It is inspiring, in the midst of all the accusations and concessions about racism in English cricket, to see the sport bring out the best in people who welcome newcomers from Afghanistan.
In north London, a group of 60 Afghan men, women and children go to MCC’s indoor school at Lord’s as a regular break from staying in a hotel. Those who want to play cricket – and where is the Afghan boy who does not, especially after Afghanistan’s brave role in the Twenty20 World Cup? – practice at night.
The physical nature of these boys is what strikes you: the strength of their shoulders and arms that enable them to throw the ball hard, hit it far, or throw it fast. No sedentary childhood, used to staring at screens. In respect of Afghan traditions, girls and women play cricket together in a separate area, or take an English language course or play with their young children. When Afghanistan met India in their World Cup qualifier, they had a separate room to watch the match on TV before eating lunch.
English cricket has often offered Muslim cricketers ham sandwiches and sausage rolls, which did not exactly bring communities together. In keeping with the Lord’s tradition of catering, these refugees are offered lubya (beans in a rich tomato sauce), lavand-e-murgh, which is chicken in yogurt, and Afghan bread.
It has all been organized by Sarah Fane, once a fearless doctor in Afghanistan, then the head of the Afghan Connection, who built hundreds of schools and cricket pitches around the country. Anyone who claims that MCC has only preached to the converts for 200 years cannot say that now she is the director of the MCC Foundation.
A hotel in Luton houses hundreds of Afghan refugees while the Home Office processes their applications. A visionary hit on the idea of asking a local school to use their facilities once the kids have gone home.
At 5 p.m., these refugees and volunteers pile into the playground, classrooms, and school kitchen, where mothers can cook their children homemade food after weeks without.
It’s such a simple brain wave and typical of Amran Malik, who trained in corporate management before turning to cricket and becoming the coach of Lord’s Taverners. Wicketz, Malik’s project for Luton, where every child who signs up for cricket is offered a path to a career, whether in sports or academic or vocational education, and which has reduced juvenile delinquency in the last three years, is one of 400 global social development projects supported by the UN and the only cricket-based.
“Northamptonshire CCC are delighted to support the Afghan community in this very difficult time for them,” reports Gavin Warren, their chairman. “Subject to their wishes, we plan to continue to support them with cricket initiatives.”
About 20 Afghans from the 50 families living in Bristol have visited County Ground for free sessions hosted by the Gloucestershire Cricket Board and Masoor Khan, their coach. Thanks to three companies – Koocha Mezze, Gloucester Road Fruiterers and Joe’s Bakery – these players have been offered a buffet after each session.
More than that, Khan, who plays for Buckinghamshire, has found a boy who bowls off-breaks, play-breaks and googlies at a brisk pace. In Luton, Malik has spotted a 10-year-old pace bowler who rejected five adults in six balls.
Since Afghanistan has been the place that has produced mysterious spinners, there must be a gem – another Rashid Khan – somewhere out there.
After the Interior Ministry processes their applications and these Afghans are scattered around the country, there is a chance they will be close to one of MCC’s 70-straight hubs and able to continue playing. Meanwhile, all first-class counties should be involved, identifying talent and organizing a national indoor competition – hard ball for the older ones, wallpaper ball for the younger ones – culminating in a final at Lord’s.