November 19, 2012

Fawad Ahmed's hard road to acceptance

The Pakistan-born legspinner Fawad Ahmed has been granted asylum in Australia. That could be just the beginning of his cricketing journey

When this month began, Fawad Ahmed did not know how much longer he would be able to reside in Australia. As an asylum-seeker, he was waiting for a verdict while he worked in a warehouse and tried to make his way playing cricket.

Now, 19 days into November, Ahmed is choosing between contracts from at least three different Big Bash League franchises, has been made a permanent resident and harbours hopes of representing Australia. If ever cricket has been the catalyst for changing for someone's life, that person is Ahmed, who played ten first-class matches in Pakistan.

Ironically, it could also have been responsible for causing him great harm too. When Ahmed lived in Pakistan's northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, he was a supporter of an NGO who worked for women's rights, played cricket and coached children in the game, and admired the art of Shane Warne from afar. Those activities were considered dangerous enough to result in him being targeted and threatened by militants.

"My life was in danger because they thought I was promoting Western values and culture and they warned me that if I continued doing that, I would be in trouble," he told ESPNcricinfo.

Fearing for his safety, Ahmed decided he would have to leave his mother, two brothers and sister behind and search for a new life. Choice did not play much of a role when he fled. Australia, rather than a place like the United Kingdom, was his destination because he had friends in the country who could help him get set up. Before leaving, Ahmed had been sponsored a short-stay visa from the Yoogali Cricket Association in New South Wales.

Despite having a Masters degree in international relations and political science, he knew he would find it difficult to get a job with a temporary visa and concentrated on playing cricket and doing odd jobs while applying for asylum. He ended up in Melbourne because his initial documentation was delayed but it turned out to be a happy accident because he found it a "beautiful city" and was soon involved with a local club.

Hoppers Crossing, a club in Victoria's turf cricket association, was the first place his legspin was noticed in Australia. He dominated the league competition there before being sought by Melbourne University Cricket Club, a premier league club that has produced a number of Test cricketers in past years.

"He was taking so many wickets and was becoming quite well known on the club circuit," president Derek Bennett said. But there was much more to Ahmed than just his ability to be destructive with ball in hand and Bennett knew he would have tread delicately.

"When we were talking to him about playing for us, it was obvious that he had come from a horrendous situation," Bennett said. "I spoke to everyone at the club and told them that this guy had had a very complicated life. We knew if we wanted to get involved with him, we'd have to be in for everything that goes with it and we went in with our eyes wide open. But for a guy who turned up without much, he had a good network of friends and we knew he would make it."

Bennett was also confident that the University would be able to assist Ahmed because they had strictures in place for people seeking refugee status. While the administrative issues were taking their course, Ahmed made even more of a name for himself in Australian cricket circles.

He became involved with Victoria's Harmony in Cricket Programme, an initiative which saw him go out to "mostly Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan communities to promote cricket and help players register with clubs".

Having made a successful transition from outsider to accepted, Ahmed wants to be able to help others do the same. "I have been welcomed so well. Everyone respects me and I respect them," he said. "People have been really warm to me and have helped me wholeheartedly."

One of those people was Australia's Test opener Ed Cowan, who befriended Ahmed when he bowled to the team in the nets last year. Specifically, Cowan found that Ahmed had more in common with South Africa's Pakistani-born legspinner, Imran Tahir, than just nationality and kept the information in the memory bank as he hoped Australia could use Ahmed in the lead-up to the current series.

"My life was in danger because they thought I was promoting Western values and culture and they warned me that if I continued doing that, I would be in trouble."
Fawad Ahmed

But in August all those plans came close to unravelling. Ahmed's claim for asylum was rejected, which left ministerial intervention as his only recourse. Bennett helped him send documents directly to the federal immigration minister, which also contained supporting letters from some heavyweights in the game. Cricket Australia's chief executive James Sutherland was among them.

Sutherland has taken up the issue of diversity, or lack thereof, in Australian cricket seriously. At Cricket Australia's recent chief executives' conference, he spoke about the need to "be more inclusive". While Australian cricket has fielded players from eastern European backgrounds such as Simon Katich and Michael Kasprowicz, they have in recent years had only had one player who has sub-continental lineage, Usman Khawaja, play for them, despite waves of immigrants from that part of the world. Ahmed has given them a way to change that.

The news of his permanent residency status was received with much joy. Ahmed was called an "exceptionally talented cricketer with extraordinary resilience" by Bennett and a "skilful, compassionate young man" by Cowan. Sutherland said the Australian cricket community was "thrilled" by the decision. While touching, those words were not as significant as Cricket Australia's actions.

Immediately, CA waived the usual eligibility restrictions and announced that Ahmed would be able to play in the Big Bash this season. He was soon flooded with offers. One is understood to be from his local franchise the Melbourne Renegades, where he seems likely to end up.

It also means that Ahmed, despite being over 30, is able to think of bigger things. Although he does not know the requirement to make him available for Australian selection he hopes to play for them, the same way Tahir has qualified in South Africa. Unlike Ahmed, Tahir relocated for love, not safety, but has since become a regular fixture in the Test team.

Ahmed remembers playing against Tahir in Pakistan where "he played for Lahore and I played for Peshawar". Seeing him again in Brisbane, where Ahmed was bowling to the Australians in the nets again, showed him what was possible. "It was good to see Imran in Brisbane, he is a nice guy and a very good player and to see where he is now is great."

With a bright future ahead it would be easy for Ahmed to forget about his home country altogether but he has not done that. He is an ardent supporter of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who he believes should be the next leader of Pakistan. "All hope rests with him, hopefully he can become the prime minister and if he does, he will run the country well."

One of the things Ahmed would like to see change in Pakistan is the continued absence of international cricket and he thinks with Imran in charge that could happen. He may go back too, although not to play, just to see his homeland and his family again.

"I am really hopeful and think the day is not far when I will return home to see my family," he said. "So far, they have been safe and hopefully they will remain that way. It was me that was being warned, not them. I hope to see them again soon."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent