Over the past decade literature on Afghanistan, starting with Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, has spawned a whole sub-genre by itself. The struggles of a nation setting itself free from the shackles of several invasions warrant a minute-by-minute recording. Fortunately, a slew of writers, journalists and documentary makers have been around to do just that.
When I first read reputed columnists raving about Out of the Ashes, I longed to watch it. This piece is not just meant to talk about the documentary, but to look at Afghan cricket from a broader lens. My first brush with cricket in Afghanistan was Timeri Murari's Taliban Cricket Club. As Rukhsana, the Delhi University-educated protagonist, teaches her cousins to play cricket and break free from the Taliban, I wondered if the novel was based on real-life inspiration. Though I do not yet know the answer to that question, I found the parallel in Out of the Ashes.
The story of Afghanistan's rise to International cricket is, for all practical purposes, the story of how one man found the courage to motivate a bunch of young men to aspire for the stars. Taj Malik's tale is a narrative that deserves to be told, not as an aside or a subplot, but the plot itself. As this piece would tell you, in a country taking baby steps to stand on its own feet, resources were scarce and International status was but a pipedream. As happens so often in the novel, the protagonist of this real-life story uses a crackling telephone line to communicate with the outside world, calling out aloud for help. Small-time cricketer, right-hand batsman and legbreak bowler, Taj's story could have been just another, forgotten one, buried in the eventful, history-rich sands of cricketing time. Akin to how Kerry Packer would be looked up to, by someone looking to revolutionise and re-package cricket for the Test-playing world, Taj should be the inspiration to anyone seeking to bring smiles to a ravaged nation.
As the movie unfolds you see how change and professionalism take root in the Afghan side. Discipline slowly infects these young men who were once reckless sloggers who would not put a price on their wickets. When the Afghan Cricket Federation decides that development would be at the cost of replacing Taj with a foreign coach, you can't help but well up, just like Taj does after Afghanistan win their first ever tournament in Jersey. Stories like these in sport are hard to find, and hardly ever told to the world.
The novel provides a fictionalised account of how Afghans were sent to Pakistan to learn cricket. For these men cricket took shape in refugee camps during the Russian invasion. As Taj makes his way to the dugout for Afghanistan's inaugural ICC World T20 game against India at St. Lucia, it is almost like a happily-ever-after movie ending. Taj's story deserves to be told many times over, for it would inspire not just Afghans, but anyone looking to overcome odds in life.
As an Afghani poem repeated in the movie goes ,
"Pull up your sleeves,
Come onto the streets,
And start dancing
Because happiness is rare in a poor man's life."
Touchwood, not so rare anymore. With annual contracts through ICC funding, matches against Test-playing nations, foreign coaching assistance, things are looking up for Afghanistan. It would be easier to rush into a campaign for Test status. But if lessons from Bangladesh are anything to go by, Afghanistan must be nurtured with patience and made masters of the shorter format first. Hopefully rosier times await, and the pull-up-sleeves-and-dance routine would become a regular feature in the life of Taj Malik and his countrymen.
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