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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

UAE T20x: Afghan migrant in Germany hopes to return to 'highest level of cricket'

Six years after dismissing Eoin Morgan at World Twenty20, Izatullah Dawlatzai could be reacquainted with England captain if he gets drafted to play in inaugural season

Izatullah Dawlatzai, second from left, was in brilliant form when Afghanistan played England at the World Twenty20 in 2012, in Colombo. AFP
Izatullah Dawlatzai, second from left, was in brilliant form when Afghanistan played England at the World Twenty20 in 2012, in Colombo. AFP

The chances are Eoin Morgan does not remember the dismissal that brought about his downfall when England played Afghanistan at the World Twenty20 in 2012, in Colombo.

Even big tournaments like that must take some recalling when a player has played as much high-level cricket as he has.

England’s limited-overs captain has played 260 T20 matches across his career. He has played in – and won – World T20 finals.

He has sampled all the premier leagues around the world. And he has high hopes next year for the 50-overs World Cup.

He is, of course, such a limited-overs gem that he was announced as one of the five “icon players” to headline the new UAE T20x, which starts in December.

For the other person involved in that dismissal, Morgan’s wicket meant absolutely everything. “A wicket of such great player is always a joy and pride,” Izatullah Dawlatzai says now.

Six years on, it is possible the two could be reacquainted for the first time at the UAE T20x.

Izatullah’s name is on the long list of players hoping to be drafted to the new tournament. Quite how he reached that point is remarkable. Fair to say, he and Morgan have followed differing paths since 2012.

Rather than being one of the vast contingent of Afghanistan players – who now dine at cricket's top table anyway – looking for a gig, Izatullah is one of two players to have signed up from Germany.

He made his debut for the German national team in August, when he played matches against France, Cyprus, Denmark, Austria and Portugal.

It is a little more than three years since he left Afghanistan searching for a better life for his family, at a time when thousands of migrants were being welcomed into Germany.

He was still playing for Afghanistan in 2015, was the country’s emerging player of the year in 2014, and was part of the squad for the side that qualified for the 2015 World Cup.

“I feel really proud of being part of that journey and those years which I spent with the Afghan national and junior teams,” Izatullah said. “It was really a dream for me, and I feel really, really proud for representing my country.

“I do miss playing for Afghanistan, and I am in contact with my teammates.

"I don’t know if I should have stayed or not, but the important thing is that the time I spent with the team was the best time of my life.

“Who knows if in the future I might represent the Afghan team again.”

A refugee takes a selfie with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2015, at a reception centre in Berlin. AP Photo
A refugee takes a selfie with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2015, at a reception centre in Berlin. AP Photo

When Izatullah made the decision to travel to Germany, he did so with no intention of carrying on with his promising cricket career.

He was, after all, heading to a country of little renown in the sport, and his prime focus was to build a life for himself.

“At the beginning when I came here, I didn’t really know about cricket and I wasn’t interested in playing anymore. But last year a national player, Daniel Weston, contacted me and told me about German cricket,” he said.

“Then I found a cricket club KSV [Hamburg-based Kummerfelder Sportverein cricket club] with so many Afghan guys, and I started playing for them.

"Here, there are so many Afghan guys who love cricket, and are trying to play for Germany.

“Playing cricket is important for me. Not playing anymore cricket for the Afghan team is a bit sad, but it’s my new chapter now and it feels good to play for another country as well.”

Weston, an Australia-born opening batsman who has lived in Germany for more than a decade, has been central to harnessing the growth of the sport there in recent times.

He set up a Facebook page, German Cricket TV, that streams local matches live. It has served as a valuable tool in bringing new players to the game – and it was how the contact was initially made with Izatullah.

Most of Germany's regional cricket teams are populated by migrants and refugees, especially from countries including Pakistan and Afghanistan. Getty Images
Most of Germany's regional cricket teams are populated by migrants and refugees, especially from countries including Pakistan and Afghanistan. Getty Images

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Read more:

UAE T20x to be one of 'most internationally-representative T20 competitions in the world'

Paul Radley's Long Read: Cricket at the centre of Habib Ghazi's asylum-seeking journey

Mike Gatting recalls trip to India when his MCC-led side were hammered by Afghanistan

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At the start of 2017, Weston launched a campaign to find “VIPs” of German cricket. They discovered someone with experience working as a fielding coach in Australia's Big Bash League, someone else who had played limited-overs cricket for Zimbabwe, and Izatullah were residing in Germany, unbeknownst to them.

Weston is chuffed he has unearthed a priceless addition for German cricket, but more so that he found someone he terms “a friend for life”.

He promoted Izatullah’s case, but was initially met with some resistance when it was suggested Izatullah’s CV might permit him to jump the queue at representative levels.

“He was a completely new talent, and they were saying, ‘Who is this guy? He needs to prove himself, he can’t go straight into the state team for the north of Germany’,” Weston said.

“That was pretty funny, for a guy who had achieved so much already. He had to prove himself, did that, then he was in the mix.”

Weston acknowledges he was not exactly au fait with Izatullah’s achievements himself, before enlisting him to help coach the Germany Under 19 set up.

“I didn’t know Izatullah at all,” Weston said. “I’m a cricket fan, but I didn’t know the guy, so when I met with him I was never star struck or anything like that. I just saw him as a cricketer, and a new friend.

Then Afghanistan cricketer Izatullah Dawlatzai, centre, celebrates dismissing Scotland's Majid Haq at the ICC Intercontinental Cup in Abu Dhabi in 2012. Ravindranath K / The National
Then Afghanistan cricketer Izatullah Dawlatzai, centre, celebrates dismissing Scotland's Majid Haq at the ICC Intercontinental Cup in Abu Dhabi in 2012. Ravindranath K / The National

“But when Izzy came to the U19s for the first time, the players were nervous, shaking at the knees. It was like me being down at the park training, and [former Australia fast bowler] Brett Lee arriving.

“For them to all see Izatullah arrive, you could see all these 19-year-old mainly Afghan refugees all thought, ‘Whoa, the big hero from our home country is here’.

“That was the first time it struck me: Izzy could really inspire a truck load of German cricketers to also become cricketers in Germany, as now they have someone they can really relate to, who has played cricket to a high level, and is still an incredible athlete and person.”

Seeing their hero go from club cricket in Germany to play with and against the likes of Morgan, former Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi, West Indian all-rounder Andre Russell and, in all likelihood, Australian player Steve Smith, would only enhance that effect.

“The franchise leagues are a game changer if we can get some of our best players into them,” said Brian Mantle, the chief executive of Germany Cricket.

“Obviously Izzy has played at the highest level, but his opportunities on the continent are limited, so this would give him some high standard cricket that would hopefully lead to better performances in Germany.

“Izzy is a role model here with the way he prepares himself, keeps himself fit, and is an inspiration to everyone who comes into contact with him.”

A second player from Germany, Hamid Wardak, who was also a player of some repute in Afghanistan, is also on the list for the UAE T20x draft, which is due to take place on November 19.

Mantle says there has been a 30 per cent increase in male participation in cricket this year, “primarily with an incredible increase of players in Bavaria where the number of cricket-playing refugees seems to be the highest”.

“The next challenge is to create a better infrastructure and to take cricket out to the Germans themselves, primarily women and children," Mantle said. "This is happening as well, but is hard work.”

Izatullah is proud of being a figurehead for a movement, but he is hoping to get the chance to be back among the stars again next month.

“I think it’s going to be so good to play in league which I think might be full of international players, and this can bring me back to the highest level of cricket,” Izatullah said.

“I hope they pick me.”

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