Fifteen months across the world with Afghanistan
One Briton, a Canadian, a girl from Germany, and 11 Afghanistan cricketers: it's an odd mix, but that is what it took to make Out of the Ashes, a documentary following the Afghanistan team on their quest for World Cup qualification.
"Not only are we going to bring the cup back from Jersey in Division Five," declared Taj Malik, the first coach of the team, in May 2008, "but we are also going to the World Cup." It was a far-fetched statement. Afghanistan have no pitch and only a handful of ramshackle batting cages. There is a bowling machine, but power is intermittent at best in Kabul.
Facilities aside, we weren't in a place to judge the team. We had never seen them play, and two out of the three of us film-makers could barely figure out what a wicket, a six or a four was. The nuances of Duckworth-Lewis were lost on us.
The idea for the documentary came from Tim Albone, who had written a story about the Afghanistan cricket team when working as a journalist in Kabul, and decided to follow them on their qualification quest. Taj agreed, and we couldn't have wished for a better guide into the world of Afghan cricket. With blind faith and our fingers on the record button, we boarded the plane to Jersey. Fifteen months later, much to our surprise, we are still following them and have found ourselves honorary members of the Afghan Cricket Federation.
This group of men, who mainly grew up in refugee camps in Peshawar, pride themselves on their faith. The team is Pashtun, a tribe of Afghans known for their fierce loyalty and honour. The only women they have been in contact with are their wives, mothers and sisters. The thought of two women working - Lucy Martens and myself - without the presence of a male relative was initially shocking. They wanted to know about our families, our relationships and how we led our lives; how we approached love in the west. The concept of dating, or of having more than one love in your life, was alien.
On the pitch in Jersey, their style was unpredictable. They tried to whack every ball for six, and once, the team prematurely stormed the pitch when they were seconds away from a win. The spectators in Jersey, gin and tonics in hand, were sufficiently shocked. Jersey's side, made up of investment bankers and hedge-fund managers, were intrigued: what kind of place did this team come from? The woman serving the lunch couldn't believe that the team would eat with their hands, or that they would pray on the pitch. She asked me if they spoke French. When Geoffrey Boycott handed over the Cup to the Afghans, they erupted into a frenzy of traditional dance.
Taj had said before going to Jersey that they could well be the first Afghans to ever visit the island. A bold statement, and possibly untrue, but I can guarantee that for those from Jersey who watched the last match, Afghanistan's unbridled exuberance will not be forgotten.
After finishing triumphant in Jersey and Tanzania, the team began to get used to being filmed and enjoyed it. Although the question, "How are you feeling? Are you happy?" soon came back to haunt us. After each match they would come off the pitch asking us how we felt, and if we were happy.
After their victory in Division Four in Tanzania, the Afghan Ministry of Haj rewarded each member of the team with a trip to Mecca, the religious pilgrimage that all Muslims must make. As non-Muslims we couldn't go, so the team volunteered to bring a camera with them to document themselves on their holy journey. For some of the team members it was an instrumental turning point in taking their faith more seriously. For Ahmad Shah, now the assistant coach, his western clothes went back into the closet; he now only wears traditional Afghan dress when he is on tour.
Because the team grew up together as children in refugee camps, unity is strong. Unlike other Associate teams, the Afghans have had the questionable luxury of travelling with a faux-extended family. The team bus is a festive place. The microphone is constantly used by a few of the more flamboyant team members, Hasti Gul and Asghar Stanikzai among them. When the Bollywood tunes are cranked up, you can usually find Karim Khan or Shapoor Zadran dancing in the aisle. They entertain the rest of the team by impersonating mullahs, Mr Bean, or just taking the piss out of each other.
The players are all gentlemen. Ahmad Shah, the former left-arm spinner and now assistant coach, makes sure we have been served lunch before he eats. They also have an eye for beauty, and covet flowers, especially roses.
Like most young cricket players, the Afghans idolise the greats. The whole team still reminisce about the time Hasti Gul bowled Mike Gatting out for a duck in India. They are unforgiving on the pitch, sometimes commenting on the weight of opposing players. Rambunctious shouts of "Shabash shabash" (meaning "Well done, well done") have piqued the interest of spectators in every tournament.
Most members of the team were introduced to cricket when they heard the firing of celebratory gunshots in the refugee camps when Pakistan won the World Cup in 1992. The team has overcome war and poverty to get where they are today. Cricket began in a dusty refugee camp with a tennis ball. Most in the team have lost family members to war. When the Afghans almost lost Division Three against the Cayman Islands in Argentina, Hameed Hassan, the fast bowler, came off of the pitch in tears. When I asked him why he was crying, he said, "I have seen people die and I have not shed a tear. But there is something about cricket that gets me here [pointing to his heart]. Cricket is our chance."
The next few days will reveal if they have what it takes to push through and show the world that Afghanistan has not only arrived but is beginning to cement a place on the world stage. It has been an amazing journey that has taken us all by surprise. When we started in Jersey we had no idea how many months we would be following the team for. As Ahmad Shah said a few days ago, "You took a big risk on us for your film… you didn't even know if we would get past Jersey."
Leslie Knott is the producer of Out of the Ashes, and is joined by Tim Albone and Lucy Martens. Click here to watch the trailer