From Kabul to the crease: the London cricket club bowled over by Afghan refugees

They were evacuated to Britain after the Taliban's return to power – and brought with them a love of bat and ball

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In the picturesque surroundings of Roehampton and Fulham Cricket Club in south-west London, the familiar sound of leather on willow rings out among the trees on a summer afternoon.

However, unlike in previous years, local players have been joined this season by refugee boys from Afghanistan who share their love of cricket.

Youngsters expatriated to the UK after the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul last August are proving their mettle at the club, where they have impressed coaches with their skills and enjoyed a string of successes on the field.

The club opened its doors to more than 20 Afghans who last year were staying at a local hotel after being flown out of the Afghan capital on RAF flights under Operation Pitting.

Donations poured in and parents whose children play at the club organised a fund-raiser to cover coaching costs for the boys.

The club offers the recent arrivals a sense of community, certainty and purpose as they continue to wait for long-term accommodation and plan for their future in Britain.

“Most of them just love playing cricket,” Marc Moderegger, who co-ordinates the junior teams, told The National. “There’s a core of about 10-12 of them who would play every single day of the week if you could give them the opportunity.

“They’re much more confident now. They were quite shy to start with. They’re gelling well with the others, they’re all getting along. They were basically bored [in the hotel] and not doing much back at that stage in September. They didn’t have a lot to do.

“My hope is that they’re learning that they can play cricket and that opens doors in terms of being able to meet other people on other teams.”

An Afghan teenager who arrived in the UK last summer plays in a cricket match in Fulham. Victoria Pertusa / The National

All-rounders

As well as improving their batting and bowling skills, joining the club has helped the boys integrate into British society and advance their English language proficiency. Learning useful phrases from their teammates is a two-way street, and they too have taught English children how to say basic sentences in Pashto.

Some new members proved to be so talented that they were sent for trials at Surrey County Cricket Club, with eight being accepted.

But despite the warm welcome shown to the boys by the regulars, and their obvious talent both on and off the cricket field, it has not all been plain sailing for the aspiring sportsmen.

Some of them are separated from their families, including parents who are still in Afghanistan, and hotel living is not ideal, particularly for students sitting exams.

“There’s been quite a few mental health issues at times,” Mr Moderegger said. “Sometimes it’s difficult to get them motivated.

“There’s definitely occasions where they’re obviously feeling down and they don’t feel like doing anything. Once you get them to cricket, the challenge is they’re too enthusiastic and they don’t want to leave, but it’s getting them there in the first place. Once you’ve got them to a game or a training session, I can’t remember them ever complaining about having been persuaded to do it.

“They’re all teenagers and there’s a certain amount of surliness that comes with that. Add to that all the issues that they’ve faced, it’s unsurprising that sometimes they have a lack of motivation or desire.”

Dream to play for England

The players who have displayed exceptional skills and leadership qualities have been put forward for training programmes in the hope that they themselves can become coaches and earn a living.

Sahil, 16, is among the players who has convinced those at the club he has a promising career ahead.

“I feel brotherhood playing for this club,” he said. “When I’m on the field I feel like I’m in love of life.

“It’s my dream to play for England. I have to struggle more and work hard. It motivated me more and it helped me.”

Aziz, 18, said he and his peers are grateful for the reception from club members.

“We learnt lots of things here with the club,” he said. “It’s a good thing for us to play in England. We met lots of people here. They helped us, they gave everything to us.”

Afghan refugee boys playing in a cricket match in Fulham, London.  Victoria Pertusa / The National

The idea to integrate Afghan refugee boys into the club came from Ziaulhaq Maliky, who was among the thousands to arrive in the UK last summer. Mr Maliky, who worked as a fixer for British journalists in Kabul before the Taliban takeover, found a job as a coach at Roehampton and Fulham Cricket Club.

He said the changes he has seen in the boys since they attended their first training session last September have been phenomenal.

“When they first came, most of them didn’t know how to speak English, but now, after playing with English boys, they have integrated very well and learnt about their cultures, they learnt about their language and it also taught [the local players] about Afghan cultures and taught them how to speak a couple of words in Pashto.

“Most of these boys, they have a lot of talent.” Mr Maliky said. He hopes the training offered by the club will serve as a foundation for some of the players to carve out a successful future in cricket.

Updated: August 12, 2022, 6:20 PM
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