Qatar’s Most Popular Sport Isn’t What You Think It Is

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DOHA, Qatar — If you need to buy a cricket bat here, everyone tells you the same thing:

“Call Ali.”

Diminutive and polite, with a thickish beard and messy hair, Ali works in accounts for a tourism agency. But his real passion is designing and selling cricket equipment from a small room in his apartment on the outskirts of Doha.

Cricket bats are not typically sold in sports stores in Qatar. That is because Qataris don’t play cricket. But people from South Asia do, and there are about 1.5 million of them living and working in the small Gulf nation.

Ali, who asked to be identified by only one name because he does not have a license to sell products from his home, said his customers range from laborers on rock-bottom wages to managers at Qatar’s top hotels. The breadth of occupations is a reminder of the many ways in which Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and Nepalis are indispensable to the workings of the state and economy in Qatar, a nation of about 2.7 million people that is home to only 300,000 Qataris .

Despite its popularity among the majority of the country’s population, though, cricket occupies a marginal position in Qatar. While Qatar has pumped billions of dollars into preparations for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which it will host in an array of gleaming new stadiums in November and December, cricket remains — at least in the eyes of the Qataris who think of it at all — an afterthought. For more than a decade, Ali said, “the focus is only for the FIFA, football.”

The neglect for South Asia’s favorite sport speaks to a wider ambivalence in Qatar toward people from the Asian subcontinent. While their labor is essential, the sheer numbers of migrants — they outnumber citizens by at least 5 to 1 — mean they are rarely embraced as part of the nation’s culture.

“They’re legally precarious,” said Neha Vora, an anthropologist at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. “They’re placed in the situation where they’re technically not meant to settle down.”

Over the last 15 years, sports have become central to Qatar’s global branding. Alongside its World Cup preparations, Doha has played host to the world track and field championships, tennis events and Formula 1 auto races. Qatari money also owns the French soccer team Paris St.-Germain and helps bankroll the European soccer economy through broadcasting deals with Qatar-owned beIN Sports and sponsors like Qatar Airways.

Cricket, by contrast, has to make do on thin gruel. On Friday mornings — the start of the weekend in Doha — thousands of cricketers wake before dawn, before the heat becomes punishing, and head to the city’s open spaces. In the absence of the kind of lush grass fields being prepared for the World Cup, they play on patches of urban wasteland and empty parking lots, inside boundaries denoted by rocks, broken sandals and empty water bottles.

The most common form of cricket in Qatar is played with tennis balls — either regulation ones covered in insulation tape to deaden their bounce or, more frequently, special weighted versions imported from India. Unlike the official version of cricket, which requires a hardball made of cork, twine and leather — not to mention a well-maintained field and protective equipment — tennis ball cricket requires merely some stumps, a bat and a flat expanse of as little as 22 yards.

Since traditional cricket bats are too heavy and cumbersome for the lighter tennis balls, Ali sensed opportunity in the growing enthusiasm for tennis ball cricket and began importing lighter bats from India in 2015. But he was never happy with the quality. So he approached a manufacturer in his native Pakistan with a prototype for a bat designed specifically for hitting the weighted tennis ball that is most common to the game in the Gulf.

After almost two years of experimentation, he hit upon the winning formula. “Alhamdulillah, it’s very famous,” he said, cradling and stroking one of his designs as a breeder would a prize cat. He decided to name his creation after the highest score an individual shot can achieve in cricket: the Long Sixer.

Many of Qatar’s tennis ball games are coordinated through leagues run by South Asian expatriates. One of the largest, Qatar Expat Cricket Community, has 250 teams play every Friday.

Yet there are no professional cricketers in Qatar. Players on Qatar’s national team — which is populated by expatriate Pakistanis, Indians and Sri Lankans — hold day jobs. “It’s not like footballers; footballers have good salaries,” said Faisal Khan, a batter who played with the national cricket team until his retirement in 2021. All the players on Qatar’s team, he said, “are working 12 hours a day.”

Cricketers sometimes run afoul of Qatar’s notorious labor laws. The regulations, which used to give employers the power to prevent their workers from changing jobs or even leaving the country without their permission, were partially reformed in 2020. But they are still criticized for handing too much power to employers and are poorly enforced.

Khan’s company, for example, has prevented him from traveling abroad to represent Qatar. “They didn’t allow me to go, and I missed those two tours,” he said. “I was so heartbroken and so disappointed.”

Some believe cricket’s limited support and resources are related to the difficulty of attracting locals to the game. “Cricket is very long,” said Gul Khan, the head of domestic cricket at the Qatar Cricket Association, the body responsible for organizing the game in Qatar. “Nobody is interested in coming to watch.” Others, however, suggested that it is the cricket association that should take responsibility for the game’s parlous state; they accuse its officials of a misguided focus on hosting loss-making international tournaments at the same time they are failing to develop and expand the domestic game.

In its approach to cricket, Qatar is behind its Gulf neighbors. In Oman, for example, development is encouraged by a requirement that clubs in lower divisions include at least one Omani national among the playing 11. The United Arab Emirates is the home of the International Cricket Council — the sport’s global governing body — and in 2021 played host to both the T20 World Cup and the Indian Premier League, two of the most important tournaments in world cricket. Unsurprisingly, Qatar lags behind Oman and the UAE in the world rankings.

There are signs, though, that this might begin to change. “I want to improve the cricket here in Qatar,” said Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Saud al-Thani, who became president of the QCA in December. Sheikh al-Thani said he planned to establish a national cricket academy, create an internationally recognized league and have Qatar in the top eight men’s teams in the world by 2025. Such aims are not necessarily fanciful in a country with Qatar’s resources: A huge injection of cash and expertise transformed Qatar’s soccer team from regional minnows to Asian champions in just over a decade. Many, however, remain skeptical. “It’s just words,” said Khan, the retired cricketer.

Yet even without state support, cricket is and will remain the backbone of life for thousands of South Asians living in Qatar, far from home and family. Ali said the sport acted as a social network, a recruitment hub and a way to unwind from the stresses of work.

“Before, they don’t know each other,” he said, “but after cricket, they are too close. They have family, friends. They started new businesses.”

He added: “A lot of people here, they’re using this opportunity as making this community strong.”

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