Out of the Ashes June 25, 2011

The Afghanistan fairytale, now in print

Tim Albone's acclaimed documentary told the tale of how a war-torn country became an inspiration for all aspiring cricket nations. Now you can read about it

There are some stories so compelling they need no embellishment. The story of Afghanistan's cricket team is one of these. Amid hardship unimaginable to most cricket-playing countries, Afghanistan discovered a love for the sport and, in the wreckage of conflict, founded a team that rose five divisions in two years to make a fairytale appearance at the 2010 World Twenty20 in West Indies.

It's a remarkable tale and Tim Albone recounts it in this stirring book. Albone was a foreign correspondent based in the country with the Times and Sunday Times, and grew weary of retelling the stories of violence and victims that were the staples for newsreaders around the world. Instead, he decided to make a documentary - which aired to much acclaim last year - following the team as they made their mark on the world game. His purpose, he writes, was "to show the beauty, the madness, the humour, the resilience, the enterprise, the humanity and the people."

The book's greatest quality is that he achieves just that, and in doing so reveals much about the sport that gets written out of the sanitised highest level. The book centres on Taj Malik, the overbearing, obsessive and frighteningly driven Afghani refugee who makes it his life mission not just to bring cricket to his country but to take the side he builds to the World Cup.

Malik - whose brothers Hasti and Karim play in the Afghanistan team - ended up coaching the side through its first outings before being cast aside, when the team needed more professional guidance, for the former Pakistan player Kabir Khan. Yet it is Malik's audacity that pulsates through the team and through the book. Without him and his dream none of it would have been possible.

In this context the ICC's decision to block Associate and Affiliate nations from the next World Cup becomes all the more frustrating. As they ponder a U-turn, the decision-makers would do well to read Albone's book. The galvanising force of a World Cup possibility - however remote - was powerful enough to bind factions and overcome unthinkable burdens in Afghanistan. Malik's messianic fervour ended up creating the most uplifting cricketing story in decades. His mission was founded on the dream of a World Cup, and for the ICC to remove it is as self-defeating as it is cruel.

Yet, as we're taken on a tour beyond the Test world, starting with Division Five in Jersey to a rung higher in Tanzania and then to Argentina, it shows just how well parts of the game are run. Unlike at the highest level, where the ICC is an impotent forum for competing national boards, it has genuine power to organise the sport competently in countries where cricket is less familiar. There remains administrative bungling - like the promotion of the USA to the World Twenty20 qualifiers in another attempt at jump-starting a "market" in the country - but Afghanistan's rise shows that the ICC is capable of serving cricket's best interests.

Throughout, though, it is the human story that remains most enthralling and, often, amusing. The journey from Kabul to Jersey, via Dubai, describes the Afghanistan players, rarely short of bravado, crippled by shyness when confronted by the unfamiliar sight of bikini-clad women sunbathing by the hotel swimming pool. In Jersey, the familiar complaints of Anglo-Saxon cricketers in Asia gets reversed as, rather than long for Baked Beans, the team wistfully recall the naan and lamb of home.

The book shows how different ethnic and tribal groups are absorbed into a common Afghan identity when playing cricket. In one part of the book Albone describes how Afghan journalists had to devise an entirely new vocabulary in Pashtu to cover the World Cup qualifiers for the new Afghani audiences

Albone's dressing-room position privileges him to the coarser realities of team sport. The rivalry between players, the frantic worries of Malik as coach, nepotism and tension of life back home make for a volatile mix. On one of their first tours - to Malaysia for the Asia Cup - an almighty pitch-side row explodes, where Hasti punches the assistant tour manager for bad-mouthing his brother, the coach. Karim sees what's happening and runs from the pitch, where he is keeping wicket, to join in the fisticuffs. If that all seems a touch amateur, let's not forget the Test nations have had their share of dressing-room squabbles too.

Similarly, the inexorable tension between achieving the team's objectives and winning individual plaudits is revealed with an explicitness anodyne top-level sides would never allow in public. In showing the whole human story, with all its egos and nastiness, Albone resists the temptation to patronise. It would be easy to view Afghanistan's story as "pure" cricket, untainted by the commercialism and sordid temptations that have undermined Test teams in recent times. But in charting the origins of Malik's team, the book demonstrates how gambling, winner-takes-all fixtures and, indeed, administrative corruption, were part of the development of the game there. Just as it was to the sport in England.

Yet, what shimmers beyond the individuals, the money and the records is the collective mission. Much like it was for West Indies in the 1970s and 80s, the desire to remake a nation's identity is an irresistible force running through the team. As Albone writes: "The players know Afghanistan has a reputation centred on war, drugs and violence, but they want to play their part in changing minds. They want to show the world that Afghans are civilised, can play by the rules, can integrate and can compete."

They do more than that. For all sport's irrelevance when set against war and poverty, it does play a role, however fleetingly, in making a new nation. The book shows how different ethnic and tribal groups are absorbed into a common Afghan identity when playing cricket. The thousands of new fans spread across the country suddenly belong to a new community that is not defined by the old orders. In one part of the book Albone describes how Afghan journalists had to devise an entirely new vocabulary in Pashtu to cover the World Cup qualifiers for the new Afghani audiences.

If there is a criticism, it is that Albone's perspective is perhaps too restricted. He discusses how other teams and their supporters are suspicious of the brash Afghanistan players and their on-field antics, but it would have been interesting to hear their views directly. Also, in his attempt to straddle the divide between those who would read the book for cricket and others who would read it for the Afghanistan story, Albone occasionally oversimplifies on both counts. But these are minor gripes in a book that is overwhelmingly uplifting, engaging and an essential for any cricket lover.

Out of the Ashes: The extraordinary rise and rise of the Afghanistan cricket team
Tim Albone; foreword by Mike Atherton
Virgin Books, 304pp, £11.99

Sahil Dutta is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo