The most played sport in Qatar is nowhere near the country’s glitzy, air-conditioned stadiums.
Cricket is king among the migrant workers who make up most of the energy-rich emirate’s population, and Friday is game day.
At dozens of grass-free pitches in the shadow of construction sites where many migrants work, laborers from all over South Asia gather to play on their one free day of the week. The stadium hosting the world track and field championship, and the arenas for the 2022 soccer World Cup, are at best distant lights on the horizon.
On a patch of rocky ground near luxury hotels and a private school, Rakim’s team of Bangladeshis and Nepalis faces a team that has borrowed a work bus to drive in from the suburbs.
The wicket is smooth concrete, poured in secret at night years ago by construction workers. The bats are imported, costly, prized possessions. The ball was made for tennis, and is tightly wrapped in red tape to add weight.
They play early in the morning and just before sunset to avoid the hottest part of the day, when temperatures climb well above 38 Celsius.
Most of the players work grueling hours in the heat six days a week. Friday, the Muslim day of prayer and rest, is their only chance to play, says Rakim, a Bangladeshi electrician who didn’t give a family name. They watch games on TV from back home, where many have families they rarely see.
“We cannot go to the national team. We can only enjoy this game, and we are happy,” he said. “Today we have a holiday, so we can play.”
Events like the World Cup or world track championships may as well be in another world. “Those who have good opportunities go to the stadium, but we are normal people. We don’t have opportunities,” Rakim added.
Amid cries from the players in Bengali of “shabash,” or “well done,” 19-year-old Somundra watches the game. He arrived last year from Nepal, where cricket is far behind soccer in popularity, to work as an office “tea boy” in Qatar.
The rocky ground, strewn with construction trash, rules out soccer for migrant workers who risk financial hardship if they get injured, so he’s learning cricket by watching the games. Qatar could be the birthplace of a future Nepali international team, jokes Rakim.
Learning the game means batting, bowling, and fielding. When team numbers vary and attendance is uncertain, everyone’s an all-rounder.
A few hundred meters away, a group of Sri Lankans play a friendly contest, more of a training session for an upcoming match in one of the several tournaments migrants organize. The team’s star is a construction surveyor with experience of district-level club cricket back home.
Beyond that, there’s another game. A few streets away, yet more. In the country pitching itself as soccer’s World Cup host, cricket has taken root first.