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~Cricket as a route to freedom?~
If you lived in a country which was controlled by a brutal regime which restricted the freedom and choices of their citizens, you'd understandably dream of finding a way out. If that regime then decided to try to improve their international image by hosting a cricket tournament to show the world what jolly good chaps they were, promising that the winners would go abroad for coaching, then it might well seem like the answer to your prayers - especially if by good fortune you just happened to be one of the few people in the country who had ever played the game; in fact, you'd played for a university team in India and you really do know your stuff. It would be tempting to see your sporting skills as a great way to escape oppression. You would teach your brother and cousins and a few of their friends how to play and do your best to win. It all sounds very easy. The trouble is that there is of course a twist. This is Afghanistan, the regime is the murderous and humourless Taliban and you - yes you - the cricketing genius who holds the family destiny in your hands are a woman. Welcome to Timeri N Mururi's novel 'The Taliban Cricket Club'.
One of the most fascinating things about this book is that whilst the plot is entirely fictional, the idea of cricket as a route to courting international favour is not. In 2000, the Taliban really did apply to join the International Cricket Council, thinking that the sport of gentlemen with its respectable clothing and lack of physical contact might be more acceptable than many of the others they had banned.
~A very modern heroine~
Rukhsana is the heroine of our story. After attending university in New Delhi where her father was 'posted' she returned to Kabul to work as a journalist until the Taliban made it impossible for women to work. For some unclear reason, she was still on the list of journalists which was used by the 'Ministry to Promote Virtue and Punish Vice' (whisper it quietly - we don't want to give David Cameron any ideas) when they called the press to the Ministry building to announce their sporting initiative. With a touch of deliciously Taliban irony they merrily shoot a man and woman outside the ministry in front of the journalists before they announce their plans to use cricket as a way of showing the Afghanistan supports 'fair play'.
Rukhsana is excited about the idea of teaching the men of her family to play the game she loves. She dusts off her old pads, finds her old copy of the rule book and prepares to start training. But how can you explain the finer points of spin bowling whilst draped head to toe in a burkha with only a small mesh panel to look through? She has another problem too. The Minister who's running the tournament - the violent Zorak Wahidi - wants Rukhsana for his wife and sends his brother and his sister-in-law to demand her hand in marriage. With a terminally ill mother at home, she can't go into hiding so Rukhsana has two big problems and one classically Shakespearian solution. What would the bard do? Well of course he'd find a false beard and disguise his heroine as a young man. Rukhsana becomes Babur, the cousin from the country.
Can she mould her relatives who've never seen a cricket ball or watched a cricket match into a winning team? Will her cousin Shaheen to whom she's long been engaged send the money so that she can flee the country, or will the man she really loves rescue her from an arranged marriage, or will she have to become one of the Minister's wives?
~What's in a name?~
Sometimes a book comes along that makes you think it's going to cause quite a stir and could well be set to be one of those books that everyone's talking about in a few months time. That was my impression when I was lucky enough to get a pre-publication copy of The Taliban Cricket Club. It is 'popular' fiction rather than 'literary' fiction - if you are looking for the next 'Kite Runner' then look elsewhere because this isn't it. If this were set anywhere other than Afghanistan under the Taliban I would classify it as 'chick lit' but you just can't easily imagine cricket or the assassinations of innocent people quite slipping into your run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. And that - more or less - is what this book is. It has been described as 'Bend it Like Beckham in a Burkha' but I think that does disservice to both the film and the book. This reminds me more of films like 'Escape to Victory', the football classic in which prisoners of war in a German camp take on the guards whilst attempting to escape from the prison. As readers we know the odds will be stacked against the little men (and woman), we know that fair play will be the last thing on the minds of the authorities, and yet we'll also get that warm, fuzzy feeling of knowing that this has to all work out right in the end but we just don't know how it's going to do so.
I've read a lot of books set in Afghanistan and they are almost without exception tales of oppression, torture and abuse. The section of the book shops reserved for happy books about Afghanistan has long been empty and gathering dust but now at last there's a book to sit on that shelf and it is 'The Taliban Cricket Club'.
Whilst the plot has plenty of shades of Shakespearean cross-dressing and whilst the whole thing is deliciously predictable, there's something admirably bold about daring to mix gentle comedy with violent human rights abuse, to combine cricket with killing, and beards with bats. This book will undoubtedly attract readers who wouldn't read the more typical misery-lit which characterises books about Afghanistan and quite possibly without them consciously looking for it, many readers will learn something about life for Afghanis, especially women, under the Taliban. And for me, that's got to be a good result in a match of any kind.
The Taliban Cricket Club
Timeri N Murari
Published by Ecco Press
My copy was provided by the publishers - thanks to them and to Curiousbookfans.co.uk for arranging the pre-publication review copy. If you are interested to know more about the author, you can find a Q&A interview I did with him at Curiousbookfans.co.uk