Afghan immigrants to Germany started playing cricket to remember home. Now, they are also driving a revolution
Even though cricket in Germany dates back to 1858, the European country hasn’t quite taken to the sport with gusto
When a heartbroken Farooq Amirie set off from Afghanistan towards Europe, he wanted to end up in Ireland. For over two months, he continued on the harrowing journey westwards, hitchhiking when he could, walking when he had to. He crossed six countries—Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary and Austria—and traversed more than 6,000km by road to reach Passau, Germany.
Apart from escaping the strife in his home country and running away from the misery of the refugee camps in Peshawar, Pakistan, Amirie sought the greener pastures of Ireland since it would help his cricket career bloom.
“I had set off alone, leaving my family behind, some in Afghanistan and some in Peshawar," says the 31-year-old from Herat, who now lives in Hanover. “But you make friends along the way. I wanted to go to Ireland because they have a good set-up for cricket. But five of the guys I had travelled with wanted to stay back in Germany for better job opportunities, so I thought I would too."
Even though cricket in Germany dates back to 1858—when the first cricket club was founded in Berlin—the European country hasn’t quite taken to the sport with gusto. Cricket may not have been the reason Amirie, and thousands of Afghans like him, came to Germany, but it is helping them carve an identity in a new country. A wave of immigrants, mainly refugees, from Afghanistan has engulfed German cricket and is leading it to a brighter future.
“It certainly is helping us gain an identity here," says Muslim Yar Ashraf, an Afghan immigrant who plays for the German national team. “But cricket is not very popular here, which is what we want to make it."
During the 2015 refugee crisis, a record 1.3 million migrants applied for asylum in the 28 countries of the European Union, Norway and Switzerland. The Afghan community in Germany swelled from over 75,000 in 2014 to more than 250,000 in 2016.
“In the last four years, about 180,000 Afghans have come to Germany as refugees, fleeing from the Taliban," says Brian Mantle, CEO of Deutscher Cricket Bund (DCB, or German Cricket Federation) on the phone. “They arrived in Germany, all male, all young and all cricket fans. It is a strange situation in Afghanistan. Thirty years ago, there was no cricket there. The Afghans learnt cricket in refugee camps in Pakistan. They went back to Afghanistan and took the game with them. Now they are coming to Germany and they are bringing cricket to Germany."
The sharp rise in numbers tells its own story. The number of cricket clubs has grown from 70 in 2011 to 350 and counting. From 1,500 players then, the DCB now has over 6,000 registered cricketers. Cricket is still a sport mainly played by Asians in Germany, but the Afghans claim a lion’s share.
In the last international tournament that Germany, an associate member of the International Cricket Council (ICC), played (the T20 World Cup Europe Region Final in June), there were five players of Afghan origin in a squad of 14. SG Findorff, the club that represented Germany in the maiden European Cricket League in July and made it all the way to the final, had five players with an Afghan background. When Kummerfelder Sportverein (KSV) won the highest division—Bundesliga—title on 25 August, there were seven Afghans in the playing eleven. Leading the side was former Afghanistan international Izatullah Dawlatzai, who now plays for the German national team.
For the Afghans, who have broken away from the homeland, cricket has served as an important building block in piecing their lives together.
“If you come from another country, you always need something from home," adds Mantle. “It might be the language or the food or a hobby, in this case sport. When they arrive, if they are refugees, they are not allowed to work immediately. They have nothing to do, except maybe go to German classes to learn the language. They have no family here. They identify themselves through their cricket teams."
Ahmed Hamid Wardak, who led SG Findorff to the final in the European Cricket League and was the man of the match for Germany in their first T20 international (versus Belgium in May), came to Germany as a legal immigrant in 2012 and has seen the impact his countrymen are having on cricket in Germany.
“The first cricket club I joined in Germany was in Oldenburg," says the 31-year-old. “I still remember we used to take four girls with us to make up a side of eleven.
“This cricket boom is great. It has changed cricket in Germany; the way it was seen or the way it was being played. It’s mostly because of the young Afghans who have come here. They have injected the team with energy and fitness. The average age used to be 35-36 years when I started playing. Now the sides are much younger, much fitter and much more skilful."
“Being in Germany and trying to integrate in this system, especially if you don’t know the language, is not that easy," says Wardak, who works as an interpreter for federal offices. “Based on the people I know, cricket is the only thing that keeps them going."
Though they are spread across the country, the cricket-loving Afghans gravitate towards each other, searching and finding cricket clubs through the internet and social media. The facilities are still not the best: Most cricket matches are played in parks or football fields, on roll-up astro-turf wickets. The DCB has provided some financial aid to the clubs, through sponsors and funds given by the ICC, to procure cricket equipment.
“When I first started playing cricket in Germany, I didn’t even have a bat," says 23-year-old Asad Dawodkhel, who was part of the title-winning KSV team. The middle-order batsman had taken the arduous road to Europe after he discovered that his “life was in danger" in Afghanistan. He travelled via road to Pakistan, then Turkey, where he had to take up odd jobs because he ran out of money. The youngster was detained in Greece for three months, then asked to leave the country within 21 days. Through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, he made his way to Hamburg, Germany, in late 2014.
“I had no money. So I used to borrow a kit from an Indian called Murali Krishna and play cricket," says Dawodkhel, who, like most Afghans, is a hard-hitting batsman.
“I did want to play for the German national team," says Dawodkhel. “That was the plan a year ago. But I don’t think I can concentrate on cricket any more. My father and brother passed away some time ago in a car accident and I have to financially help my family now."
His family, back in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, includes his mother, his sister-in-law and her five children. Even though a well-paying job is his priority, Dawodkhel says he will never stop playing cricket, even if it’s just for some weekend fun.
“Cricket is a passion, I can’t leave it," echoes Amirie, who secured a job with DHL (a subsidiary of Deutsche Post) recently. “I tell all my friends, even those left behind at home to never leave cricket. For us in the refugee camps, there are a lot of worries. Cricket helps keep the darkness away."
Amirie, an all-rounder, left Peshawar after a club he had enrolled in refused to give him a chance. “I went there for four days, they didn’t let me bowl or bat," he recalls. “They didn’t even ask me what I was good at. My heart broke that day. That’s when I decided I will go towards Europe to find a place that can help my cricket."
Even as Amirie, who also plays for SG Findorff, was making plans to leave home, cricket was booming in Afghanistan. They won their first match in a cricket World Cup in February 2015 and achieved full Test status in June 2017.
“Our country has been at war for more than 40 years," says Amirie. “For a nation like ours to succeed in international cricket is amazing. It makes me proud. Now the whole world knows how Afghanistan plays cricket. Maybe we can replicate that success in Germany. We are fit; we work hard. After that, we will get whatever is in our destiny."
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.
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