Sydney: A shared love of cricket is helping a Twenty20 team of Sri Lankan asylum seekers break down barriers and build relationships in Australia, even with some of the most fervent supporters of the country`s hardline immigration policies.
The team`s name, Ocean 12, is a tongue-in-cheek reference to how the players first arrived in Australian waters, part of a wave of Tamils who made the journey to Christmas Island on overcrowded, rickety boats.
Opening batsman Praveen Uruthiran described the journey as "horrible, starving, no water, big waves," during a telephone interview with Reuters. He said it cost him $2,000 and involved 22 days at sea with 120 other people.
Like his team mates, Uruthiran ended up in the Villawood Detention Centre in Western Sydney with hundreds of other asylum seekers, unable to work or study, while their applications were processed.
Some of the team had been in the centre since arriving in Australian waters six or seven years previously when Last Man Stands, who run eight-a-side leagues around the world, started running a competition for detainees.
They then struck upon the idea of organising an "exit side" made up of asylum seekers who had been released from the centre on restrictive temporary protection visas to play in the main Sydney league.
"I remember when these guys first came out of the detention centre and they first got involved in the competition, they were all really shy, their English was poor, they had no confidence at all. The early games they played, they really weren`t a good side. I remember playing against them the first couple of times and you could see the talent was there but they didn`t have the confidence to really express themselves on the cricket pitch," recalled Last Man Stands organiser Rob Stevenson.
Stevenson said that changed when they began to build friendships.
"But as a result of playing together, training together, making new friends, feeling more part of Australia, they have really emerged into an exceptional cricketing side and it`s brilliant to see," he added.
The team showed impressive improvement over the first two years and in March Ocean 12 became champions of Sydney.
Team captain Stephen Nathan, an engineer, left Sri Lanka in the wake of the conclusion of the country`s civil war.
"It`s very, very hard to live in Sri Lanka because of the government and the army, the situation is very difficult in Sri Lanka, yep. It`s very dangerous by boat but we have to come by boat, that`s the only way." Nathan recalled of his journey from Sri Lanka, who is still unable to work in Australia under the terms of his visa.
"We are really enjoying cricket and we love cricket as well, yeah," he said after Ocean 12 had beaten a Primary Club charity select side by 84 runs on the back of an 18-ball half century from Praveen.
"When we play with them [Australian teams] we really enjoy and we respect them, they respect us, that`s the game, so we like them, we enjoy, we really enjoy, yeah," Nathan said.
"I just want to keep enjoying [cricket] and like, it`s giving peace of mind," he added.
Praveen added that the cricket helped him as well.
"Sometimes is coming nightmare also but the cricket I enjoy then I forget all this," Praveen said.
Stevenson said the team had become one of the most popular.
"When these guys first joined the comp, they play out in far Western Sydney, and there`s a lot of guys out there, white Australian guys who pretty much have a poor opinion of asylum seekers and the whole boat people situation but what`s happened over time, these guys come to games, they bring along food, they back up for other teams, they help out other teams, they`re always polite and now they are by far our most popular team in Western Sydney and all the other teams love them so it`s great to see sport basically transcending political and social boundaries and all these other Aussies just now seeing them as just like them really - they love cricket like every Aussie does so that`s brilliant to see," Stevenson said.
The teams are helped financially by Blue Mountains Refugee Support and Last Man Stands.