Afghanistan cricket exile Ekil Latifi: ‘We were scared they were going to kill us’

It’s 4pm, and 19-year-old Ekil Latifi has been at the indoor cricket centre at Lord’s for eight hours. Nor is she planning on going home any time soon. Having finished her day job with the MCC schools and community team – she arrived two hours early to get in some net practice – she’s now heading for a training session at the gym, which is, to her, one of the perks. How is she not exhausted already? She shrugs. “It’s just my passion.”

Growing up in Afghanistan, Latifi was always sporty. She wanted to be a professional footballer until her early teens, when an injury caused her mother to announce there would be no more kickabouts. She enjoyed volleyball and basketball, but her lack of height held her back. In 2015 she watched her compatriots play Scotland at the men’s Cricket World Cup. There was a bat in her house, and she picked it up with a new purpose.

“I told my best friend, Feroze Afghan, I’ll buy you a ball, and you can bowl at me,” remembers Latifi. “And one day you’ll be the best bowler in the country and I’ll be the best batter.” The pair inspired their group of friends to take up cricket alongside them, and learned all they could from watching it on TV. They played every day, skipped classes, and eventually got themselves entered into a school tournament, which they won. Latifi was named best batter, and Afghan best bowler.

Over the next four years, the pair poured their time and efforts into developing their skills, training at a local football ground because there were no cricket facilities in her home city of Herat. Under the Afghanistan Cricket Board’s programme to develop the country’s first ever women’s team, they were both among 25 women offered professional contracts in 2020. They had not even received the paperwork by the time the Taliban’s return put an end to that dream.

The women’s team fled the country and most of the players – including Afghan – were found new homes in Australia. Only Latifi, then aged 17, came to the UK, and she did so alone. She continues to pursue her dream of a professional career in cricket, whatever that might look like. “If there is any hope of playing for my country, I want to be ready for that,” she says. “That’s why I’m training.”

The desire to reform Afghanistan’s women’s team has been raised repeatedly by the Australia-based players over the past year. While the men’s team was being feted for its best World Cup performance last October, their female counterparts felt their exclusion was being conveniently forgotten about.

A national women’s team training and playing in exile might be an unconventional proposition, but it is not an inconceivable one – many of the male players live away from home on the franchise carousel. As Latifi points out: “The men’s team aren’t mostly in Afghanistan, they’re playing all over the world. So why can’t we live outside the country and play under the flag too?”

Latifi had just finished her year 12 exams when she understood that she and her teammates were in danger. She hid all evidence of her involvement in the game, including the clothes she wore for training: “We were scared that if they knew we played cricket they were going to kill us.” Her mother took the first opportunity that presented itself to get her daughter on a flight out of the country to safety – and Latifi arrived in the UK as a child refugee. She hasn’t seen any of her family since.

A foster family took her in, and she was traumatised and depressed during the months that followed her flight. “And then someone sent my foster mum an email asking if I wanted to play in a cricket tournament, and I said OK,” she says. She took part in the UK segments of a five-day FairBreak tour, which not only brought her pleasure and purpose but introduced her to other women’s players who offered to support her. She now plays for Bexley women, and has toured Ireland with an MCC side.

Ekil Latifi at Lord’s
Ekil Latifi had to flee Kabul for the UK, leaving her family behind. Photograph: James Bailey

“A lot of things happened to me in the past, and if I think about them I’m going to be sad,” she says. “If I think about the future, there are lots of negative questions in my mind, and I feel scared. But if I think about right now, today, I can keep going. I’ve got lots of plans but it’s going to take time and discipline. I believe in myself that one day I’ll be playing professional cricket, if not in the Afghanistan team then elsewhere.”

There is no sporting consensus on how to protest against the Afghanistan government’s flouting of basic rights for women. The International Cricket Council continues to ignore its own anti-discrimination policy and allow Afghanistan full-member status despite its complete failure to fulfil the criteria requiring a national women’s cricket programme. And while Australia have refused to play bilateral fixtures against the men’s side, there are those who now think that boycott should be lifted.

Feroze Afghan, who now plays for Prahran in the Victoria Premier League, was invited to speak to Cricket Australia on the subject in January. She has no issue with the men’s teams playing each other but wants acknowledgment and support of the women’s side.

“I know that there are issues with the men speaking publicly about this back home because of the regime, but they could speak up for us in private,” says Afghan. “They could send an email to the ICC to say we stand with our women’s team, and push them to accept our players here. We haven’t had any support from them and that’s too bad, after all of the times we’ve supported them.”

For Latifi, the men’s team’s improvement and progress through last winter’s World Cup have been an inspiration in their own right. “They have learned from their mistakes, and now they can beat any team,” she says. “If they make our people happy that’s all I want. It shows we can work hard, and dream big.”

Afghanistan cricket exile Ekil Latifi: ‘We were scared they were going to kill us’