This piece is the first part of a three piece series on cricket.
It’s 6:20 a.m. The sun hasn’t risen, but you know a bright new day is starting due to the changing color of the sky from dark blue to gray to orange. Standing in an empty parking lot, you suddenly realize something is a bit different. At first, you see a car slowly approach you and park, and then more and more cars do so. Groups of people in different uniforms are getting out of the cars. Some people are even carrying bats and balls in their hands. You are confused. Today is a Friday, the weekend. Everyone is supposed to be lying in bed as late as possible and enjoying a nice dream. There is no need to get up so early.
When it comes to the sports events in Abu Dhabi, several things come to mind: horseback riding competitions, F1 car racing, and even the boat sailing festival. But living in Abu Dhabi, a diverse city where 85 percent of residents are expatriates, can expose you to sporting cultures from all over the world. One day, I heard about a unique sporting event from a journalist who works at The National: a cricket game played by South Asian migrant workers in the early morning near Nation Towers.
The first time I came to the location, it was a far cry from what I had imagined. The so-called cricket field is in fact a large parking lot which is almost as large as a football field. Corniche Beach is just a street away from the parking lot, so it is not surrounded by numerous skyscrapers. Instead, it is spacious and offers a great panoramic view of the azure sky. Nation Towers and Etihad Towers are visible in the distance, the only two modern buildings in the neighborhood.
There were almost a hundred people in the parking lot. Most of them came in groups in SUVs carrying seven people, a set of wickets, and most importantly, a bat and a ball. The cricket players were dressed up in different attires. I ran into a guy in an orange T-shirt sitting next to an SUV. We stared at each other for a while. Finally, he waved at me and said, “Is this your first time here?” I nodded shyly. “Come here. Let me introduce you to the amazing story happening in this parking lot!”
He had a light beard and sharp eyes. There was a big 18 on his T-shirt and right below the number was his name, Nidin. I also found out that he liked the color orange so much that both his T-shirt and wristband were orange. He invited me to sit down cross-legged. I was hesitant because of how dirty the ground was, since it was littered with cigarette butts and wrappers; nevertheless, due to his hospitality, I felt obliged to accept.
Nidin gave me my first glimpse into the cricket matches at the Nation Tower parking lot. About two years ago, some Indian migrant workers in Abu Dhabi wanted to play cricket in their free time to deal with their homesickness. They realized that although cricket is a popular sport in South Asia, it is difficult to find cricket games in the UAE. Ultimately, they came up with the idea of finding a vacant parking lot and holding their own cricket matches. Because most of the laborers work on weekdays and some of them even work on Saturdays, Friday is a suitable day for playing cricket. Furthermore, the parking lot is jam-packed with vehicles on weekdays, but the weekend is the perfect time to see the magic happen. Just as Moses parted the Red Sea and led the Israelites to safety from the Egyptian army, the workers moved the vehicles to the sides, leaving an open space in the center. The space was so large that eight matches could be played there simultaneously.
Because of the hot climate in the summer, the tournament always starts in October and ends in May. The laborers come from four cricket-crazy countries: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Teams are not constituted based on nationality or region; instead, they either come from the same workplace or have close relationships. Interestingly, every team has its own athletic apparel. On the back of the apparel is the player’s name and number. Under normal circumstances, the tournament is held for a period of one month. At the beginning of the month, each team has to pay 500 AED of competition fees. After this, 32 teams are divided into eight groups, and the winners of each group compete in the quarterfinal for a place in the semifinal and then the final. In the end, the champions win the prize of 10,000 AED and a medal.
Suddenly, Nidin shouted “Badhai Ho, Aarav!” or, Congratulations, Aarav! so loudly that I was startled and almost fell to the ground. Then he turned me with an ecstatic expression.
“Our team won the match and is going to take part in the semifinal next Friday!” he said. Listening to Nidin recounting this amazing adventure, I could not help but relate to it deeply. Although I had only been here for less than two hours and had little knowledge of cricket, I felt like I was part of his team. I shared his happiness and celebrated the victory with his team mates. He invited me to come watch him play a match next week.
The next Friday, I came to the same place where I had met Nidin before, but I could not find him. One of his friends pointed to the central part of the parking lot and told me he was playing in a game. I turned my head to the direction he pointed at and, much to my surprise, Nidin was the batsman. When the ball approached him, he swung the bat with confidence and hit the ball to the sky.
Ray Hsu is a contributing writer. Email him at email@example.com.