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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

From Afghan street to Irish U-19 team, an 8,000 km-long story

🔴 Once in Ireland, Sherzad, to his surprise, found that cricket would help him make friends and give him a new identity. And, in a remarkable change of a fortune, he would soon become a World Cupper for his new country.

Written by Pratyush Raj | New Delhi |
Updated: January 15, 2022 8:16:36 pm
Sherzad was 14 when he got to Ireland from Afghanistan. He is now among the world’s best junior players. (Cricket Ireland)

MUZAMIL SHERZAD’S journey to the U-19 World Cup in the Caribbean is like no other.

Irrespective of runs and wickets, the story of the one-time casual tape-ball street cricketer in Afghanistan’s Jalalabad, who is now an Ireland pacer and among the best junior players from around the world, is already worthy of a book, a documentary — or even a feature film.

Five years ago, when Sherzad was just 14, his mother paid a tout to take him to Ireland where his uncle worked at a fast food outlet. All he had with him was some home-cooked food and 50 Euros.

For the next 8-9 months, Sherzad, along with other immigrants, crossed the borders of Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Italy and France. Walking, running, hiding in the forests, sleeping in parks and hitch-hiking, he would travel close to 8,300 km in search of his uncle and a better life.

Once in Ireland, Sherzad, to his surprise, found that cricket would help him make friends and give him a new identity. And, in a remarkable change of a fortune, he would soon become a World Cupper for his new country.

Speaking to The Indian Express on Zoom from Georgetown in Guyana, Sherzad, who lost his father at the age of five, said: “After a family dispute over property, my mother got in touch with an agent and packed me off. My life was under threat.”

From the comfort of his hotel room for the ongoing U-19 tournament, Sherzad can’t help but look back on all those tough days on the road. “At one point, I was in a camp trying to cross into Croatia for a number of months. From there, I travelled by truck for three-four days and arrived in Milan,” he said.

At Cherbourg in France, he got into another truck that was on a ferry. “It was cold and dark. I was now on my own, this was the scariest night of the long journey. After a few hours, I could make out that the truck was not on the ferry anymore and was moving. I banged on the side. The driver stopped, and when he opened the back door, I jumped out,” he said.

Good fortune would see him finally reach Ireland but the ordeal was far from over. His first night in Dublin was spent in a park because he didn’t know where his uncle stayed. In another stroke of luck, the boy who couldn’t speak English met an Asian man who gave him directions to a refugee centre in Dublin. “A child protection agency placed me with a family, until they found my uncle. I then went to live with him in Tipperary,” he says.

Sherzad’s brush with cricket happened two years ago when he saw a Cricket Ireland advertisement about a fast-bowling talent hunt, and quickly signed up through Facebook.

Albert van der Merwe, Cricket Ireland’s talent pathway manager, says he and his colleagues at the talent hunt, with 50 aspirants, were impressed by Sherzad’s natural talent.

“The first time I met Sherzad was at a Cricket Ireland Talent Identification Programme in October 2019. They bowled at some of the academy batsmen, and we liked what we saw in Muzamil. We took some videos and showed it to the academy manager, and Muzamil was invited to some sessions. At this stage, we didn’t really know the backstory,” says van der Merwe, who is in Guyana with the Ireland U-19 team.

To fund his cricket equipment, Sherzad joined his uncle at the fast food joint. Van der Merwe says he got to know about Sherzad’s journey after he joined the academy. “It has given me a glimpse into what he must have gone through. His journey to Ireland is something I struggle to wrap my head around. The furthest I went from home on my own as a 14-year-old was to the shop or to school,” he said.

Sherzad, a die-hard fan of Virender Sehwag and a Bollywood follower, is ready to make a name at the World Cup. He says the presence of many Afghanistan players, including their top star leggie Rashid Khan, in Sunrisers Hyderabad has got him interested in the IPL, too. He has already picked up Hindi from films like the Aamir Khan-starrer “3 Idiots”.

And yet, beyond cricket, Sherzad has an unfulfilled wish: he wants to meet his family, mother, two brothers and a sister. “I never thought that I would be playing cricket for Ireland at a World Cup. I wish my mother and siblings could watch me play. I miss them a lot. I am trying to get them to Ireland. I’ve applied for their visas. Let’s see what the future has in store.”

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