickets for fun. Away from the excitement, spare a thought for a smaller nation that didn’t quite make it to the party.

Recently released on DVD, Out of the Ashes charts the rise of the Afghan Cricket Team during their ambitious attempts to qualify for the ICC showpiece. Their tale may be played out against a war-torn country in turmoil, but it manages to show a different side of Afghanistan too.

Nevertheless, the reality of conflict is never too far away. While the Afghan Cricket Federation chief talks passionately about sport’s ability to promote peace, an armed guard fidgets nervously in the background.

Afghan cricketers are the true definition of underdogs and their facilities would shock even the most uncultured of English village sloggers. Their national cricket academy is a sparsely-turfed compound while the newly refurbished stadium looks ready to be pulled down again.

The Afghanis face plenty of other hurdles, including a widespread lack of belief. Even the British embassy diplomat there to support cricket development struggles to contain his patronising giggles when discussing the team’s chances.

Undeterred, the squad travels to the likes of Tanzania and Argentina in their qualification quest. The change in conditions is stark. Jersey’s lush green cricket fields and rainy climate welcome them on their first qualifying trip. However, the players seem more interested in the quality of food and the way the girls dress.

The width of the cultural gap is best captured in a scene at the team’s hotel. A group of players peer into the entertainment room, to be met with the sight of a troupe of grannies line dancing along to Is This the Way to Amarillo.

Meanwhile the players celebrate wins with traditional dance and swimming in the sea for the first time in their lives. There isn’t a glass of champagne or a nightclub in sight. While the film documents the squad’s sensational journey efficiently, it leaves you itching to learn more about the personal lives of the characters involved.

The fleeting glimpses into the stories of cricketing refugee camps are fascinating and one scene where a player talks about his travels is particularly touching:

“Being in the West is OK but I quickly tire of it. Even if it’s a beautiful place, you don’t have your family there.”

Match footage is cleverly condensed to create a sense of drama in each game, although this perhaps overlooks some of the sport’s nuances. On the face of it, Out of the Ashes is a tale of Afghan cricket’s incredible adventure; yet it all pivots around one man – Taj Malik. The coach is the star of the show, his journey inseparable from that of his team.

Malik began playing cricket in refugee camps along with brothers Hasti and Karim, who both star for the national side. He treats the rest of the squad as family too. The coach’s enthusiasm shines through as he encounters a full range of emotions. From joy at wins through to despair in defeat, his pride in the team and his own role is ever-present.

Malik is eternally optimistic and his cheeriness at the airport is charming. He chats to everyone he meets like an excited schoolboy, eagerly asking them how they are and where they are from. Even after a period of isolation following his sacking, the filmmakers catch up with Malik’s attempts to remain part of the journey.

Captured huddled over a computer in a hotel room, he casts a lone figure following a qualifier against Uganda. Malik even tunes into the BBC on his battered old radio when his laptop packs up before the crucial game with Canada.

The film ends with a couple of unexpected and satisfying twists and overall it tells an inspirational and poignant story well.  Possibly the best summary of the team’s remarkable achievement though comes from Malik’s older brother Hasti:

“Today we brought Afghan cricket from the refugee camps to international recognition. What about that then!”

DIRECTORS: Tim Albone, Lucy Martens and Leslie Knott (co-director)

WRITER: Tim Albone

CLASSIFICATION: UK: 15

RELEASE DATE (DVD): 14/02/2011

RUN TIME: 86 min

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About James Corke

James completed a Certificate of Higher Education in Journalism at Birkbeck, University of London. He has built a solid portfolio of feature articles and commentaries largely focused on arts, culture and sport at People with Voices, and has also freelanced at the BBC’s Match of the Day magazine.

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