July 7th, 2010
01:20 PM ET

Tracing the rise of Afghan cricket

In a van honking and maneuvering through gridlocked Kabul traffic, an Afghan man gets philosophical about the problems of modern life.

“All over the world, there is fighting, fighting,” he says. The solution to all these problems, he says, is cricket.

Meet Taj Malik, the Afghan cricket team coach and, possibly, the sport’s biggest advocate in the the war-torn country.

He’s the main protagonist in “Out of the Ashes,” a funny, touching film that follows the Afghan cricket team in its quest to qualify for the Twenty20 cricket World Cup, held this year. Twenty20 cricket is a fast-paced short form of traditional cricket known for big bucks and glamour.

The British brought cricket to Afghanistan in the early 19th century, but it didn’t catch on for almost 200 years. Afghans only really started playing about 1986, says “Out of the Ashes” director Tim Albone.

Refugees from Afghanistan’s war with what was then the Soviet Union learned the sport in camps in Pakistan and brought it with them when they returned.

Malik and his brothers, Hasti and Karim, were among those who fled the country after the Soviet invasion in 1979.

They grew up playing cricket on rubble-strewn pitches in a camp in Peshawar, on the Pakistani border, balancing rocks  on top of the other to make stumps.

When Malik and his brothers returned home after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, they continued to play, forming part of the first generation of Afghan cricketers.

A sport many associate with the quaint village greens of rural England, it was incongruous in Afghanistan – and not just for those outside the country.

“People in our village called us gangsters,” Hasti Malik says in the film, adding that he found it hard to find a wife because he played the sport.

It was one of the few sports the Taliban allowed.

“They liked it because they could figure in prayer breaks. … You know, cricket’s pretty civilized,” Albone said. “And the crowd don’t get too excited, and they don’t cheer, so as far as sports go, it’s pretty Taliban-friendly.”

The team started batting for the world stage after the Taliban were ousted from power. But they still had many obstacles to overcome.

Some members of the team were too poor to afford equipment, and training facilities remain ramshackle to this day.

“I went to see their training pitch … and it’s diabolical. A village team in England would have better,” Albone said.

And yet, the team, fueled by passion for the game and determination to succeed, rose rapidly through the World Cricket League.

Starting in the lowest division, Division Five, in May 2008, they confounded expectations, winning match after match.

They narrowly failed to qualify for the Twenty20 World Cup in the West Indies but were allowed to play one game in the tournament.

They ended up playing international cricketing behemoth India. They lost but put up a good fight against world-class players like Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Zaheer Khan.

It was a run that captured the imagination of the world, and the players were welcomed home as heroes. Afghans have become great supporters of the team, a beacon in a country with few idols.

“They’ve become massive stars. They are now advertising mobile phones,” Albone said. “Everywhere you go, you see kids playing cricket, and that wasn’t the case even four years ago.”

The members take their position seriously and see themselves as sporting diplomats whose mission is to show Afghanistan in a positive light. And that, perhaps, is the secret behind their astonishing rise from the refugee camps to take on the best in the world.

“These guys have played cricket all their lives, but I think there’s also just something about [them] that’s incredibly special,” Albone said. “It’s got nothing to do with sport. It’s to do with their characters.”

- By CNN's Mairi Mackay

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