In 2013, Safiullah Ahmed Zai left his family and home in Kandahar. He was barely 17 years old and his life was under threat. He travelled through Russia, Ukraine and Austria, before reaching Germany (of the rest of the route and the countries he crossed, he remembers little). “It was mostly dark and we were travelling through jungles,” he says. To send him to safety, his family had to sell their two homes. Now, his parents, brother and sister have moved to a rented house in Kabul.
There were seven other young men from Afghanistan who made the journey with him, handed over from one group of refugee smugglers to another. Through the night, they would be on the move, sometimes trapped in a vehicle for 18 hours and sometimes walking for more than 10 hours. In the day, they were made to hide in abandoned and darkened houses.
It took him 36 days to complete the journey. He was incredibly lucky, he says. He could have been stopped at any of the borders, stranded for months, or even worse, sent back home. He now plays cricket for the German Under-19 team, as he prepares for his ausbildung (vocational training course).
Zai's friend Saied Sadat, 19, has been in Germany for the last seven months. He is from the Laghman province of Afghanistan, a region dominated by the Taliban. It took him a month to reach here through Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia. As he waits for his paperwork to be processed, he can neither study, nor apply for a job for another year. He lives in a refugee camp, which he admits he does not like and has nothing to fill his day apart from learning German language and playing cricket.
Zia and Sadat both point out towards their friend Ismatullah Khan. “My name is Khan,” he says, with a smile and a wave. The reference to the Bollywood movie evokes laughter from everyone. Khan has a story that is almost unbelievable. Although he made it from Afghanistan to Germany, soon after getting here, he fell off a third-floor balcony and was in coma for six months. Khan does not like to talk about his past and blocks any questions on it. He concentrates only on throwing the ball with precision and aggression.
All three men, far away from home, restricted by language, isolated in a foreign culture, confined in refugee camps, uncertain of the future, have found a way to make their life bearable: through cricket.
We are sitting on a patch of grass in a bucolic area in the city of Hamburg, where its most popular cricket club, the Tennis Hockey and Cricket Club, or ThCC, is located. It’s the beginning of summer and the outdoor practice season. A group of young men are practicing in the nets. There are expats from England, India, Pakistan, Australia, South Africa, but the contingent from Afghanistan is the biggest in number. The coach, Steve Aplin, a sporty middle-aged man from the UK, who works as a physicist, is thrilled that cricket finally has some takers in Germany.
ThCC has 125 members and there are four other cricket clubs that have come up in Hamburg in recent times. “It’s like the ’80s, when there was a boom for tennis in Germany, at the time of Boris Becker and Steffi Graf. Everyone was playing tennis then, and now no one does,” says Aplin. It could be a similar moment for cricket with “new blood coming in”, he adds.
The upsurge of interest in cricket in a football-crazy nation is an aspect of the refugee influx that is being discovered only now. Cricket clubs are sprouting in cities across all parts of the country and the Deutscher Cricket Bund, or German Cricket Board, finds itself overwhelmed by enquiries every day from more people wanting to set up clubs. Brian Mantle, CEO of DCB, says there are more than a hundred cricket clubs all over the country and the board is waiting to register nearly 40 more. In terms of number of players, from 1,500 in 2012, there are now over 4,000. He estimates that the number could go up to 10,000 in the next two or three years.
Can this raise the profile of the game in the country? Mantle says it will be unrealistic for Germany to expect to compete with the best. Germany is an associate member of the International Cricket Council, which provides most of the funding for the DCB. The board’s target is not to be the number one team, but for the sport to grow and for people to have the opportunity to play if they want to. “We have a lot of talent coming in, but we need state support for it to be harnessed,” says Rishi Pillai, who captains Germany for European Championships. Cricket is a part-time passion for him. He works full-time as a research associate.
Cricket in Germany has a chequered past. The earliest record of it dates back to 1850, and from 1891 onwards, cricket matches were organised by the German Football and Cricket Association in Leipzig, an association that preceded the almighty Bundesliga. Before the Second World War, cricket buffs and historians reckon there were nearly 50 cricket teams in Berlin. But the war changed that, as cricket’s association with England affected its popularity. Besides, Hitler was known to be no fan of cricket. He found it too slow and unmanly. He famously advocated that batsmen should not be allowed to wear pads and is supposed to have come up with a formula to reinvigorate the sport, “Ohne hast, ohne rast”. Without haste. Without rest.
After the war, cricket was brought back by the British troops, but it is only in recent years, as Germany has become a country of immigration from all over the world (which precedes the recent refugee inflow from Pakistan and Afghanistan), and specifically the Indian subcontinent, that it revived.
For the average German though, cricket is a remote idea. Some confuse it with croquet and others with polo. A tenth grader, when asked to react to cricket, says, “It’s a sport watched by old people who have nothing else to do.” Where? “In England and in India.”
That there is cricket in Germany is news also for those who are seeking refuge here. Arif Jamal is one of the rising stars and captain of the Alterdorf 09 Blue Tigers, a club in the western city of Essen. When he came here six years ago, from Afghanistan, he had no idea that the possibility of playing cricket could exist. The social worker at his refugee camp saw him watching cricket online and looked up a club for him.
“We learnt cricket on the streets while growing up. I never had a bat and played with a wooden stick. But finding it here was like finding home again. Cricket took me away from depression, for a few hours every day it made me forget my troubles,” he says. Since the sport is popular even with the Taliban, it has flourished, and for young refugees like Jamal, Afghanistan’s national team, which beat the eventual champions West Indies in the recent Twenty20 World Cup, gives them something to cheer about.
Jamal is now trying to give back in a way. He’s started a new club only for Afghan refugees in Essen. It already has over 60 members. “When they first come here, they stay in camps, they have nothing to do, no one to talk to. Cricket makes them forget their sadness and their worries.”
Sunaina Kumar is a Delhi-based journalist and Medienbotschafter Fellow, 2016.