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.”

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