Expat workers play cricket in a parking lot in the Gulf emirate of Dubai – Copyright AFP Giuseppe CACACE
It’s 7:00am in Dubai, and as the sun peeks over the skyscrapers, it reveals a lively scene below: about 200 people, mostly men, wielding bats and taped-up tennis balls at a weekly festival. street cricket.
About a dozen informal games take place in a parking lot near the city’s financial district, as subway trains glide over a bridge and police watch from a parked van, wary of players bringing alcohol or misbehave
Every weekend, these games are played on free grounds in the Gulf region, which is home to millions of migrant workers and expatriates from cricket-loving South Asia.
And even as the Gulf, namely Qatar, prepares to host the first soccer World Cup on Arab soil, another tournament dominated the conversation among players in Dubai: cricket’s Twenty20 World Cup, taking place in Australia.
Faisal, a 35-year-old Pakistani who drives for a living, followed the tournament so avidly that he nearly fell off during India’s tense victory over Pakistan in October.
“I almost had an accident: I was looking at my phone, the India-Pakistan game,” he said. “We really love cricket.”
There is no doubt which is the main sport among migrant workers from the Gulf, whose treatment has been in the spotlight in the build-up to the World Cup in Qatar.
Street cricket can often be seen in Dubai, much more commonly than football.
That’s a result of the large number of South Asians in the region, including some 3.5 million Indians in the United Arab Emirates.
They make up around a third of the residents, dwarfing the native population of around a million.
“We keep seeing the results while playing cricket,” said Indian expatriate Dinesh Balani, 49. “While we work, in the bathroom or anywhere, we follow cricket.”
– ‘Our own bosses’ –
As the November morning warms, more players arrive, carrying paper cups of karak tea, a Gulf specialty, and bags of bats and plastic wickets falling from cars.
A child’s game is in progress in one corner of the parking lot, while in another, a women’s team undergoes a training session.
Tape-wrapped tennis balls, so they bounce less, which better mimics leather cricket balls for bowling and batting, hurtle down the lane, crash into sidewalks and roll under parked cars.
Balani, who works in real estate, said he has been playing street cricket in Dubai since 1995. He runs a team, the D-Boys, with 30 players on the roster.
He said that for many workers, often with boring or stressful jobs, cricket is an important outlet.
“Many of us are between white-collar workers and blue-collar workers,” Balani said.
“So they have to go through a lot in the week. They hear a lot of things from bosses and managers,” she added.
“But this is the only place where we let off steam. There is no one to command us. We are our own bosses.”
Amreen Vadsaria, 22, who grew up in New Zealand and plays for the women’s team, says India’s Virat Kohli is her favorite player. She can’t name any footballer.
“I grew up outside of India and was never very interested in cricket. But I think (playing street cricket) has made me want to follow cricket more,” she said.
“And because it’s such a big thing in my country in India, I think it’s brought me closer to my culture.”
– ‘Family reunites’ –
The players and their games have an itinerant history, moving from place to place as Dubai’s breakneck development turns its makeshift cricket grounds into high-rises and shopping malls.
Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates has become a fixture in professional cricket, hosting Pakistan’s home matches for a decade after a 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore.
India’s glitzy IPL Twenty20 competition moved to the United Arab Emirates for two years during the Covid-19 pandemic, with the oil-rich country also hosting last year’s World Cup Twenty20, along with several Asian Cups.
While the UAE’s South Asian population ensures a fan base ready for big tournaments, the weekly cricket also acts as a glue for the community, according to Balani.
“This is what we have done since we were five years old. We started playing and have never stopped since,” she said.
“It’s an integral part of our life… we became friends in cricket and then our families became friends and then our children became friends and so on,” Balani added.
“So this is not just cricket, it’s also like a family reunion for us,” he said.