BERLIN: The influx of asylum seekers into Germany, especially from cricket-mad Pakistan and Afghanistan, has created an unexpected boom for the sport in a country where football has long been king.
Of the 476,649 people who applied for asylum in Germany last year, 31,902 came from Afghanistan alone, with a further 8,472 from Pakistan, which has seen the German Cricket Federation (DCB) flooded with a simple question: “Where can I play?”
The DCB’s chief executive officer, Brian Mantle, says they have been swamped by enquiries through their website (www.cricket.de) to set up new clubs across the country, supply equipment and point new arrivals to their local team.
Mantle, who is based in the western city of Essen, runs the DCB with only an additional part-timer for assistance.
When the Englishman took over in 2012, there were around 1,500 cricketers in Germany playing in 70 teams.
Now there are 4,000 registered cricketers playing in 205 teams and last week the DCB welcomed its 100th new club, from Bautzen near the Czech border.
And the numbers keep growing.
“We’ve been getting up to five enquiries per day from groups wanting to set up new clubs,” Mantle told AFP.
“Often it’s from social workers, who had never even heard of cricket before groups of refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan started asking where they could play it.
“They had been offered volleyball or football, but most just want to play cricket.”
Thanks to donations from existing German clubs of bats, balls and cricket clothing, including 35 boxes sent by the Lord’s Taverners, the UK’s leading youth cricket charity, the DCB has recently sent out its 400th box of supplies to help new clubs.
But now there is nothing more to donate.
“That was the last box, we have run out. We’re desperately looking for sponsorship or funding,” added Mantle.
The biggest challenge facing any newly-formed group of cricket-playing refugees is to find a ground suitable, while a standard 22-yard-long (20-metre-long) pitch costs up to 10,000 euros ($11,400) to install.
As a temporary solution, the DCB has found a German supplier of coconut mats, costing 650 euros each, which, when laid on wooden boards, behave like a normal pitch.
Cricket’s governing body, the ICC, has provided 15,000 euros of extra funding to help the DCB meet the fresh demand on top of the 177,000 euros in financing they receive annually.
Mantle, 44, is excited about the future.
“The biggest problem is getting refugees to speak German, but this is a good way to integrate them through the sport they know,” said Mantle.
“At the moment, our national Under-19 team is half made up of Afghans, who have qualified here through residency and that number will grow.
“It can only raise the playing standards here and in years to come, we could follow the likes of Ireland and Afghanistan, who are knocking on the door of Test-level cricket.
“I’m excited about the future, but with a severe lack of resources, we’re totally overwhelmed.”
Cricket has helped Arifullah Jamal to adapt to life having fled to Germany from Afghanistan as a teenager with his younger brother in late 2009 to seek asylum.
After spending 14 hours sealed in a container on a mammoth journey from Greece to Italy, he ended up in a youth hostel in west Germany with his brother, struggling to make friends and learn German.
“The people in the home didn’t know about cricket, but eventually they asked around and that was when Brian (Mantle) came to us and we played cricket again,” he told AFP.
Having learnt to play cricket in Pakistan before his family moved to the Kunar province of Afghanistan, Jamal was delighted to be able to play his favourite sport in his adopted country.
Before long, the fast bowler was playing for the Germany Under-19 side at international tournaments.
“It really was a dream come true, I’d only seen cricket played like that on television, everything was so professional and I never thought I’d end up playing for Germany when I first arrived,” he added.
The 21-year-old is now captain of the Essen-based Altendorf 09 Blue Tigers, a team made up of refugees who play in a regional league.
Jamal speaks six languages including English, German and Afghanistan’s two main languages, Dari and Pashto.
Having missed three years of schooling while he learnt German, Jamal balances studying for his Abitur, Germany’s pre-university entrance certificate, with helping newly-arrived asylum seekers translate letters and prepare documents.
Last year, he won an award for his work in helping refugees and promoting cricket in Essen.
“I know from experience how much sport can help people integrate. When we were in the youth hostel, we had nothing. No friends and nothing to do. You don’t speak the language and feel lost,” he said.
“It was so good to get out of the room and play cricket. Otherwise you sit in your room and feel depressed.”
Jamal says he wanted to set up a team for refugees to support each other with the goal of eventually winning promotion to the national championships, cricket’s Bundesliga.
“It means there is a support network, they find out where the best places are to learn German, where they can get help and find work,” he explained.
“Cricket has given me so much.”