How Afghanistan is bringing cricket to Germany
"The Taliban killed my father. There was danger for me too."
Niamatullah, a short but firmly built boy of 17, pauses as he speaks about his journey from Afghanistan to SG Findorff club in Bremen, where he is standing in a corner of the ground, taking a break from Friday-night training. It has been raining, but that was never going to deter him from playing.
Cricket, the sort played with a tape ball in the streets, was intrinsic to Niamatullah's childhood. Growing up in a village in Zurmat, a district in Paktia Province, which borders Pakistan, he played with friends and his brother.
He cannot remember when exactly, but perhaps a decade ago, the Taliban killed his father, who was working in intelligence for the Afghan government. Soon after, his brother also vanished, and nothing has been heard of him since. These details are narrated slowly, in Pashto, and then translated to me.
As the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated, Niamatullah moved to Pakistan in 2013. When he returned to Afghanistan a year later, his uncle and mother decided that the situation was too unsafe for him to remain. "There's a real war going on," he says. "I decided to go anywhere else to get out of Afghanistan."
His entire family wanted to leave too, but the journey out was too dangerous, and the cost too great, for others to join him. His uncle paid a smuggler US$12,000 to organise his trip, and told Niamatullah to reach Germany: "You've got a chance of a better life there."
Niamatullah journeyed across Afghanistan to Iran. Then, he says, he hid in the luggage compartment of a coach to get across Iran. He trekked across the mountainous border into Turkey, going three days without food, and survived long-range shooting from the border guards.
He then hid in the cargo container of a boat for over ten hours as it crossed the Black Sea to Bulgaria. He was now in the European Union at last, but few who make it this far want to stop in Bulgaria, the poorest of the EU's 28 members. Niamatullah still had to cross 1700km to reach Germany. It took him about a month, mostly spent walking through forests where he could not easily be found.
Finally, he arrived late last year, over 12 months after leaving Afghanistan. In Bremen, an industrial city in the north-west, Niamatullah is trying to rebuild his life. Not 18 for another few weeks, he is going to school, and living in a small abode with another refugee, while awaiting the results of his asylum application. The wait is onerous: while Germany has a more welcoming attitude to Afghan refugees than almost any other European country, many Afghans who are granted the right to stay in Germany are forced to move to a different city from the one they first took shelter in, losing the social networks they have built up.
Niamatullah has not talked to his family for six months. "The conditions are not very good there, the telephone doesn't work, because the Taliban always target the networks, so it's hard to get in contact. I always try," he says. The last time he spoke to his family, he heard his brother had been kidnapped.
In these circumstances, cricket might seem futile, but to Niamatullah it is anything but. Most of the friends he has gained are through cricket. Cricket enables him to meet others from Afghanistan, speak Pashto, and play the sport he loves. It is a beacon of hope.
"I wait the whole week for Friday practice," he says, smiling. "It is the day I get the most joy. It is like some people look forward to going to the disco." Niamatullah bowls orthodox offspin - a handy skill, for the German national team lacks a front-line spinner.
If his application for asylum is successful, Niamatullah wants to stay in the country. "Life is pretty good. You have a lot of chances, a lot of opportunities. You can study, you can do anything you want." And, more than anything else, Niamatullah wants to play cricket. He could fulfil the four-year residency qualification in 2019.
"My first target is to finish school and become something, to get a degree. And after, to build a family - and play cricket, obviously," he says. "I am dreaming of playing for Germany. Why not?" Draped in an AC Milan shirt, Niamatullah is not merely an emblem of Afghans playing cricket in Germany, but of something altogether greater: the very ideal of European multiculturalism and integration, both of which are under siege across the continent. "It means a lot for me and the whole Afghan community. This way we get in touch with each other. It is a sport that we need."
There are thousands of tales like Niamatullah's. Of the 476,000 people who applied for asylum in Germany last year, 32,000 were from Afghanistan, and 8000 from Pakistan.
As these refugees have arrived, many, like Niamatullah, have sought joy in cricket. Exactly how many no one knows, but the German Cricket Board (GCB) reckons there are 2000 Afghan refugees now playing regularly for clubs. From 1500 players - defined as those who play regular club cricket - in Germany in 2012, there are now 5000, which does not include thousands playing in locally organised unofficial leagues, often with taped balls or soft balls. The number of teams has risen from 80 to 218 since 2012, and there are now 50 youth teams compared to none five years ago.
Several refugees who sought to continue playing cricket after travelling from Afghanistan have stumbled across SG Findorff. The club, which offers a range of sports, did not even have a cricket team four years ago, until one was set up by Mo and Nisar Tahir, a couple from Pakistan, whose daughters now play for the club too. SG Findorff now has two senior sides, U-19, U-17 and U-15 teams, and a women's side: a microcosm of the revolution in German cricket.
Nestled in the Bremen suburbs, SG Findorff is regarded as one of the best clubs in Germany - friendly, well organised, and renowned for its excellent artificial wicket. Still, these facilities are not really adequate to hone international cricketers. Players have to get changed in a corner of the pitch. There are no proper changing rooms, only an overcrowded storage shed. "All bowlers have to bowl from the same end, to prevent batsmen thrashing balls into the children's playground behind the wicketkeeper.
And the grass is thick enough to hold up some firm shots. It is a typical problem at German grounds: German lawnmowers are not designed to cut grass as thin as is the norm in cricket. The result is to encourage aerial shots, when players grow frustrated with their pristine drives along the ground being held up before the boundary. Some joke that the longer players are in Germany, the worse their batting techniques get.
"Every Afghan story is like a film tragedy." So Hamid Wardak, who translated Niamatullah's story for me, says during Friday evening training. He is well-built, unfailingly polite, and eager to be heard. He recalls his own story in perfect English.
Hamid was born in Kabul in 1988. As the security situation deteriorated, his parents took their four sons to Peshawar in 1991. Across the border from Niamatullah, Hamid would also play cricket with taped balls in the street.
The game remained a constant in his life even as much else changed. In 1999 the family moved to Quetta, a Pakistani city near the Afghan border. Hamid was relatively well off: his father was an archaeologist and his mother a doctor.
In 2003, his father decided to return home, but the rest of the family stayed on in Pakistan, only visiting Afghanistan occasionally. Compared to what they had known, life was good in Quetta, and the boys were enrolled into the prestigious St Francis Grammar School. Hamid was even selected for Quetta U-17s, and continued playing the game when studying at Balochistan University.
In 2010 Hamid and his older brother decided it was safe enough to join their father in Kabul. Hamid was selected for Band-e-Amir Region, a leading domestic team, played under Asghar Stanikzai, who is now Afghanistan's captain, and fondly recalls scoring twin half-centuries in a match against Mohammad Nabi, Stanikzai's predecessor as captain.
But Hamid's cricket hopes soon gave way to a different priority. He met an Afghan woman online, who had moved to Germany as a baby two decades earlier. She visited Afghanistan, the two became engaged, and they married in 2011, setting up a life together in Germany.
While Hamid was studying in Germany, his mother and two younger brothers, Khalid and Rashid, remained in Quetta. She worked as a gynaecologist for the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières, a role that led to threats in one of Pakistan's most staunchly conservative regions. In 2013, she endured a kidnap attempt when she left work one day.
A year later Hamid made a routine phone call to his mum, to find her distraught. She told Hamid his youngest brother had been killed, shot dead by religious fanatics who objected to her work.
A few months ago Hamid learned his father had cancer and did not have long to live. Hamid returned to Kabul as soon as he could, and was there during the World T20, where he watched Afghanistan's narrow defeat to England in a remote village.
"It was unbelievable. There was a really small television in a room, with 100-150 people packed in. Most of them couldn't even watch the game because the TV was so small, but they clapped every run and cheered everything. Cricket is getting really big in Afghanistan."
Hamid's father had never been a fan, but he became a convert seeing his son play five years ago. Even as he battled grave illness, he took joy in Afghanistan's success in the World T20.
When he arrived in Germany, Hamid thought that he was moving to a country that did not know of cricket. He soon craved to play the game that had enthralled him from an early age. He looked for cricket clubs on Facebook and stumbled across Oldenburg Cricket Club, some 75km from his home.
"I was missing the game too much," he says. "I went there for every match." Even so, Oldenburg folded, unable to raise a team any longer, leading Hamid to move to SG Findorff, which is slightly closer to home.
"Cricket means everything to me. I realised it when I came here and didn't play for eight months. I realised it's the only thing that I love to play, and that I can play, and I believe that I'm born to play this game. Obviously the standard of cricket is not that good here in Germany, but still, I'm happy that I'm getting something to play here."
For Afghan refugees in Germany, cricket reminds them of the best of times at home. "Cricket is what the Afghan community love. It brings them together again. They lost their homes, they are here alone, and cricket is like a family for them. They see Afghanistan, their side, right up there with the best. They are the idols, and they just want to be like them."
Off the field, Hamid has a good life. He and his wife live together in Bremerhaven, 65km north of Bremen. While Hamid's wife is a pharmacist, he works in IT and is completing his qualification in computer science. He drives a Ford Focus.
Last year, his wife gave birth to a son. They named him Rashid. "To my mum, he was supposed to be a replacement for my brother."
Hamid is grateful that Germany has been "so generous" in allowing Afghans to make the country their home. "For someone who's come from Afghanistan, a life in Germany is like a dream. You get your rights, you don't have to worry about dying from hunger or getting nothing to wear. The basic life is just wonderful here - there's no comparison."
But he is clear that this is not just philanthropy: Germany will benefit too. "Germany also needs younger people. All these guys are the taxpayers, all these guys are the ones who will pay for the pensions. This is for their own good."
When Hamid returns to the ground the next day, he will face one of the tensest times of his cricketing life. It is the German Super Series, a T20 competition for the six regions that will be used to assess potential candidates for the national team. Three regions, those based in the north of the country, will be playing, with Hamid representing Northern Seals.
It is his big chance. For the players, the ultimate prize is selection for Germany's next ICC event, the Europe Division Two tournament in August. They will expect to win promotion to Division One, and a chance to reach World Cricket League Division Five.
Hamid has played sporadically for Germany since 2012, but never in an ICC tournament. Being part of one is "a great goal" for him. At the end of 2014 he gained a German passport, making him eligible to play in ICC events. Most other Afghans are not so lucky. Those without a German passport must live in the country for four years to be eligible for the national team - ruling out Niamatullah and hundreds of others.
In the Afghans popping up in clubs all over Germany, strengthening existing clubs and forming new ones, lies a remarkable truth. Afghanistan, a nation that did not play an official match until 2004, has now become a country that exports evangelists for the game. That they are helping to spread the game in Germany is apt, because Germany has also done much for Afghan cricket, paying €700,000 towards the construction of a stadium in Khost, in eastern Afghanistan.
The GCB is thrilled, but as chief executive Brian Mantle recently said, "completely overwhelmed". Each week he gets about 30 applications to form new clubs, many from care workers in refugee homes, as well as many more emails from Afghans who just want help finding a club. Since last winter, 20 new grounds have been found through local sports clubs or local councils, of varying quality.
To get by, the GCB has found a German supplier of coconut mats that, when laid out on wooden boards, are serviceable to play on. The Lord's Taverners and other charities have donated equipment to the GCB to pass on to the clubs. But now the board has "nothing more to give," Mantle says.
Mantle, who hails from England, is the GCB's only permanent member of staff: not merely chief executive but responsible for everything, no matter how small, in German cricket. Typical of many administrators in cricket's outposts, he has an infectious enthusiasm for his job, not really regarding it as work at all. That is just as well, for he has much to do.
During the Super Series, it falls to him to make phone calls about why the curry ordered for the players' lunch is half an hour late. More than anything else, the biggest problem is a lack of money to keep up with the increased demand for cricket. Although Germany's basic funding from the ICC increased between 2014-15 and 2015-16, the decrease in regional development funding from the ICC meant that their overall budget actually decreased slightly. Overall they get just over $200,000 a year from the ICC, which has been boosted by an emergency grant of $30,000. "We have no idea how big the potential is, but it is huge," Mantle says. "Ireland and Afghanistan are certainly our role models."
Once they reach 10,000 regular participants, which should be within a year, the GCB will become eligible to receive funding from the German Olympic Committee. And if cricket becomes an Olympic sport, the GCB would stand to receive €1 million a year from the government: about four times its total revenue currently. It would be enough to buy copious amounts of cricket equipment, and to build good-quality new grounds, which are badly needed: every week more teams can't organise matches because there are no grounds free.
As the stories of the Afghan refugees have been covered by several national newspapers, and even CNN, they have encouraged more people in Germany to take up cricket. Andrew, a South African who has just heard about German cricket for the first time, comes to training on Friday. It is his first game of cricket anywhere for a decade. When he's done, he lingers around, knocking in his new bat with great care, delighting in the noise it creates. He is back the next day, to watch the Super Series.
So is Verona, a German schoolteacher who fell in love with cricket during a brief stint teaching in an English school in Windsor. Her friends think her conversion to "the British version of baseball" is curious, but there are signs that her new interest in cricket is slowly being mirrored by other Germans: one-third of those playing for U-15 teams are Germans without links to Afghanistan or any of the Test nations.
A little after 10am on the Saturday morning, Hamid bounds in to deliver the first ball of the day. The Super Series has begun.
As these are effectively trials for the national team, only those who are eligible to play now, or will be by the end of next year, take part, but that still includes seven players from Afghanistan. Most of the rest are players with roots in the subcontinent.
The surge in Afghan refugees has transformed the quality of cricket in Germany. "These players are really talented and passionate about playing cricket," says the national team captain, Rishi Pillai, who moved to Germany from Pune in India to study, and then made his life here.
The presence of the Afghans has also given German cricket a more abrasive tinge: however talented, these are cricketers with a more zealous determination to win than is the norm here. "Playing with them is really tough," Pillai says. "They can start shouting at the umpires. I don't know how to tackle that."
As the day unfolds, Mantle spends much of his time worrying about batsmen clearing the fencing behind the bowlers, and thundering balls into the railway tracks. By the end of the day, four balls have disappeared. They cost €10 apiece; €40 is a lot of money for German cricket, a fact reinforced when Pillai complains that the travel allowance for each squad is insufficient to cover their costs.
Besides Mantle's concerns about lost cricket balls, another reoccurring feature of the day is the look of bewilderment whenever I ask cricketers from Afghanistan whether they are batsmen or bowlers. Always the reaction is the same: a look of mild surprise, followed by the emphatic words: "Both. I am an allrounder."
In the case of Hamid, this is really true. He has been at the heart of everything his team, Northern Seals, have done: opening batsman, opening bowler, death bowler, and even wicketkeeper in the gaps between his spells. His genial demeanour off the field can be mislaid on it, when he gesticulates furiously at batsmen and fielders with ball in hand. It is to no avail: his team lose both their matches easily, and are palpably the weakest of the three sides.
Hamid is disappointed with how he performed, particularly his batting: he made 0 in the first game, and 9 in the second. As he walks through the children's playground to leave the ground, he fears that his chances of finally winning selection for the ICC tournament have gone.
During Northern Seals' second game, the final one of the day, I chat to Pillai about facing Hamid's bowling. He was impressed: Hamid's whippy left-arm action delivered the ball at near 80mph, and he has a potent yorker. Pillai thinks Hamid has a good chance of being picked for the national team.
The next morning, with Hamid's spirits down, I tell him what Pillai said. "Now I can play with a positive mind again," Hamid says, en route to Hamburg for another match. By the day's end, he has taken six wickets.
Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts