Mondial-2022: for migrants from the Gulf, cricket comes before football

At seven o’clock in the morning, at the foot of the skyscrapers of downtown Dubai, nearly 200 expatriates from the Indian subcontinent, tennis bats and balls in hand, indulge in their favorite sport: cricket.

Like every weekend, a dozen informal matches are played in this parking area, located a few steps from the financial center of the wealthy Gulf emirate, under the aerial metro trains and the gaze of police officers, parked a little further .

As neighboring Qatar prepares to host the region’s first World Cup, players in the United Arab Emirates are all about the Twenty20 Cricket World Cup — a newer, accelerated form of traditional cricket — which took place in Australia.

The last game between India and Pakistan in October could have been costly for Faisal, a 35-year-old Indian driver.

« I almost caused an accident, I was watching the match on my phone screen, » he says. « I love cricket so much! »

The Gulf monarchies are home to millions of workers from the Indian subcontinent, whose treatment has earned widespread criticism for the World Cup host nation.

In the United Arab Emirates, where there is an Indian community of 3.5 million people – compared to around one million Emiratis – it is more common to see cricketers in the street than football players.

– « Our own bosses » –

« We follow cricket matches even when we are playing ourselves, » said Dinesh Balani, a 49-year-old Indian expatriate. « We follow this sport at work, in the toilet, anywhere ».

In a corner of the parking lot, children are playing cricket, and a little further, a women’s team is practicing.

Tennis balls, taped over to make them less bouncy, slam into the field, sometimes disappearing under cars parked to the sides.

Real estate worker Dinesh Balani, who has been playing cricket in the streets of Dubai since 1995, has set up a 30-player team, the D-Boys.

According to him, cricket is an escape for many workers in tedious or stressful jobs, which are often poorly paid.

« We are either workers or employees, it’s the only place where we can let off steam, » he says. « No one is there to direct us, we are our own bosses. »

For Amreen Vadsaria, a young woman of Indian origin who grew up in New Zealand, cricket allowed her to « get closer to (her) culture ». « It’s a very important sport in my country, » says the 22-year-old, who says she admires Indian superstar Virat Kohli.

– « Family meeting » –

The Emirates have also left their mark on the world of professional cricket, hosting the matches of the national team of Pakistan, which for years was deprived of international competitions on its soil following the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore.

In 2020 and 2021, the prestigious Indian Premier League (IPL) was exceptionally held in the oil-rich Gulf state, which also hosted the Twenty20 World Cup last year, as well as several Asian Cups.

In Dubai, still under construction, street cricket is moving from corner to corner of the city, as wastelands are replaced by tower blocks and shopping malls.

But the players are not about to pick up their bats.

« It’s an integral part of our life, » says Dinesh Balani, who has been passionate about this game since the age of 5.

“Friendship bonds are formed between the players, as well as between their families and their children,” he says.

For him, these matches are « like a big family reunion ».

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