Much praise has been righteously showered on Out Of The Ashes, Tim Albone and Lucy Martens’ film about the Afghan national cricket team, screened last night on BBC4. All of the big themes are there, as many have noted, but what makes it glorious and human are the small moments that catch those essential truths about all sides, amateur or pro, wherever they’re from.
The team go to the Channel Islands in an ICC comp, and when they make it through a tense semi-final despite never having seen a grass pitch before, the coach, Taj Malik Alam, makes a call home that every player is familiar with – to the wife or girlfriend or partner or kids explaining that yes, the game has only just finished, and no, you won’t be back for a bit yet. In Taj’s case, it’s longer than normal, him being in Jersey and having a big final still to play, nonetheless, it’s all there in his face as he explains.
Taj is one of the stars of the film, a man at the other end of the human spectrum from Andy Flower – if Flower is a closed book, Taj, a man with an even bigger job on his plate, is palpably readable, walking around the boundary chaining ciggies, head often in his hands, hostage to all that is uncontrollable out on the pitch. Every club has a guy like Taj as its heart and soul. Later, back in Afghanistan, we find him in his personal nirvana, on what looks like rutted scrubland with a ramshackle wooden hut beside it, but which is unmistakably oval – and you can see what Taj is thinking once again.
In the dressing room, the standard arguments rage amongst the usual collection of drama queens and prima donnas that make up teams across the globe. ‘I wasn’t out,’ one batsman claims, ‘he got that wrong’. ‘Don’t give me your bullshit’ comes the immediate and angry reply from someone who’s heard it all before, and will again.
As the final, against Jersey, unfolds and Afghanistan find themselves needing just 86 for an unlikely win, the same batsman is pointlessly run out and walks off shouting the immortal lines: ‘Why do you make me play with a bisexual? He is a bisexual.’ Simon Katich was probably mumbling much the same thing in Adelaide. Afghanistan somehow edge over the line, and all of the tension and the fear melts away as Taj dissolves into tears, only to find himself almost immediately confronted with the booming Yorkshire tones of a jaunty Geoffrey Boycott, on hand to present the trophy – a wonderfully unlikely scene.
Afghanistan go on to Argentina and ultimately, staggeringly, to the World T20, but they go without Taj, who is brutally sacked after the Channel Islands trip in favour of former Pakistan Test player Kabir Khan. ‘This is the Afghan,’ says a cab-driver. ‘He doesn’t like what the Afghan says. If Pakistani, Indian, English say it, they like it…’
Well, it’s not just the Afghan, pal, as a glance at the list of international coaches will show you.
Taj can be proud though, and not just of his huge heart. The game is the game, wherever and whoever you are, and I hope he’s there now, at the side of his pitch, watching it grow.
NB: Jrod has an Out Of The Ashes giveaway over at CWB - well worth a go.