I will never forget the moment I set foot inside the glorious Melbourne Cricket Ground to watch Afghanistan play in the T20 cricket World Cup.
Sitting inside the magnificent arena, I felt every moment of the experience. The joy of seeing my team up close lifted the gloom that I and other Afghan refugees had been feeling, bringing us, momentarily, back to life. I’ve never seen a single resettlement program deliver such joy and sense of belonging, and it made me desperately want to see more of it in the coming days as our team battles for survival – just like us refugees.
I hardly cared about the weather, which was a typical Melbourne day with the sun playing hide and seek with the clouds before the rain washed away the entire game. What meant most to me was seeing our world-class players on the international stage after all our country had been through. They brought with them a connection to the land that we were forced to flee when the Taliban took over last year. Many of us still remain torn apart from our families, who are waiting, anxiously, for visas.
The wait for the game began many days earlier. My housemates and I had gone on a hunt for T-shirts, flags and any other Afghan paraphernalia. We had very little success, apart from securing a few T-shirts from an eager online seller. The most important purchase was a tricolour flag. I know it sounds ultra nationalist, but, take it from me, it meant so much for the millions of Afghans watching the live broadcast around the world to see it hoisted high in the MCG in Australia, while it remained banned in Afghanistan under the Taliban. This was so much more than just a cricket match.
Keen on holding it high enough to grab the attention of the cameras, my housemate bought a large plastic pole, only to have to surrender it to security at the entrance. Before that, we threw a ball in Yarra Park to Afghan music as streams of colourfully dressed new Melburnians from various directions gathered around the gates.
Wearing the national T-shirts and carrying the flags, we got plenty of surprised glares on our way into the city from the south-eastern suburbs. A curious man had a nice chat with me and admired what an excellent player Rashid Khan is. Two young women on the train were surprised by the blue colour of the Afghanistan team’s jersey, which contrasted the green, red and black of the national flag.
I was constantly posting photos to social media, as well as texting and calling people, urging them to tune in so as not to miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. On the walk to the stadium from Richmond train station, we got many return calls from friends who we hadn’t heard from in months.
Once inside the venue, the view of the world’s biggest cricket ground under the floodlights was mesmerising. We grabbed some local coffee and quickly found our seats.
I have never seen young Afghan men, women and children so happy since arriving in Australia. It made us miss our loved ones back home. Eventually the rain burst in and the covers were brought over to protect the pitch. We turned that into an opportunity to explore the MCG as it wasn’t fully booked and there were no restrictions to move around. What a wonderful place this is, I thought to myself.
The rain paused. The boys in blue came out on to the field. Afghanistan was supposed to play against the favourite, New Zealand. The greats, Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi, were warming up alongside emerging talents like Rahmanullah Gurbaz, Ibrahim Zadran and Fazalhaq Farooqi. But then the rain came again and never stopped. The match was eventually abandoned.
Caught between a mix of joy and sadness, we decided to count our blessings. We headed back home, leaving the Afghan cricketers to battle with the thundering skies.
Shadi Khan Saif is an Afghan journalist based in Melbourne