• Ram Khanal celebrates during the 2015 Bhutanese Ashes. (Supplied)
"It doesn't matter what your cultural background is, what language you speak, what food you eat, you come together because you have one thing in common - your love for this sport."
By
Alyssa Braithwaite

15 Sep 2017 - 2:45 PM  UPDATED 15 Sep 2017 - 2:46 PM

Ram Khanal didn't grow up with a love of cricket. In fact, Khanal didn't have much time for fun and games at all when he was young.

He was born in a refugee camp. He learnt to walk and talk in a refugee camp, and spent the first 16 years of his life there.

His parents were members of Bhutan's ethnic Nepalese minority group, the Lhotshampa, and were forced to flee the country fearing persecution and the ethnic cleaning policy of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck.

Life in the UN refugee camp was "hellish", recalls Khanal.

"It wasn't so much about living, it was mostly surviving," he tells SBS.

"Every day was about getting through the day and there's nothing to look forward to. We spent the days worrying about what might happen tomorrow, worrying about whether you have enough to eat when you go back home."

In 2009 his family got the chance to settle in Australia.

It was with a mixture of excitement and nerves that the Khanals moved to a new country where they didn't know the language or the culture, and made their home in Albury, NSW.

Khanal was determined to embrace his new country, and make a success of his life.

"I thought if I work hard, if I have a positive mindset and if I give it my best shot, I could one day potentially end up doing something I've always wanted to do, which was to become a doctor," he says.

Since then Khanal has been named dux of his high school, completed a Bachelor of Medical Science at Australian National University, been named Albury City's young citizen of the year 2016, and is now in his first year of studying to become a doctor at the University of Wollongong. He's also making good on his goal to embrace Australian culture - through cricket.

"I knew about cricket, but we didn't play it," Khanal says. "I always thought cricket was a very stupid sport." 

Then his brother sent him a Big Bash League highlights reel. He saw the sixes and fours being smashed and the crowd going wild and thought it looked like fun.

But it wasn't until he watched the 2013/14 Ashes, when Australia scored a 5-0 whitewash over England that Khanal's love for the game was cemented.

So he decided to see if he could build a cricket team, full of all his old friends from the refugee camp who were now settled in Australia.

Since 2007 Australia has resettled 5554 Bhutanese refugees, according to the UNHCR.

"I spoke to a couple of my friends and said, 'hey guys look we're playing soccer obviously, and it's been successful. But that's not really the sport that's going to get us integrated in the community. We have to play a sport that is the number one sport in Australia - it's cricket!'," Khanal recalls.

"My friends were all keen. We started with five or six guys, a couple of us chipped in $15-$20 each and bought a couple of balls and a bat. We had one bat in between all of us, and that's how it began."

Two years later and the Bhutanese Ashes is now made up of 75 players from teams in Cairns, Adelaide, Albury, Sydney and Tasmania, who are all from Bhutan and most of whom grew up in the same refugee camp.

This summer that figure looks set to climb to 100, with a team from Brisbane and a second Tasmanian team joining the ranks.

Khanal says playing cricket together is not only a chance to get together with friends and catch up on each other's lives, it's also a way for them to connect with other Australians. 

"There is a great potential for sharing culture, understanding each other, benefiting from each other and cricket does precisely that," he says.

"It doesn't matter what your cultural background is, what language you speak, what food you eat, you come together because you have one thing in common - your love for this sport."

According to the latest Cricket Australia census, the number of multicultural participants is on the rise, with 241,105 multicultural players taking part in cricket in 2016/17 - an increase of 28.4 per cent on the previous year.

In April, Khanal was named 'Ambassador of the Year' at Cricket Australia's first "A Sport for All Community Cricket Awards" in Melbourne.

"It was a recognition for our interest, our enthusiasm, to play the greatest sport of this country and our keen interest to be part of the community and how little it may be to spread the message of harmony and cultural cohesion," he says.

"I think we've succeeded to some extent." 

He harbours a hope that one day some of the players from the Bhutanese Ashes will make it to the Australian Cricket Team, and represent the country.

"You never know. You can always dream big, it doesn't cost anything," he says.

But he also admits it's unlikely to be him.

"You know they say if you can't bat or bowl you're an all-rounder? I'm an all-rounder," he says with a laugh.

"I'm a hopeless cricketer and I can never get any better than that, but it doesn't really bother me. I love it when I'm on the field."

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