Pitch perfect

Cricket is giving comfort to Indian and Pakistani immigrants in an increasingly xenophobic Europe

In Rome, the Piazza Vittorio club has been known through its long history to fight racism and segregation through cricket.

On a sunny Tuesday in April, it is harder than usual to order an espresso at Red Court – a restaurant and bar in the Torpignattara neighbourhood of Rome. People are crowded around a television, taking breaks to cheer or tap fervently at the table. In Rome, with its history of football fandom, this is a familiar scene – but the fuss today is for another sport: Bangladesh and India are playing a Test series, and India has won by 208 runs. There is triumph among the smaller Indian groups, sighs of resignation disperse through the Bangladeshis, but soon the bar dissolves into applause as a group of young men walk out triumphantly with cricket bats.

“One day I will also bat like MS Dhoni,” said Arif, 21, a Bangladeshi immigrant in Rome, as he put on his gloves for a match that afternoon. Arif and his team are competing with a rival from a neighbouring district, for which they have paved a pitch on empty space next to the bar. Even though the official cricket season in the city only lasts for five months, through the year, young men planting wickets in old dump yards are not an unusual sight.

In 2007, a large wave of immigrants had arrived in Italy from countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh. Ever since, the South Asian diaspora has grown rapidly through the country, with most immigrants concentrated in large urban sprawls in Rome. A count showed that by 2013, there were 122,000 Bangladeshis living in Italy with high concentration in the capital.

“It is not easy to integrate into another life when you leave your country,” said Sulaiman, a Pakistani immigrant who works as an umpire in Rome. “But it is good to have something you know, something you recognise, a place to go on Sundays.”

Suleiman, arrived in Rome in 2012, and worked many jobs before he began training as an umpire. “I never got the chance in Pakistan, but here, I am part of cricket,” he said.

Like in most countries in the European Union, integrating into mainstream Italian society has not been easy for young immigrants. Language, lifestyle and prevalent racism in the city pose challenges. With unemployment figures in the country as high as 11%, and in Rome at 7.5%, finding work can be a difficult affair. But even as daily schedules are packed to make ends meet, weekends are reserved for cricket.

Cricket season in Italy begins in April and ends in September – most matches take place under the Roman cricket federation. However, young immigrant players find it difficult to enrol with the federation, where bureaucracy runs rife. Delays in paperwork, high costs of certification, the difficulty and expense in getting local teams registered, mean that most immigrants prefer to register with the Unione Italiana Sport Per Tutti, or the Union of Italian sport for all. Here, all teams – informal and formal – are given the right and space to play.

“Sometimes we had people come to us who had just arrived in Italy and wanted to play, sometimes we had refugees,” said Saad Najam, a Pakistani immigrant and seasoned young cricketer. “With UISP, they can get a chance too.”

The UISP looks at sport as a way of claiming citizenship, providing a platform for those without papers to participate in civil engagement with their new cities. The union recognises the contentions that layered European bureaucracy poses for immigrants, and allows players who may not have complete paperwork to play matches.

“It’s a good way for young newcomers into Italy, to make friends, to start realising slowly that our life here too can be okay,” said Ali Ghulam Abbas, a batsman for one of Rome’s main teams, the Roma Capannelle.

The Ghulam Abbas family is one of the oldest cricket families in Rome, and among the first that organised the sport into a formal tradition. Born to Ghulam Abbas, a Pakistani cricketer, the family plays cricket with a near missionary zeal. Ali’s sisters were leaders of the women’s cricket club, which used to play in matches until two years ago.

“There are some very talented young people here,” he said. “They just need some support, and we can have stars, just like in India and Pakistan.”

While cricket spreads swiftly through the South Asian communities in Rome, young cricketer Shince Thomas wants to take it beyond its boundaries. A 21-year-old, Thomas teaches cricket across schools in Rome, hoping that young Italians will catch the fever. Thomas is also trying to revive one of Rome’s oldest cricket clubs – The Piazza Vittorio.

Named after one of Rome’s largest recreational squares, the Piazza Vittorio has been known through its long history to fight racism and segregation through cricket. The team, envisioned by Italian activists Federico Mento and Mercedes Garcia, gave special focus to forming a team of young boys from different backgrounds, to show them a spirit of unity and integration in sport.

Piazza Vittorio has an adult team of players, as well as cricketers under 16 and 13. Thomas has been a part of all three.

“When I moved to Rome from Kerala, India, I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t understand the language or the lifestyle,” he said. “Then one day, I saw the members of Piazza Vittorio playing in a park. I began playing with them and my whole life changed.”

Between 2008 and 2012, the club travelled around Italy and won almost all the matches they played – earning plenty of positive attention. But around 2014, due to a lack of funding and the transition of its best players into their mid or late twenties, the club began to disintegrate. Along with colleague and teammate Fernando Cateddini, Thomas is trying to revive the club, recruit players and organise funding, but this is proving to be hard.

“It’s hard to convince people and bring attention to cricket in football-crazy Italy,” Thomas said. “But it is an important thing, if we let it go, many people will be disappointed. I work a babysitting job along with studying, and also coach children in cricket, but this money is not enough to hire more coaches and organise spaces to play.”

Like his hero Nelson Mandela, Thomas believes sport can change the world. Cricket, he said, was a great way to spread unity and cohesion within both South Asian and Italian communities in Rome.

Jacopo de Bertoldi, a Rome-based filmmaker who has filmed the club for the past four years, recounted his first encounters with the club. “When I began filming the Piazza Vittorio club, I saw this team, in their black and red uniforms, full of immigrants – and it seemed like a movement, like a peaceful protest for a place in society,” he said. “I saw what I hadn’t seen before, that cricket was some sort of political statement. A way to demand space and an identity in a society where it wasn’t easy to have one.”

de Bertoldi is helping Thomas and Fernando raise money to save the Piazza Vittorio club. The team, a mix of Indian immigrants, Italian sportspersons and the filmmaker, is determined that an investment in cricket can give a voice to many.

Gentleman’s game

Cricket clubs in Rome, unlike back home, are not focused on victories or eventual fame. The clubs in the city engender participation and friendly competition. While India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka battle it out for the position of the best team in the world, the cricketers in Rome are quick to tell you that they are playing with and not against one another.

“In India, we grow up hating Pakistanis, and the Pakistani cricket team,” said Thomas. “But here, I have so many colleagues from Pakistan, we don’t play against one another, but with each other. When I travelled to England, I even lived in my Pakistani’s teammates family home. We are one team – and when we think about everyone back home who think that people on the other side of the border are bad, we laugh.”

For the South Asian diaspora in Rome, cricket exists in various forms. It is everywhere, in a ground set up by an Indian businessman outside the city to host matches, in teams of Indians and Pakistanis playing together and in impromptu cricket pitches and soft-ball tournaments in a land far away from home. The impromptu “pitch” is not a space for nationalism or competition, but a way to make the best of the situation.

“It’s wonderful,” said de Bertoldi. “Cricket, a game of the British empire, is taken by the colonies and brought back to Europe as a way of self expression. This comes at a time in Europe where it is much needed.”

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
__('Sponsored Content') BY 

London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

Play

For more information on special offers on flights to London and other destinations in the UK, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.