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Afghan Cricket Club: Out of the Ashes, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Afghan Cricket Club: Out of the Ashes, BBC Four

Afghan Cricket Club: Out of the Ashes, BBC Four

Disappointing film misses the point of the story about sporting underdogs

Taj Malik with one of his Afghanistan cricket team

At first sight, “Afghanistan cricket team” might be labled along with “The kosher guide to cooking pork” or “How to keep your promises, by N Clegg”. But in 2008, Taj Malik, an Afghan player passionate about the game, decided to try to take his national team into the world’s elite level and this film (part of the Storyville strand), by three young film-makers, Tim Albone, Leslie Knott and Lucy Martens, followed their efforts over two years.

As you might expect, Malik and co were not starting from a level playing field. As the gentle, ever-smiling coach (who rather touchingly believed the answer to all the world’s problems could be solved by cricket) proudly showed us around the national cricket academy in Kabul - with its patchy grass and just four tired nets - their first campaign in international competition already looked a hopeless cause. That feeling was added to by the comments of a chap from the British Embassy, all Woosterish red-cheeked laughter. “They play cricket like war”, he guffawed, “but they’re going to be stuffed!”

In the absence of a voiceover (a serious mistake), one couldn’t make out whether Mr Ambassador was merely spoiling the fun or had - much more likely, I suspect - been generously advising Afghan CC in his spare time. And the feeling that this was a sub-Louis Theroux set-up was heightened when the scene that immediately followed was of Mr Massoud, president of the Afghan Cricket Federation, speaking directly to camera with no interlocutor. “Sport is a symbol of peace,” he said, while sitting in front of a rifle-wielding henchman. We get it, Afghanistan is a scary place and those blokes with beards can’t see how funny it is to Westerners when they talk about peace while cradling a Kalashnikov - but really, who suggested that the weapon remained in shot?

Such irritations were sadly typical of a film that had a gift of a subject but rather less gifted film-makers behind the camera. Would that Sam Mendes, a keen cricket fan and executive producer, had been more hands-on; he might have got on with telling the story rather than showing how artistic he could be, with lingering shots of Afghan sunsets and craftily edited two-worlds-colliding scenarios.

The action, with the sparsest of subtitles on screen to explain things, flitted between continents but didn’t explain why Malik and the team were there. When the action moved from Afghanistan to Jersey for the team’s first match, the caption read simply “Jersey”, and unless you were a keen cricket fan, you would not have immediately known that Afghanistan were playing in the first of three qualifying rounds for the ICC World Cup, which starts later this month in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. 

I suspect the film-makers were caught between making a film for cricket fans and one for cricket-phobes, and so fell somewhere in between. It can’t have helped, too, that Malik was sacked from his post halfway through filming and they no longer had a strong central subject - of a sportsman with a seemingly impossible dream, much like the subject of Oscar-nominated The Fighter or the Sri Lankan handball team in Machan.

One player was heard muttering, 'Why did you send me out to play with a bisexual?' when he was run out


But you don’t have to like sport to understand the appeal of the underdog, and there was plenty of material here to support such a story - a gripping one at that, with geopolitical undertones. Malik and his brothers (two of them in the national team) started playing cricket when they were living in refugee camps in Pakistan and when they returned to their homeland they faced opposition from the Taliban, who at first banned the sport but later relented when it was pointed out there were several breaks in play when the players could pray.

And while they appeared eager to be even-handed about cultural differences - one of the team’s more religious Muslim members told us he had grown a beard while in the West to remind him to be righteous, and another was heard muttering, “Why did you send me out to play with a bisexual?” when he was run out - the film-makers, conversely, were strangely keen to show us the younger guys’ delight in seeing scantily clad Western women.

They followed one of the team’s unmarried players as he walked around town saying hello to every young woman who passed by - surely it would have been kinder to tell him quietly that British women would find his (to them) over-friendly behaviour a little creepy, rather than film him looking confused by their offhand rejections? And why were we shown Malik (seemingly cruelly) laughing at a group of pensioners at their Jersey hotel doing line-dancing - “The first time I see old people can dance!” - without some contextualisation?

The real story - of why the team would make such efforts in a sport they had no recent culture of playing - got lost. For the record, Afghanistan won some and lost some in the competition and failed to reach the World Cup, but did get international one-day status because of their endeavours. And that, at least, is worth recording.

Would that Sam Mendes, a keen cricket fan and executive producer, had been more hands-on

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Comments

Having seen the film myself last night I find this review has spiteful and nit picking undertones and misses the point of the story. Yes there were some technical annoyances and a slight lack of flow but these were young filmmakers and I thought they did a brilliant job over a long period of time in what must have been difficult circumstances to let the players tell their story without a narrator forcing you to have an opinion or dropping sarcastic remarks from the comfort of an edit suite. Reading the comments on twitter, every single person was moved by the story and so for most it did a great job after all that's the true measure of a story, whether it can move people not whether or not their film making was 'textbook' I understand that your job is to critique but there's a constructive way and your way - I know which one I prefer.

Afghan team should play on international level..

Did we watch the same film? I loved it and think your review is not only petty and mean but wrong. If anyone is put off by this review, don't be it's a fantastic film.

Agree with comments above, the review really misrepresents this rather excellent film. Gentle, subtle and warm-hearted, the criticisms I think are completely unfounded. The humour is not sculpted at the expense of those filmed, but serves to endear us to them. This film raises a smile in the best possible way. I would thoroughly recommend it. I wish writers wouldn't approach criticism as if they are being challenged to dismantle something, for its own sake. Completely misses the point.

I absolutely loved the film. Some moments had me in stitches but overall I felt it very heart warming.

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