RIYADH: Take a drive through Riyadh’s Hai Al Wizarat or Al Nassem neighborhoods and, chances are, you’ll come across kids playing seemingly impromptu games of street cricket.
But these games have a storied heritage across Saudi Arabia’s parking lots and roads.
For years, South Asian expatriates have taken part in these self-organised matches on the streets of Riyadh, Jeddah and in other Saudi cities. Wherever Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis go, it seems they take cricket with them.
Saudi Arabia is home to millions of residents from that cricket-mad part of the world, so it is only natural that street cricket thrives among these communities.
One of the organizations playing an important role in the rise of the game’s popularity at community level in recent years is the GK International Indian Sports Club (GKIISC) in Riyadh.
“The growth of cricket in the Kingdom is an inspirational story,” Dr. Gayas Ahmed Sattar, GKIISC president, told Arab News. “Saudi Arabia has a large expatriate community from major cricket-playing nations like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. People from these countries carry cricket in their bags wherever they go.”
The spread of the game in Saudi Arabia started decades ago at street level and later developed to include first-class cricket, he said. “Many clubs and associations helped in this journey. Now, Saudi Arabia has a national cricket team which is starting to make its mark at the international level.”
When Sattar co-founded the GKIISC with Mohammed Kaleem a decade ago, it was to translate interest at street level to organized participation.
“Our club organized the Mash Cup in 2010 and later started a major cricketing event every year called ‘Youm Al-Watani Cup,’ played as a tribute to our second homeland Saudi Arabia on Saudi National Day,” Sattar said. “The GKIISC cricket journey has taken it to professional level, when A-level teams of the Riyadh Cricket Association took part under the supervision of the Saudi Cricket Centre.”
COVID-19 restrictions permitting, the club is looking for potential events to launch later this year.
Organized cricket has, however, existed for much longer than that in Saudi Arabia.
The Riyadh Cricket Association (RCA) is a non-profit body that was formed in 1980 to promote the game in the region. Its membership comprises players from all walks of life: Engineers, bankers, corporate managers, and other sports enthusiasts.
“Since its formation it has been successful in bringing cricket as a game among the Saudis and expatriates working in the region, which was only possible by the support of RCA Patron-in-Chief Prince General Dr. Abdulaziz Bin Nasser Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud,” reads a statement on RCA’s Facebook page.
The RCA is also associated with the Saudi Cricket Centre, which has been affiliated with the International Cricket Council since 2003.
Tournaments come in the T20 and 40-over formats, and include the Prince Abdulaziz Bin Nasser Trophy and events between the RCA and other regional associations.
One Pakistani spoke of his love for the game, which was nurtured in the schoolyards and streets of Riyadh.
“It came from my father, he used to play cricket with a lot of passion, but sadly he is no longer with us,” said Abdul Qadir Abdulkarim Khan, who has represented Saudi Arabia as a teenager and played at senior levels too. “But his team, Pak Shaheen, has been here for the last 30 years. He played cricket in the early days of the game in Saudi Arabia and was also designated as the senior vice president of the RCA and senior adviser at the Riyadh Cricket League. His legacy of playing cricket is close to my heart.”
Organised cricket has provided much-needed health benefits over the last year, even in a limited way.
“If we are following standard operating procedure and playing the game it keeps us healthy,” said Khan. “It further makes our immune system stronger, which is important especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
In a message circulated in Urdu, Arabic and English, the Saudi Arabian Cricket Federation advised the management of all regional associations to closely observe COVID-19 protocols, Khan added.
He has seen the game rise in popularity beyond the traditional South Asian base to include Saudis as well.
“It started with expatriates playing the game and now a lot of Saudi youths are also taking part in Jeddah and other cities, and I am very much hopeful of them representing Saudi Arabia at an international level one day.”
Faiz Al-Najdi, from Pakistan, also has a passion for street cricket. He said it was a favorite pastime for people in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. “The love for the game is the same for expatriates from these countries living here in the Kingdom. I have been associated with the RCA for many years, and I have witnessed the love, passion and enthusiasm for the game grow among the young and old alike.”
The pandemic has meant that cricket at all levels is being played in a more restricted manner although, when things return to normal, there will be an eager community raring to go.
“I love to play cricket,” said Bangaldeshi Suhan Khan. “I simply enjoy playing on my off-days, my friends and I gather at nearby grounds to play. Due to the pandemic, things are not the same, but we are looking forward and waiting for things to improve so that we can return back to the ground and play our favorite game.”
For thousands of other cricket lovers who call Saudi Arabia their home, that day cannot come soon enough.