Morteza Ali fled Afghanistan aged 14 after the Taliban killed his family. He eventually made his way to England, where he met the man who would become his second father.
Welcoming the teenager to Cumnor Cricket Club, a village club on the outskirts of Oxford, chairman Roger Mitty took Ali to the pavilion where he had laid out some kit for him.
“He looked at me as though I had given him lottery winnings or something. It was just a wonderful feeling,” Mr Mitty said. “He couldn’t speak much English, but he was obviously so pleased to be there.”
Ali had arrived in England after a perilous journey lasting more than a year, and went to live with a distant cousin in Oxford. He had been obsessed with cricket in his homeland, playing for hours with a broom handle for a bat, but it was in England that he got the chance to develop as a cricketer.
The image of this “very shy boy”, who was “obviously mad about cricket” is a first impression that has never left Mr Mitty.
As their relationship developed, father-of-three Mr Mitty treated the young Afghan as a fourth child, throwing him birthday parties, helping him through his education and celebrating Christmases together. The Mitty family and Cumnor’s members began to learn snippets of how this young man with the engaging smile had come to arrive in Oxford.
Smuggled out of Afghanistan due to the mortal danger posed to him by the Taliban, Ali endured a brutal trek across Europe. At one stage during his journey, he was halted by illness and started vomiting uncontrollably as he crawled up the side of a mountain with a group of fellow migrants in Ukraine.
“I was praying that I would just die because I couldn’t walk. Somehow I would get energy and I would just crawl and crawl,” he said. “I had one shirt and jeans and was crawling in the snow. I thought I was finished.”
But he finally made it to the refugee camps in Calais and, from there, on to the UK in the back of a lorry.
“I didn’t know where my journey would take me,” he said. “I think now… the cold weather with one shirt and jeans – how did I do that? It was amazing. I learned a lot about people.”
“His journey from Afghanistan was extraordinary and I just felt I wanted to try and show him some love and concern and support and encouragement,” Mr Mitty said.
“He just stole our hearts, really.”
Ali would spend the next decade playing at Cumnor. “There is nowhere else in the world where there is a ground like that. It is in my heart,” he said.
As the teenager grew into a man, his flamboyant batting style and penetrative bowling saw the all-rounder rise through the ranks to become one of the club’s greatest talents. His approach on the field could be compared to his life off it – he was always up for the fight.
And Ali needed to draw on his inner strength again when the Home Office threatened him with deportation.
He had been given a two-year emergency visa when he arrived in the UK in 2002, but as he approached his 18th birthday Ali was told he would be sent back to Afghanistan. It sparked a campaign led by Mr Mitty and the community of Cumnor, which included lobbying MPs and obtaining evidence from Afghan leaders about the threat to Ali’s life.
“There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that if he had gone back that would have been the end of him,” Mr Mitty said. “I remember saying to my wife, probably at one of the worrying moments when it wasn’t looking terribly good, that if I didn’t save him I would never forgive myself.”
You may also be interested in:
Crucially, the campaign group was able to obtain a fax from Kabul.
“It was a declaration signed by all the elders of the village that Ali had come from declaring he would certainly be killed if he was ever returned,” Mr Mitty said. “That was the best evidence – straight from the horse’s mouth.”
Eventually, Ali was sent a letter by the British government with his “passport for freedom”.
During the time his future in the UK was in doubt, Ali had learned English, sat his GCSEs and secured a place to study accounting at Oxford Brookes University.
Mr Mitty, who is now president at Cumnor Cricket Club, said what struck him about Ali was that “he wasn’t portraying himself as a victim”.
“He would often say to me ‘it’s just so wonderful that even though I have a different culture, background, race and religion, people like you and people at Cumnor have shown me all this support, love and affection’.”
Mr Mitty said cricket “drove” Ali, adding he had a “natural talent, a natural gift” for the game, with his excellent technique in part a product of his early days playing with a broom handle.
Ali’s performances caught the eye of Oxford Marylebone Cricket Club University, which selected the all-rounder for a game against Worcestershire County Cricket Club in April 2009. He thus became only the second Afghan to play first-class cricket in England, after current national team star Mohammad Nabi in 2007.
Following a trip to Melbourne in Australia, in 2013 Ali was given the chance to play club cricket there, an offer that proved too good to turn down.
After 11 years in England, Ali left behind his adoptive family in Cumnor, and in Australia would go on to marry a woman from his homeland. As a record for their two children, he has written a book – Staring at Death – to document his past.
The 32-year-old has now spent more of his life out of Afghanistan than in it, but he still harbours hopes of being able to visit his village of Dah Murdah in Ghazni province – although he’s been told it remains too dangerous for him to go there.
And while Ali has made a life for himself in Australia, he said he still considers Cumnor to be his home.
“Roger is my father,” he said.
“I will always remember him and what he did for me.”