Official records show that 46,292 Afghan refugees were based in Germany in 2016 and a by-product of the mass movement was on cricket
Germany experiences huge spike in cricket's popularity since European migrant crisis
Cricket first spread because of the rapid expansion of the British Empire. More recently, economic migration from subcontinent countries such as India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka has taken the game to new territories.
And now, Afghanistan. A love for the game fostered in exile, and initially taken back to their homeland by returnees, has since flourished elsewhere via a new wave of Afghan migrants.
In 2002, the year after Taliban rule was ended, nearly two million refugees returned to Afghanistan, according to UN statistics. But political and military instability since has meant out-migration has remained constant, too.
In the European migrant crisis of 2015, refugees from Afghanistan numbered more than any country other than Syria.
Official records show that 46,292 Afghan refugees were based in Germany in 2016, the third-highest amount in any country after Pakistan and Iran. One, admittedly trivial, by-product of the mass movement was on cricket.
“We call it the full circle of cricket,” Brian Mantle, the chief executive of Germany Cricket, said. “The English invented cricket, took it to India, the Indians loved it. India separated into India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
“The Afghans learnt it when they were refugees in Pakistan, they took it back with them when they went back to Afghanistan – and now they are bringing it to Europe.
“In Europe, it is basically Germany and a couple of Scandinavian countries who are seeing a major playing jump – mainly because of Afghans, but also Pakistani refugees.”
There were 70 cricket teams in Germany five years ago. Now there are over 340. Mantle says the rise is in part due to increased numbers of Indian students signing up to German universities, but that it is “mainly because of the refugee situation”.
“Cricket used to be played in the big cities – Cologne, Hamburg, Frankfurt – because that is where expats would go, and they would have the choice,” Mantle, an Englishman who has lived in Germany for the past 20 years, said.
“But the refugees were put in all sorts of different places, small towns, small villages, and the big cities as well. They were separated all over the country, so we got cricket almost in every town in Germany. It feels like that, anyway.”
Mantle said the local, unheralded cricket association were swamped.
“When Angela Merkel opened the borders, we were overwhelmed,” he said. “We were getting two or three inquiries per day. It has quietened down slightly now, but we are still very, very busy.
“Five years ago, I went to meet a team of refugees in Bielefeld, not far from where I live. They were playing with a bat they had chiselled out of a log, and a tennis ball.
“What would usually happen would be that one of their carers would contact us and say, ‘Look, I have 15 Afghans who want to play cricket. Can you help?’
“We have helped a lot over the years with equipment – old equipment, used equipment, donated from all over the world. We help them set up clubs, gave them a coconut mat, so they had a pitch. They put the coconut pitch down on a football pitch, so they could play cricket.”
There are over 100 grounds used for cricket in Germany. But many are football fields with mats laid down, where the dimensions of the ground are barely able to contain the Afghan batsmen, who are usually characterised as powerful six-hitters.
While the vast majority of the population concern themselves with the fitness of Manuel Neuer, and the decision to drop Leroy Sane ahead of football’s World Cup, the relatively small cricket community are looking ahead with optimism.
Among their newly-eligible crop of players is Izatullah Dawlatzai, a fast-bowler who once took 11 wickets in a first-class match for Afghanistan. He even counts Jos Buttler and Eoin Morgan as victims, having dismissed both when Afghanistan played England in the 2012 World T20 in Sri Lanka.
Mantle says Germany see themselves as “a coming nation” in cricket, thanks to the Afghan influx. “We have a little bit of ambition now,” he said.
Special report: The stars of street cricket