As the World Cup looms in Qatar, street cricket reigns supreme for migrant workers from the Gulf

As the World Cup looms in Qatar, street cricket reigns supreme for migrant workers from the Gulf


It’s 7am in Dubai and as the sun peeks out over the skyscrapers below is an animated scene: around 200 people, mostly men, swinging racquets and taped tennis balls at a weekly street cricket festival.

A dozen or so informal games are taking place in a parking lot near the city’s financial district, while subway trains glide across a bridge and police look on from a parked SUV, wary of players bringing alcohol or otherwise behave badly.

Such matches are played every weekend in open spaces across the Gulf region, home to millions of migrant workers and expatriates from cricket-loving South Asia.

And while the Gulf, namely Qatar, is gearing up to host the first soccer World Cup on Arab soil, another tournament has been dominating the talks among players in Dubai: the Twenty20 Cricket World Cup, being held in Australia.

Faisal, a 35-year-old Pakistani driver who is a professional driver, was so avidly following the tournament that he nearly fell during India’s tense win over Pakistan in October.

“I almost had an accident – I was watching the India-Pakistan game on my phone,” he said. “We really love cricket.”

There is no question which is the most important sport among the Gulf’s migrant workers, whose treatment has been in the spotlight ahead of the World Cup in Qatar.

Street cricket is often seen in Dubai, much more so than football.

This is due to the large number of South Asians in the region, including an estimated 3.5 million Indians in the United Arab Emirates.

They make up about a third of the population, dwarfing the native population of around one million.

“We look at the results while we’re playing cricket,” said Indian expat Dinesh Balani, 49. “While at work, in the bathroom or anywhere else, we watch cricket.”

– ‘Our own bosses’ –

As the November morning warms, more players arrive, clutching paper cups of karak tea, a Gulf specialty, and bags of bats and plastic wickets flowing from cars.

A children’s game is taking place in one corner of the parking lot, while in another an all-women’s team undergoes a training session.

Tennis balls wrapped in duct tape — to make them less springy, which better mimics leather cricket balls for bowling and batting — hurtle across the tarmac, bumping over curbs and rolling under parked cars.

Balani, who works in real estate, said he has been playing street cricket in Dubai since 1995. He leads a team, the D-Boys, with 30 players on the roster.

He said cricket is an important outlet for many workers, often with boring or stressful jobs.

“Many of us are somewhere between white-collar workers and blue-collar workers,” Balani said.

“So they have to go through a lot of things in the week. They listen to a lot of things from bosses and managers,” he added.

“But that’s the only place we vent. Nobody is there to command us. We are our own bosses.”

Amreen Vadsaria, 22, who grew up in New Zealand and plays on the women’s team, says India’s Virat Kohli is her favorite player. She can’t name footballers.

“Growing up outside of India I never really had an interest in cricket. But I think[playing street cricket]made me follow cricket more,” she said.

“And because it’s such a big deal in my country in India, I think it brought me closer to my culture.”

– ‘Family meeting’ –

Players and their matches have migratory histories, migrating from place to place as Dubai’s breakneck development transforms its makeshift cricket pitches into high-rises and shopping malls.

Meanwhile, the UAE have become a fixture in professional cricket, hosting Pakistan’s home games for a decade after attacking Sri Lanka’s side in Lahore in 2009.

India’s glittering IPL Twenty20 competition has been relocated to the UAE for two years during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the oil-rich country has also hosted the Twenty20 World Championship as well as several Asian Cups over the past year.

While the UAE’s South Asian population ensures a ready fan base for major tournaments, the weekly cricket also acts as a glue for the community, according to Balani.

“We’ve been doing that since we were five years old. We started playing and haven’t stopped since,” he said.

“It’s an integral part of our lives… we became friends in cricket and then our families became friends and then our children became friends and so on and so forth,” Balani added.

“So this isn’t just cricket, it’s like a family reunion for us too,” he said.

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