The Taliban Cricket Club June 16, 2012

A different kind of Afghan story

Dread, romance and cricket come together in this novel set in the time of the Taliban

The Afghanistan cricket team - yippee, we will be seeing them again in the World T20 in Sri Lanka - brings to a somewhat tired global community the fresh, bracing air of the mountains. The names Stanikzai, Mangal, Zadran, Hotak represent an unfamiliar part of the cricket world. Every man has a careering life story - taking to the game in refugee camps, learning from tolerant mates, teachers, coaches.

The Taliban Cricket Club is not that kind of an Afghan cricket story. Its dominant mood is dread and gloom - which press down on the reader through to its final chapter. Its characters are trapped in a Kabul living under the heavy fist of the Taliban, from 1996 to 2000.

Well before its story begins, two factors draw the reader into the book. The title, of course: cricket was the only sport approved of by the Taliban. In the book, Zorak Wahidi, the minister for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (aka Mr Bad Guy) explains that it occupies wads of time and "is modest in its clothing". The real Taliban's religious police did actually operate under the title of the Ministry for the Propogation of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice. Afghanistan applied for ICC membership in 2000, which was granted in 2001, after the Talibs had been driven out of Kabul.

The second lure of the book has to be its beautiful cover photograph, of two women in the famous billowing blue "shuttlecock" burqas striding away from the camera, with them a girl of no more than ten, head uncovered, glancing over her shoulder. Taliban CC's story is driven by its female protagonist Rukhsana, enduring a regime that believes women belong to "the home and the grave".

Rukhsana learnt to play cricket when living in Delhi. If she can teach her brothers and cousins the rudiments of the game in less than a month, they will have tickets to freedom: the team that wins Afghanistan's first cricket competition will go to Pakistan with the Taliban's blessings. A proposal of marriage from fifty-something Wahidi and Rukhsana knows she will have to make a run for it herself. In order to step outside and teach cricket, she disguises herself with a false beard (and some useful protective gear).

Timeri Murari, a Chennai-based writer, spent some time in Kabul talking to those who lived under the Taliban, and through Rukhsana he details the wounded, up-ended lives of women and men. In an atmosphere of fear, cricket becomes a bastion of utter fairness, a standpoint for democracy and a romantic idyll.

The threat of Wahidi and his cronies, particularly his menacing brother Droon, is on every page. Rukhsana's lingering love interest from her years in Delhi makes a sudden, mawkish appearance to play in the life-or-death cricket match. (No more spoilers here.)

Much of the cricket is all Victorian nobility, with an ICC observer called Markwick turning up in his MCC hat and tie. When Droon threatens to pulp Rukhsana's brother, Markwick acts in character. "We're playing cricket," he said, in the stern voice of a schoolmaster…" we are told. "We must start the game. It's half-past two."

The Taliban Cricket Club is more about the Taliban than cricket. Its main characters are not layered, and the language can turn clunky, with "searing love" and "simple meals", but Talib-ruled Kabul is sketched in careful and terrifying detail and the story moves along quickly. You find yourself willing the Taliban CC on to escape en masse. Besides, it will make a hell of a movie.

The Taliban Cricket Club
by Timeri N Murari
Aleph Book Company
pp336, Rs 595

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo