Engaging Eagles: Cricket Brings Hope in Essex


Wakman was a professional fast bowler in his native Afghanistan before he was forced to flee and seek refuge in the UK when the Taliban returned to power.

The 20-year-old was an interpreter with the American Armed Forces before the withdrawal of NATO troops from the region in 2021, leaving him vulnerable to reprisals.

“The Taliban want me to go back to Afghanistan, but I can’t because they will kill me because I worked with the Americans,” said Waknam (pseudonym) who has found a route back into cricket thanks to the Changing Lives charity.

“My family are still in Afghanistan and they face terrible trouble. The Taliban went to my house. They say: ‘We want to capture Wakman because he worked with the American forces. We want Wakman from you’.

“They captured my father and they cut off his finger and every day they want me.”

Wakman escaped in September by paying $18,000 (about £14,500) for a tortuous journey by plane and car through Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany and France.

“Finally I came here by boat. The boat was made up from parachutes. There were 64 of us on board,” he said

During the asylum process, and sitting in his hotel room on the outskirts of east London, Wakman’s thoughts again turned to cricket. A chance conversation at reception led to a meeting with the Harlow-based charity Changing Lives.

“We love cricket and wanted to play cricket with somebody,” he said. “Changing Lives came to our hotel and we spoke with them. They said, ‘No worries, we will start cricket for you’. And now every day they come and pick us up and we go everywhere by minibus.”

The story is taken up by Changing Lives co-director Ben Doyle, who is also an Essex Cricket coach and involved in the Chance to Shine initiative for primary school children.

“We had already been involved with refugees from places like Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Syria and Ukraine, but they were more interested in football,” Doyle said. “Now we have around 25 from Pakistan and Afghanistan who want to play cricket.

“They tell us crazy stories about escaping from the Taliban. They are here for a better life and to support families back at home who haven’t had the opportunity to escape their war-torn countries.

“We’ve had a couple of them who have played the professional game. One of them could have played for a county team, but he hasn’t got his papers yet. They are not allowed to work while they are seeking asylum.”

Essex have supported Changing Lives by supplying equipment in the shape of kit and clothing, bats, balls, gloves and helmets, as well as initially funding sessions and hosting a tournament against Southend University at the Cloud County Ground.

“Our pathway plan is to get them into a league,” says Doyle. “We only started in January and were a bit late applying to join a league this year, so we’re using this season to train and get friendlies where we can.”

Wakman has also been able to play for a team in the London League. In a recent game he claimed four wickets.
“I was player of the match,” he says proudly.

Essex will celebrate the work carried out by Changing Lives and other local charities, companies and projects at the Engaging Eagles Community Night as part of their home Vitality Blast game against Sussex Sharks on Tuesday, June 6.

The team will be guests of the Club on Tuesday evening with a chance to hear more about the great work carried out by Changing Lives charity.