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An Austrian odyssey

The extraordinary story of an Afghan cricket club in Graz

Pranay Sanklecha |

Anwar Halimi, Najeeb Naizay and Atef Sohil at the Velden Cricket Club's ground, about 65 miles south-west of Graz

Anwar Halimi, Najeeb Naizay and Atef Sohil at the Velden Cricket Club's ground, about 65 miles south-west of Graz © Baba Zarawar Khan

When I met Pamir, I asked him: how did you do it? How did a team formed just three years earlier end up champions?

Pamir grinned, proud that the question needed to be asked but awkward too with considerations of modesty, and said, "That's what all of Austria was asking."

That's what I'd been asking too. But the more I heard, the more I realised that something else was even more remarkable.

Sometimes, you see, the wonder isn't that you win. The wonder is that you're in the fight at all.

****

"I was in Iran, in the desert, we'd been walking for two days and nights, I had no water, nothing to eat, no bread, sweets, nothing. The last day, it was so hot, it was so hot in the desert, definitely over 40 degrees, complete desert, you didn't see a single plant, nothing green. Nothing."

****

Seebarn is a village in the province of Lower Austria. Nothing much happens there, and when it does, it happens to very few people. The last thing you'd expect to find in Seebarn is Kim Kardashian. But perhaps the second last thing is a cricket ground.

"It would be one thing," says Thomas Jaeger, "to find the ground in Vienna, but here it's in a really small village, and on the edge of this village in the middle of nowhere in Austria there's a cricket field."

****

"It was about two hours to our destination, and I said, 'I can't. I can't do this.' I wanted to give up.

"I saw a grave in the desert, from last year, from the last group, and I said, 'I'll stay here. And when I die, maybe someone will find me and bury me.'

Sometimes, you see, the wonder isn't that you win. The wonder is that you're in the fight at all

"The people I was with told me, no. That can't happen. We're not leaving you alone here. Someone gave me water, some food. And then I got strength and carried on."

****

In late summer in 2014, the Afghan Steiermark Cricket Club (ASCC) travelled from Graz to Seebarn Cricket Ground to play in the finals day of the Austrian Cricket Association's T20 League.

They won the semi-final convincingly. In the final, "we had a small target, under 150," says Pamir Khan, who is both captain of the team and chairman of the club. "But wickets kept falling, we were really under stress… Last over, we needed five runs. Wickets fell in this over too. Two balls, four runs. Last man in, he tried to hit, didn't succeed."

One ball, then, with four to get and the last man in. "I was sitting in the dressing room, I couldn't watch. A team-mate was in there with me… suddenly he jumped up and I asked, what happened?"

****

"What I experienced, completely honestly, it was not so normal. In so many situations I thought, I'm going to die.

"You're an animal. Animals are treated better than you are. You don't matter. You're not a brother any more, not a relative, it doesn't matter where you come from.

"The traffickers - they can do anything they want. They can kill you, you can't say anything, who's going to ask what happened to you?

"No one."

****

What had happened was that the No. 11 had ramped the last ball for four over the wicketkeeper.

Atef Sohil bats in the nets ahead of a friendly against Velden CC in 2011

Atef Sohil bats in the nets ahead of a friendly against Velden CC in 2011 © Baba Zarawar Khan

"Everyone was surprised," says Pawan Kohli, who was coach-cum-manager of the team that season. "Because this isn't happening so often, especially a new club, not coming from Vienna, takes the cup!"

****

"You've come illegally? You're an illegal human being."

****

Pamir isn't just the captain, wicketkeeper and chairman. He manages the finances, arranges fixtures, organises transport, drives the bus. Without Pamir there wouldn't be a club. He was 14 when he came to Graz in 2006. "I came with my family," he says. "My father was already here, he invited us. I'm really thankful to my father. He experienced all the difficulties. He made it easier for us."

Pamir, like many others in the team, had never played cricket before starting in Graz. But as the Afghanistan national team started becoming successful, he became interested in the game. In 2011, he, his brothers and some friends, thought, hey, we want to play cricket too. "But we didn't have a proper bat," he says. "So we found a piece of wood in the park and made a rough bat out of it." After a couple of weeks they talked about ordering bats from Vienna. "But at that time the financial situation was much worse. Most of us weren't allowed to work. Still, everyone gave two euros, four, how much they could, and we bought a couple of bats."

****

"Between Iran and Turkey, we were attempting to cross the border on foot, and there was so much snow. I had a jacket but nothing for my legs or feet. I didn't know there would be snow on the ground. I thought Iran was warm, and then I find snow!

"We managed to cross the border. They were really high mountains. We went over them and there's a small village. You have to watch out, take care that you stay hidden. There was a hut, a storage room really, with no heating, nothing. In this hut there was a room, not a kitchen, but it was for making bread. It was like… exactly, it was a tandoor.

"We sat by the tandoor to keep our feet warm. I went to sleep immediately, I have no idea how. Then I got up, and I looked at my feet… I had no camera with me, or I'd have taken a photo."

****

Other women may cloy the appetites they feed, but cricket apparently makes hungry where most she satisfies. It wasn't enough anymore to play in the park with a taped-up tennis ball (and other users of the park were getting annoyed with the disturbance). Now they wanted to play with "hard ball", on a real ground. Proper cricket.

The last thing you'd expect to find in Seebarn is Kim Kardashian. But perhaps the second last thing is a cricket ground

At that time there was a club in Graz that played in the Austrian league, so Pamir and the others asked if they could play. The club was welcoming, but the problem was that too many of Pamir and his friends wanted to play; they couldn't all be accommodated consistently enough.

****

Atef lifts his leg and points to his sole. "It was, from here right down to there, completely red. Completely blistered. It was," he gestures with his hands, "completely swollen, like this. I couldn't move, couldn't even stand up. Luckily, they said we had to wait some time before we could move on. So luckily we had three-four days to stay there. I sat by the tandoor, to warm my feet. I couldn't move, stand up, it was too painful. After two days I could move a little, it was a bit better. But the blood inside dried up and stayed there. Later, on the way to Istanbul, I cut the blisters and the whole skin, and my feet were completely red and bloody."

I didn't say anything, but I must have looked at him in some particular way, because he said, as if he was replying:

"I had to see it through."

****

"Then I tried to find out how I could build a club," says Pamir.

One of the people he asked was Jaeger, who at the time worked for the charity Caritas on projects that used sport to integrate young migrants into Austrian society. Jaeger knew Pamir, who was involved in many of the sports projects, but there had only been loose contact between the two. "Then suddenly he got in touch," says Thomas, "saying he wanted to set up a cricket club."

Jaeger knew nothing about cricket but he made some inquiries, and it became "clear relatively quickly that it shouldn't be too problematic to form a club… We wanted to help them. For them, organised sport in Austria was new, for us cricket was new. We could do something together."

****

"We reached Van, a border town. We wanted to get to Istanbul. There was a control point, we had to go over a mountain. It took six hours. We crossed the border. We came to a house. Well, not a house. It was walls with no roof. Completely broken down. We had to wait there, a lot of people. We had to hide.

The ASCC team celebrate their win over rival club PCC at the Velden CG T20 in 2014

The ASCC team celebrate their win over rival club PCC at the Velden CG T20 in 2014 © Baba Zarawar Khan

"Some people, Kurds, came and told us, 'Come with us, come with us.' Luckily we had two Iraqis with us and they said, 'Don't go with them, they take you and then want money.' The Kurds kept insisting, they had knives. But the Iraqis had knives too and said, 'See this knife? If you come closer I'm going to stab you.'

"The Kurds went away but came back with three-four people, as a stronger group, but the Iraqis brandished their knives again, said again, 'Come closer and we'll kill you.' The Kurds went away.

"Then the real trafficker came. We were in a small van for six-seven hours. Thirty-six people in a small white van, like a plumber or electrician has. We couldn't eat or drink too much because we weren't allowed out to go to the toilet.

"Again, I thought, I'm going to die."

****

Pamir and Thomas, and some others, did do something together. In 2011 they formed the ASCC. The biggest problem then, as it is now, was money. It costs to play in the Austrian League. You have to pay the Austrian Cricket Association around €1500 (about US$1620) to participate in the T20 competition; around €2500 ($2700) for the 40-over league. You have to organise transport and pay for travelling costs and the like. ASCC still only plays in the T20 league because they can't find the money to play in the 40-over league. "If you play in both leagues," says Pamir, and the other expenses are added in, "it'll cost you easily €6000-7000 [$6450-$7500]."

ASCC have a particular problem. About half the team are asylum seekers whose applications have not yet been approved. Until they are approved (and ASCC has already lost players whose applications were turned down), they are severely restricted in terms of being allowed to work. They must essentially live on the money the Austrian government gives asylum seekers, which is between €40 and €200 ($43-$213) per month. That doesn't leave a lot of money to pay for cricket. The other half of the team do work, and can and do pay more, but there are limits to what they can afford too. According to Pamir, "If we give 1000%, we'll have €2000 from our side."

They manage, somehow. (If you would like to help, you can do so here.)

****

"Then we were in Istanbul, I waited for one and a half months because the route was not good. The sea wasn't good or something. Then we decided to take the dry route, to Bulgaria and from there to Greece.

"Then the real trafficker came. We were in a small van for six-seven hours. Thirty-six people in a small white van, like a plumber or electrician has"

"We travelled on foot for four nights and five days. In the day we couldn't travel because we had to hide. It rained. Just rain. You couldn't see anything, it was all rain. We had rubbish bags, we sat down in the day, we tried to sit down under the bin bags in the rain.

"There were fields everywhere, planted with wheat, with tractors. We went through the fields and they were just mud, so much mud and mess that my shoes got stuck and stayed in. Everyone's shoes got stuck. We had to go on barefoot," says Atef with, astonishingly, a laugh.

"We reached our goal, there we had to wait for the trafficker. We waited for three days. It just kept raining and only raining. We had nothing to eat. Nothing. We took food from Istanbul but the food had gone because we were on the road for four nights and five days, and then we had to wait. He said he'd come and we had to wait, and we had no food.

"We decided, there were 16 of us, that we can't bear this anymore. That we have to go to the police. We had no other choice."

****

In their first season, ASCC lost every game. "Many of us had never played before," says Pamir. "It went really badly." But that didn't kill their passion. They were also lucky in that they had some people who had played before and at a high level, who could help the others learn.

One of those people was Habibullah Ahmadzai, who was born in Peshawar and learned his cricket there. Habib does everything with the laziness of the natural athlete. There's something of the leopard about him, an air of stillness, and under that stillness extravagant reserves of speed and power, to be used when deemed necessary. For everyone else in the team I spoke to, the highlight of their cricketing lives was winning the final in 2014. Habib has a different memory. He played for Afghanistan Under-15s in Kuala Lumpur in 2006, in the Asian Cricket Council Cup.

Habib comes alive when talking about that experience. His first time out of Afghanistan and Pakistan; the "super cool hotel" where, three months later, the cricket teams of India, Australia and West Indies also stayed; his impressions of Kuala Lumpur - "This can't be Asia. I thought, Asia must be like Pakistan or Afghanistan, it can't be like this. Everything was green. Everything was like it had been washed."

Pamir Zarawar Khan after ASCC's win in the Masala Cup indoor tournament in Graz, 2014

Pamir Zarawar Khan after ASCC's win in the Masala Cup indoor tournament in Graz, 2014 © Pawan Kohli

He remembers each game of that tournament in detail. Each innings, the scores, how many runs he made, wickets he took (I checked online later). In the second game, against Kuwait, he scored 34 and took six wickets in the first innings, and was Man of the Match.

****

"We called the trafficker again, one last time. We said, please, we've done so much. And we're going to die here. Then we waited and he came in the night, after two nights and three days.

"He took us to a pigsty. A pigsty. Where animals are fed and stuff."

I stared at Atef. "Why…?"

"I don't know. There was the sty and there were the pigs and we had to sit there."

I must have looked shocked.

"Yeah," said Atef. "Illegal, remember?"

****

When Habib came to Graz from Afghanistan, a friend in his hostel told him about the group of Afghan boys who played cricket. "I hadn't imagined I could play cricket in Graz," he says. "I was really happy that I could… I came in May, started playing already in June." He lent his experience to the other members of the team, helping them with technique, training, and other little tips. But it was very far from the cricket he was used to.

ASCC has a particular problem. About half the team are asylum seekers whose applications have not yet been approved

Habib knows and has played with many people who are now famous. "I watched Afghanistan in the 2015 World Cup," he tells me. "I know many of the team. Shapoor [Zadran] played with us sometimes. Dawlat Ahmadzai, Gulbadin Naib, Hamid Hassan… Hamid Hassan is a good friend of mine. He comes from the same club, when I played he was already playing at the club. [Samiullah] Shenwari, Karim Sadiq… I know lots of people in the team. Najeeb Zadran, Hashmatullah Shaidi, we played for the same province. Hamid played with us, then we also sometimes played tape-ball against each other when it rained or whatever. He was really fast!"

How is it to play in Graz after all that, I ask him.

"Not so impressive. We play as a hobby… the cricket level in Austria is very bad, there aren't many good players. Each team has two-three good players, and that's it."

****

Atef goes on. "We sat there with the animals around us, the whole place stank… we got given some food, some chicken for example. But still, how can you eat together with animals? But we had to eat. If you don't eat, you die… no other choice, no?

"We were there I believe one night. We had to sleep there. There was no heating… the animals were warm… we lay with the animals for warmth.

"We were then taken to Athens, it took three hours. We were in a small room with 40 people." (He indicates the size of the room. It's tiny.)

"We got some food. In the beginning twice a day, then just once a day. After three weeks we got just half a piece of bread. Because the trafficker has to be paid. We were at our destination but he hadn't been paid. He must be paid, then he'll take you further.

ASCC celebrate their win in the Austrian Cricket Association's T20 league final in 2014

ASCC celebrate their win in the Austrian Cricket Association's T20 league final in 2014

"From Greece I travelled in a tanker, the type used to transport petrol. We had to go in behind the back axle. Inside it wasn't a tank at all. It was all places to sit. On both sides there was a bench. It looked like a petrol tanker but it was made just to transport people.

"There were 44 people inside. There were kids, women, old men. We travelled for five days in the tanker. We went through Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, through Austria, to Italy. The goal was Italy. When I got out, I smelled of rust."

****

Atef Sohil has friendly, tired eyes. He's in his mid-20s, somewhere between slight and wiry in build. He politely tries to conceal a yawn - he's up at 5.30 every morning (he has a young daughter), works all day as an electrician, and in the evenings he studies for an exam he has to take soon. He has just spent 45 minutes telling me about his journey from Afghanistan to Graz, the story you've just read.

But Atef is not this story. It is necessary to say that.

Atef is a young man with a wife, a daughter, a job and a permanent residence permit. He laughs softly but easily.

Atef is an "allrounder, medium-fast".

Atef is the one man on the team, possibly the only Afghan man in the world, who doesn't automatically try to hit a six every time he sees a cricket ball.

"Our team is the typical Afghan team," he says. "They slog with pleasure. I'm the only one who doesn't. 'You're not an Afghan,' they tell me."

"They're finding themselves. Most of them don't have any family here. So they have to find their identity here, their place in the world"

Atef is many things.

I have no idea who Atef is. But he is not simply this story.

****

"I wonder, how did I survive all that? I don't know how I managed it. Sometimes I think, maybe I dreamed all of it.

"You don't know, what comes in life. I managed. The whole story, sometimes I think, okay, are you so… I had no choice left. I had to do it.

"Most people helped others. Someone might be weak, we had to help them. We wouldn't have been able to do it alone. It also happened with me. The others helped me."

"I'm very grateful for that. I'm very grateful to God, that I managed it. It brought me so many experiences. What would I have done in my home? Nothing. Now I know a lot, how the world works, how you deal with people."

"Earlier, I didn't want to talk about it because it was really extreme. To talk about it reminded me of my past, and my past was really terrible. When I told the story, I would become really emotional. I lived it again when I told it. I said to all my friends, please, don't ask me about it.

"Slowly, I made my peace with it. It belongs to life. You can't do anything about it. It happens to everyone. That's it. You're not the only one to whom it happened. There are many to whom it's happened."

Atef Sohail bats (Najeen Naizay is the non-striker) against PCC in the Velden CG T20

Atef Sohail bats (Najeen Naizay is the non-striker) against PCC in the Velden CG T20 © Baba Zarawar Khan

"Yes," I said, "but it's still difficult."

"Yes. Very difficult."

****

"They're changing right now," says Pawan Kohli. "They're finding themselves. Most of them don't have any family here. So they have to find their identity here, their place in the world, irrespective of cricket. And they're getting older. They're getting their jobs… at that time everyone was an asylum seeker. Now they're working and they have to think, they have to ask themselves, I'm working Monday to Friday, on Saturday I have a match, can I still bring that energy?"

Habib bears that out. "Now I'm busier, I have more responsibility," he tells me. "Now I don't interest myself so much in cricket as three-four years ago. But I still play."

Why?

He thinks, smiles almost embarrassedly, shrugs his shoulders.

"Cricket macht man süchtig," he replies.

Cricket makes you addicted.

Pranay Sanklecha is assistant professor of Philosophy at the University of Graz

 

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