If there was a modern-day adaption of Robert Schuller’s Tough times never last, but tough people do!, there would perhaps be a chapter dedicated to Morteza Ali.
Morteza’s story is straight out of Michael Winterbottom’s In This World – a gut-wrenching but heartwarming documentary about Jamal and Enayatulla, the two Afghanistan refugees who traverse deserts, oceans, mountains and forests, battle thugs and deal with hostile immigration officers to set up a new life in England.
Morteza could well be Jamal or Enayatulla, but there is cricketing angle to his story. He undertook the same journey as Winterbottom’s protagonists in the film, and is now living a better life in Melbourne, pursuing his cricketing dream as well.
Cricket came to Afghanistan through refugee camps in Pakistan, where countless Afghans fled the 1979 Soviet invasion of their homeland. After learning the sport in exile, young Afghans brought cricket back with them when the Taliban fell in 2001, and the game has gone from strength to strength ever since.
For Morteza, a 31-year-old allrounder, Muhammad Hussain — his older brother and a Kabul University student who played both cricket and hockey — was the earliest influence. When Muhammad would come home during vacations, he would teach the neighbourhood kids the basics of the sport. When he headed back to the university, Morteza would follow cricket on his “rich neighbour’s television.”
“In the ‘90s, we had heard a lot about Sachin Tendulkar, but personally, I liked Adam Gilchrist a lot because of his attacking brand of cricket,” he tells Wisden India. “Back then, I didn’t even know his name. Shahid Afridi was my favourite too, I used to imitate his shots a lot.
“But no sport was allowed by the Taliban; we used wooden broomsticks as bats and plastic balls.”
He was in his mid-teens when Morteza lost his entire family – father, mother, Muhammad and a younger sister – when their house in Ghazni in the south-east province of Afghanistan was hit during a Taliban mortar attack in 2001. Morteza survived as he was helping his uncle at his grocery store a few miles away. “My uncle didn’t even tell me that I’d lost my whole family, he just asked me to leave the country as the war had intensified,” he recalls.
His uncle arranged his exit with the help of a human transporter. Morteza left Kabul in June 2001, and reached England a year and five days later, in July 2002. Morteza says he walked to Oxford, but anyone who’s watched Winterbottom’s documentary would know of the torture the refugees have to endure.
Morteza and other refugees lived in sub-human conditions in Pakistan camps, battled the Kurdish mafia, braved sub-zero temperatures in Russia and Ukraine, were held hostage by the Czech underworld, and were in and out of military and police custody in Ukraine, Austria, France and Germany.
“Throughout my life, there were people who surprised me. They helped me without seeing my religion, race or background. Although life took a lot from me, it gave me some unbelievable people. It’s my time to give back in whatever little way I can.”
To escape the army and border police, they would walk and hitchhike after dark, avoiding villages, and resting in the forests and mountains during the day. Even 15 years on, as he looks at back the journey, Morteza remembers every minute, painful detail, pausing between words to retain his composure. He recalls a particularly harrowing time in Ukrainian military custody, where he spent almost five months.
“It was peak winter in Ukraine, it was snowing a lot. We were dumped in a hall without any blankets and just had a layer of clothing on us. Our survival was down to one bottle of water and a meal, if you could call it that, a day. The ‘meal’ we got was half a slice of mouldy bread. We were allowed only one loo break in a day.
“By night, we would end up eating our nails and swallowing our saliva; psychologically it helped get over the hunger. I had become so frail, just skin and bones, I couldn’t even stand.
“The hall had huge windows; when the sun came out, I would just crawl to that end of the hall, and roll back again to the other side at night.”
Having overcome near-death experiences, Morteza made it to Oxford, where the City Council social services took him under their wing. But his joy was short-lived. He got in touch with his uncle back home, who finally broke the tragic news of his family’s fate.
The pain in the aftermath of custodial torture lingered long, but not as long as the pain of realising that he had lost his parents and siblings.
Cricket was not just Morteza’s hobby; it was his escape. It was a way to get over his troubled past; it was an answer to cope with the life in a new country, and an uncertain future. Even before he started his formal education in Oxford, Morteza started playing cricket with an Afghan youngster whom he met at an English class.
“It was the first time I’d seen a hard ball,” he recalls. “I didn’t have any gear. The English kids were really friendly, one of them let me borrow his old cricket gear and shoes. I didn’t even know how to put the pads on, the bat was a bit too heavy for me.
“I would try to hit every ball. Those kids used to laugh at me, because in 2002 there were no T20s in England. They would just ask everyone to play straight, but it took me a while to get used to those proper cricketing shots.”
Back home in Ghazni, Morteza had never been to school. He helped his father, a shepherd who also sold milk. Social services provided him accommodation and even enrolled him in the community school. The first few years were tough, Morteza found it extremely difficult to understand the curriculum, the inability to speak or understand English just compounded his woes.
“In the ‘90s, we had heard a lot about Sachin Tendulkar, but personally, I liked Adam Gilchrist a lot because of his attacking brand of cricket. Back then, I didn’t even know his name.”
It was around this time that Morteza met Roger Mitty, who ran the Cumnor Cricket Club in Oxfordshire. Roger raised Morteza as his foster son, providing extra language classes and tuitions for grammar, and early lessons in cricket. “He never made me feel like I had lost my family,” Morteza reminisces.
Easing into his new life, Morteza juggled ‘A’ levels and cricket with a lot of support from Mitty. He started his career with Mitty’s Cumnor CC and went on to represent Oxford University CC, Oxford CC and London County CC, and West Indian Cavieliers in the Nottinghamshire Premier League.
As a part of Oxford CC, Morteza, who used to bat at No. 6 (he’s an opener now) and bowled medium pace, even featured in a three-day first-class match in 2009, but never got a chance to bat or bowl in the game.
At Cavieliers, Morteza met Saqlain Mushtaq, who has been one of the biggest influences in his evolution as an allrounder. “Earlier, I would just go in to bat or bowl without any plan,” he says. “But after watching him bowl, I realised how to set up batsmen; he treated it like a game of chess. He thinks a lot, he would set up the batmen in the first three balls, he also placed me at short-leg while fielding, which was very scary.”
It also helped that Usman Afzaal, the former England batsman, was never short of batting advice. During the camps in his clubs, Morteza interacted with many former players who had brief coaching stints, including Andy Flower, Gary Kirsten, Rashid Latif, Kabir Khan and Neil Burns, the former Essex and Leicestershire wicketkeeper. But it is an interaction with Steve Waugh that remains special for him.
“He was very tired after a long flight from Australia, but still made it to our camp in Nottinghamshire and gave us batting tips. It was around the same time when his autobiography had released, so he got a few signed copies along and distributed them among the players in the camp.
“By the time it was my turn, all the copies were over. Burns introduced us and told him about my past, Waugh was so moved that he took down my address and promised to send me a signed copy. I had never expected him to remember me, but a few weeks later, I was surprised to find a signed copy of Out of my comfort zone in my mail.”
Although he missed his family and home, Morteza had finally made peace with reality. Pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Business and Finance from the Oxford Brookes University and cricket kept him busy. Things were finally looking bright after many years.
And then disaster struck.
Morteza was set to be deported following a change in visa rules. Mitty published Morteza’s situation in the Cumnor CC monthly magazine, but without enough funds, there was little hope. Help came from an unlikely quarter. A retired barrister, who used to watch Morteza play at the club daily, came to their rescue. His daughter, Gaenor Bruce, a renowned immigration solicitor from Manchester, took up his case pro bono, and won.
Recession hit the United Kingdom in 2008 and Morteza couldn’t find a job after graduation. He took up odd jobs and started working as a driver. In two years, he had saved enough to visit his uncle back home. However, Afghanistan was still grappling with terrorism threats, and he was advised against the visit.
A few of Morteza’s friends from Afghanistan who had migrated to Australia invited him over for a break. A huge Afghan and Indian migrant population in Melbourne fuelled the weekend community cricket clubs across the city, and Morteza immediately felt at home.
With the employment situation in England still grim, Morteza moved to Melbourne in 2012 and started working as a delivery man with Australia Post. He joined the Hazara Cricket Club as a captain and coach, and since has been promoting cricket in Melbourne’s Afghan community.
Most recently, he led the side to the final of the Melbourne Renegades Champions League – a tournament between six teams of players divided into countries of their origin. Afghanistan ended up losing to India, but Morteza is happy with their efforts.
“I had never expected him (Steve Waugh) to remember me, but a few weeks later, I was surprised to find a signed copy of Out of my comfort zone in my mail.”
“Most of my Aghani friends here are traders or painters, they are really passionate about cricket but never had any formal coaching. They would always end up losing in different competitions.
“We have come a long way from being called the Lagaan team to being one of most respected amateur cricket clubs in Melbourne,” he gushes. “We practice on Wednesdays and Fridays in the afternoon after work, and matches are held during the weekends. We’ve won tournaments not just in Victoria, but also Shepparton, Sydney and other cities.”
Fifteen years ago, Morteza would never have imagined cricket becoming such a huge part of his life. He has a Level 2 coaching certificate from the UK and is currently in touch with Usman Khan, Hong Kong’s assistant coach, for further certifications in the role.
Despite what he has been through, Morteza says he’s grateful to have had such a great support system. He vows to do his part to help future dreams in cricket and beyond come true within his community.
“Throughout my life, there were people who surprised me. They helped me without seeing my religion, race or background. Although life took a lot from me, it gave me some unbelievable people like Roger Mitty, Neil Burns, Rob Wilson (a former club cricketer in Victoria), Mrs Bruce; without them, I would have been just another refugee, lost in a new country.
“It’s my time to give back in whatever little way I can. I’m trying to do my bit through Hazara CC.”
Morteza has never been to Ghazni since fleeing in 2001. He’s in touch with his extended family back home who, like his friends in Oxford and Melbourne, have coaxed him into penning his inspiring journey. “The autobiography is shaping up well,” he informs.
He could probably take a leaf out of Schuller’s bestseller and call the first chapter Tough times never last.