Features FeaturesRSS FeedFeeds

Fifteen months across the world with Afghanistan

Early last year a documentary crew began following Afghanistan - in team buses and through hotels, from Jersey to Dar-es-Salaam - on their quest to qualify for the World Cup. They're still on the trail

Leslie Knott

April 8, 2009

Comments: 8 | Text size: A | A

Hasti Gul of Afghanistan cooks a meal
Hasti Gul shows off his culinary skills © Leslie Knott
Enlarge

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.

 
 
"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." Hameed Hassan, Afghanistan fast bowler
 
When they travelled to Jersey, their luggage was stocked with homemade bread and kilos of nuts and green tea. For Afghanistan's players, having the comforts of home are of the utmost importance when you are on tour. It soon became clear that food was a big problem. Finding halal meals in Jersey was next to impossible and with their limited budget the team was forced to eat Filet-o-fish from McDonald's, every day. After one week in Jersey, they were still eating the hard and slightly mouldy bread that their wives had packed for them. In Division Three of the World Cricket League, in Argentina, the physio managed to track down a halal butcher. Hasti Gul, the fast bowler, spent many of his days off in the hotel kitchen preparing chicken kadhai.

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.


Documentary film-maker Lucy Martens during the making of a film on the Afghanistan team
Lucy Martens, one of the documentary team © Leslie Knott
Enlarge

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 "Come on, come on") 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

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by Bluntman on (April 9, 2009, 17:46 GMT)

Great article. I'm glad there has been some effort put into following up the Afghan team. They seem to have natural talent and undoubtedly great spirit.

Posted by DJAMBO on (April 9, 2009, 8:41 GMT)

Wow, a great article and an inspiring story. The trailer to the documentary is amazing, an extraordinary piece of filmmaking. Can´t wait to see the documentary. Keep up the good work and hopefully Afgahnistan will make it to the world cup.

Posted by Cricketer4good on (April 9, 2009, 3:18 GMT)

A cool article. First i would like to answer Aditya's question of which sport is more popular cricket or soccer in Afg? Soccer is far more popular than cricket bcoz due to the war in AFG most of people fled to Pakistan and due to strong thurst nd desire of cricket in Pakistan Afghans began to embrace cricket. But soccer being a well global sport, it has a strong hold in Afghanistan. Some Afghans also play soccer for national teams in Iran. A very famous of them is Azizi, who also played for Iran. Well secondly, in response to the writer of the article, there are a few mistakes, like "Shabash" doesnt mean come on, its "well done" and most importantly a it is not obligatory for a Muslim to visit Mecca. Given on different circumstances you might. Overall a beautiful writing.

Posted by qsami on (April 8, 2009, 13:42 GMT)

nikniy you obviously haven't met any Afghans before. Now I am not Afghan, but if you studied Afghan culture or met an Afghan in your life, you would realise that they are known for their generosity. So for you to state the opposite clearly displays your ignorance. As a neutral, i am hoping the Afghans can make it, and wish them the best of luck in the qualifiers.

Posted by AdityaMookerjee on (April 8, 2009, 13:41 GMT)

It was great reading this piece on the Afghanistan Cricket Team. There have been quite a few blogs on the team, and other pieces of writing, too, on Cricinfo. To speak on another matter, I thought bowling machines ran on fossil fuel. If not, then it must be next to impossible, to run the bowling machine. I would further like to know, is soccer more popular, or cricket, in Afghanistan? Afghanistan shares her border with Iran, a soccer powerhouse in Asia(?).

Posted by viky1 on (April 8, 2009, 10:21 GMT)

afghans showed n proved their potential.without facilities n infrastructure they achieved what others can hardly believe.both Pakistan n Afghanistan are abundant in raw talent.will love to watch them in next worldcup.

Posted by nikniy on (April 8, 2009, 6:54 GMT)

I am thinking it must be hard to travel with a team of a country that is not known for its generosity. If this team does qualify for the WC2011, it would be worth watching documentary.

Posted by cricket_please on (April 8, 2009, 4:59 GMT)

Wow this is interesting. Bring them to India and I am sure Indian people will come out and support them. I would cheer for them.

Comments have now been closed for this article

FeedbackTop
Email Feedback Print
Share
E-mail
Feedback
Print

    Test cricket needs fewer teams, not more

Ian Chappell: It's clear that for the ICC votes mean more than results

    Lara's peaks

Tony Cozier: While the 375 had a sense of inevitability to it, the 400 came amid a backdrop of strikes and the threat of a whitewash

    The world record that nearly wasn't

Rewind: Twenty years ago this week, Brian Lara became Test cricket's highest scorer, but he almost didn't make it

    An archaelogical probe into the state of the game

Review: Gideon Haigh comes out with another set of essays that sound uncannily prescient about the way the game is headed

The home invasion

Hassan Cheema: The Emirates have been Pakistan's home away from home for three decades. To see the IPL being played there must feel like betrayal

News | Features Last 7 days

UAE all set to host lavish welcoming party

The controversy surrounding the IPL has done little to deter fans in UAE from flocking the stadiums, as they gear up to watch the Indian stars in action for the first time since 2006

Attention on Yuvraj, Gambhir in IPL 2014

ESPNcricinfo picks five players for whom this IPL is of bigger significance

The watch breaker, and Malinga specials

The Plays of the day from the match between Kolkata and Mumbai, in Abu Dhabi

India: cricket's Brazil

It's difficult to beat a huge talent base exposed to good facilities, and possessed of a long history of competing as a nation

The captain's blunder

The Plays of the day from the match between Chennai and Punjab in Abu Dhabi

News | Features Last 7 days