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Berlin’s cricket revolution

The beloved sport has burst onto the scene in Berlin parks, thanks to a rapidly expanding South Asian community looking for home comforts.

Image for Berlin’s cricket revolution

Berlin’s cricketing landscape – once primarily the niche domain of British expats, along with a smattering of Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans – now resembles something of a cultural hub for South and Central Asian communities. Photo: James Huertas

Sunday morning in Tempelhofer Feld. Amid the usual sights and sounds of joggers, cyclists and yogies rolling out their mats sits a more lively scene. Gathered in the north-western corner of the park are some 300 or so men scattered around two slightly wonky-looking playing fields marked out in bright orange cones.

On one of the fields, the bowler slings a little white ball towards his opponent. The batsman takes a swing – crack! The ball goes flying and three men chase in vain as it clears the boundary for a ‘six’ – cricket’s version of a home run. Then there’s a heap of cheering and shouting, in a mix of Urdu, Hindi and English, and in amongst the excitement a handful of spectators edge their way onto the field of play without even noticing.

This organised mess is the Tempelhof Tapeball Cricket Tournament, a one-day, 10-team festival of cricket that has seen players come for a game from as far and wide as Stuttgart, Wuppertal… and even Wedding. The event is the brainchild of Asif Syed, a 35-year-old from Sialkot in Pakistan.

In Berlin since 2021, when he arrived in the city to do an Ausbildung, in psychological counselling, Syed is a member of the Tempelhof Cricket Club and proudly sports the club’s black-and-yellow jersey as he keeps an eye on the action.

With hundreds of people watching and taking part, the day is somewhat symbolic of the transformation cricket has under- gone in Berlin in recent years. “Back in 2014, I was playing cricket over there with just a few Pakistani guys I met on Face- book,” says Syed, pointing down to the south-east corner of the field. “But today there are hundreds of people here – and I know almost all of them.”

While it might surprise most Berliners, in recent years cricket has become Germany’s fastest-growing team sport. Nationwide, there are around 6000 registered players across 370 teams, up from just 70 teams five years ago. Although impressive, those stats don’t even tell half the story: the German Cricket Association estimates that there are some 15,000-16,000 cricketers across Germany when unregistered, non-affiliated teams are taken into account, with tournaments like this one at Tempelhof taking place every weekend in summer.

Batting for South Asia

The main reason behind this cricketing explosion is the rapid increase in Germany’s – and Berlin’s – South Asian community over the past decade. Since 2011, the number of people in Berlin from the cricket-mad countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka has risen from just 7200 to more than 37,000, ensuring that the city’s cricketing landscape – once primarily the niche domain of British expats, along with a smattering of Australians, New Zea- landers and South Africans – now resembles something of a cultural hub for South and Central Asian communities.

“There are very few cultural or music events from India, Pakistan or Afghanistan here,” says Syed. “And that’s why I think cricket is a great way to connect with people from my country and the region.”

One of the more influential figures in cricket’s rise over the past decade is Alim Miah. After arriving in Berlin to do a Master’s in biophysics at the Humboldt University in 2009, Miah helped set up the Bangladesh Cricket Club Berlin. Since then, the 38-year-old has witnessed the remarkable rise of his nation’s expat cricket community. “In 2010, there were just 20-25 of us playing in the park, but now there are 200 Bangladeshi cricketers in Berlin,” he says. “It’s a really nice thing to see. Our club isn’t just for Bangladeshis – everyone is welcome – but it’s nice to create a platform for the youngsters coming fresh from Bangladesh, so they can settle into life in Berlin and carry on playing cricket.”

Miah is quick to point out that the club is about far more than just having a hit in the park. “We play football, do picnics, take trips away for the weekend. There are also a lot of good cooks here in the team, so whenever we get together, the typical Bengali curry is always a favourite!”

Image for Berlin’s cricket revolution

The sense of community offered by Berlin’s cricketing fraternity has been more crucial than ever over the past year, as Covid-19 ravaged parts of South Asia and prevented people from visiting their loved ones. Photo: James Huertas

Making it big

The transformative role that cricket has played in offering new arrivals a sense of community is perhaps best shown in the case of Rohit Singh. Originally from Punjab in northern India, Singh suffered a severe sense of culture shock when, aged 15, he moved to Berlin with his family in 2009.

“I was crying most of the time when I first arrived, because I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know the people. It was a really hard time, especially at school. On top of that, I was quite sad because I never knew they played cricket in Germany.”

Luckily for Singh, it wasn’t long before he came across other like-minded cricket afi- cionados, and after a year of playing casually in the park he joined the Wilmersdorf-based club BSV Britannia. From there, things went from strength to strength. A talented ‘all- rounder’ (in cricket-speak, that’s someone who excels at both batting and bowling), Singh made his debut for the German national team in 2012, and in 2020 he was named German cricketer of the year.

As a bona fide superstar in German cricket circles, the 27-year-old hasn’t just found a sense of community; among the crowds in the north-western corner of Tempelhof, Rohit Singh is something of a celebrity.

“Through playing cricket, I have made tonnes of friends. I walked in here today and knew more than half the people straight away,” he says. “It’s like a festival for me: you walk in, everyone knows you, people come up and say hello. It’s helped me a lot – now I feel more at home here than in India.”

Bowled over in Berlin

But of course it’s not just newcomers who’ve found a home in the Hauptstadt’s cricket scene; Berliners of South Asian heritage also use the sport to reconnect with their cultural roots. Born in Berlin, 19-year-old Manan Arshad has always had cricket in his life. “When I was young, we watched a lot of Pakistani television, and of course they showed plenty of cricket. The first match that I can remember watching was the T20 World Cup final in 2007, India v Pakistan. I was five.”

Not content with just watching the game, Arshad did his best throughout childhood to recruit the talent in his home district of Tiergarten – a handful of kids from other Pakistani families – for a regular hit. But it wasn’t until he joined BSV Britannia in 2016, at the age of 14, that he saw a whole different side to the sport. “When I joined the club it was like a second home. Germany doesn’t have that many people with Pakistani or Indian backgrounds, so through cricket I’ve learned a lot more about my culture. It has definitely brought me a lot closer to it.”

Back under the sweltering sun at Tempelhof, it’s clear that this sense of community offered by Berlin’s cricketing fraternity has been more crucial than ever over the past year, as Covid-19 ravaged parts of South Asia and prevented people from visiting their loved ones.

“We don’t have our families here, we don’t have our friends, but these people here today are our Berlin cricket family,” says Syed. He could never do without the sport. Looking for an example from his culture, he turns to fasting. “We can accept it if we don’t eat for a day. But if we weren’t able to play cricket, life would be very difficult.”