By David Nagel
Cardinia (5/331dec) opener Morteza Ali (154 not out) added another thrilling chapter to an incredible life-story on Saturday; leading the Bulls to an impregnable position against Devon Meadows (1/15) at Glover Reserve.
Ali’s century – off 212 balls and including 19 fours and five sixes – has the roller-coasting-riding Bulls in prime position to win back-to-back games for the first time this season.
But to fully appreciate Ali’s century – and a magnificent career that has spanned first-class cricket in England and delivered a Wookey Medal with Narre South in DDCA Turf 1 in 2019/20 – the following words need to be fully understood and absorbed.
“In 2001, the Taliban attacked our village and killed everyone in my family,” Morteza explained.
“I was with my uncle at the shop, so I was away from my village helping – I was a bit away from our village, so when I heard, I couldn’t go back, because the village was under attack.”
Everything changed in the small village of Dah Mardah that day.
The long story could fill this page 1000 times over, but the short version would see Morteza ride in an empty oil-tanker to escape his native Afghanistan; through Pakistan, through Russia, and finally to England; a 370-day journey that changed the 15-year-old’s life forever.
He met Roger Mitty, his foster father and president of the Cunmor Cricket Club, and began to explore his love and passion for the game.
“I only played tape-ball cricket; had never played hard-ball cricket before,” Morteza said.
“Roger Mitty and his son were like a family to me, they supported me a lot, give me some coaching, and soon I was off to a County cricket club.”
Morteza would make his first-class debut in April 2009, for Oxford MCCU against Worcestershire, becoming the third Afghan player; behind Mumtaz Habib and Mohammad Nabi to play first-class cricket in England.
“I had no British Passport, so I would be classed as an international player and clubs weren’t prepared to do that; I came out of the system for that reason.”
In 2013, after a decade in the UK, Morteza made his way to Australia, after a planned return visit to his homeland was deemed to be too dangerous.
“I had a friend who said ‘If you can’t go to Afghanistan, come to Australia’, and I thought, why not.
“I came here; and Cranbourne approached me, but things fell through from their end at the last minute.
“I contacted Narre South, enjoyed my time there and then went back to England.
“Narre South offered me to come back again; I met an Afghani girl and got married, and I stayed here.”
Morteza would have one season at Seaford in 2015/16, but would otherwise spend eight seasons at Narre South between 2013/14 and 2021/22.
He made 2854 runs at an average of 32, and took 162 wickets along the journey.
He made 457 runs and took 28 wickets in his Wookey Medal winning season.
“They are great guys at Narre South; when I came to Australia they welcomed me with open arms and I still have very good friends there today,” he said.
“I love the people there, but with business and family commitments I decided it was time to give synthetic cricket a try.
“Alex Nooy (Cardinia) had contacted me for quite a few years while I was at Narre South, and the year I started up my business is when I decided to make the change.
“I met with Cardinia, really liked the club, and that’s how it all began.”
The now 37-year-old took time to adjust last season, his first on synthetic, making just two half centuries, before unleashing his very best against an unsuspecting Pakenham in the semi-final.
Opening the batting on day one, Morteza crunched a magnificent 134 to lead the Bulls to an unassailable 9/371.
That win over the Lions qualified them for the big dance, which ended badly against Kooweerup.
Morteza has continued his match-winning ways this season; smacking 99 not out against Carlisle Park in round four, before his epic innings on the weekend.
“Last year I didn’t seem to get the rub of the green that much,” he said.
“There were a lot of innings where I was involved in very close calls, and it always seemed to go the wrong way.
“It was the same in England the first few years, then at Narre South, where it takes time for things to balance out.
“It became disheartening last year, but I worked hard leading into the finals and it all turned around.
“I played a lot table tennis before the semi-final, to get my hand-eye coordination working, and badminton as well, for the same reason.
“I have done the same this year, and it seems to be working well.”
The Bulls’ number-one carver of cricket balls is continually looking to improve.
“If I play for a club, I want to improve myself all the time so I can help take the club forward,” he said.
“I have family, I have business, but my motivation is to always give my best.
“If you get results, it makes you think I am not wasting my time, and the club feels better as well.
“The club has hopes for me, expectations, so if I don’t do well I feel like I’m letting them down.”
Morteza definitely has the overall club picture in mind.
“It’s funny you ask, because one hour I go I texted (Cardinia coach) Bradey Welsh, with a few ideas which I think can help the club,” he explained.
“I do this because I love these guys, and if I can provide a few tips to make players better, why wouldn’t I do that.
“I have so much experience, and I’m happy to share that in some way, even though I don’t have the time to do that fully right now.”
The hard-hitting opener believes the Bulls have a great core of youngsters that can take the club back to glory.
“When I was playing in England, we had so many international players; Saqlain Mushtaq was playing with me, and I was the only one with only first class experience,” he said.
“But we never succeeded, because we had too many stars, so I always tell clubs not to go for too many big names…because it’s hard to manage everything well.
“This year, it’s very good.
“Cardinia has a lot of good young players, very talented young guys, but because of the big names they maybe didn’t have the chance to do well.
“Those young guys are coming good and, with a bit of fine tuning, will only get better.
“The young guys are eager to learn and when I say something they show me respect and listen, which gives me a boost and makes me realise I am in the right place.”
Morteza said he had no plans on giving the game away soon.
“Cricket has given me so much, from nothing, cricket has given me everything,” he said.
“I lost my family in Afghanistan, but cricket gave me new great people in my life.
“Roger Mitty and Neil Burns in England, and I even met Steve Waugh through this game.
“He took my address and sent me a book, a signed copy, which I still have with me today.
“I had no cricket gear, and used to walk one-and-a-half hours from Oxford to Cunmor to practice, and then walk home again after training.
“The game has given me so much; it keeps me fit, and keeps me driven with motivation.
“I will keep playing as long as I can play…and then after that I will continue to tell my story.”
And what a story it is…now with another thrilling chapter to be told!