DOHA, Qatar (AP) — At dawn Friday in Qatar, the workers who built the World Cup in this energy-rich country football stadiums, highways and the subway filled empty stretches of asphalt and solar to play the sport closest to their hearts: cricket.
The sport that spanned the confines of the former British empire remains a favorite of the South Asian workers who power the economies of the Arabian Peninsula.
It’s a moment of respite for workers, who normally only get Friday off in Qatar and much of the rest of the Persian Gulf nations. And it’s one they look forward to all week, batting and bowling before the heat of the day takes full hold.
“It’s in our blood,” said worker Kesavan Pakkirisamy as he trained his team on a vacant lot, the Doha skyline visible in the distance. “We have been playing cricket for a long time. It is a happy journey for us.”
Workers’ rights have been a focus of this World Cup since Qatar won the bid for the tournament in 2010. Workers can face long hours, extortion and low wages. Qatar has revised its labor laws to set a minimum wage and de-link employer visas, though activists have urged more.
On Fridays, however, the workers control their day. Just down the street from the world headquarters of Qatar’s satellite news network, Al Jazeera, workers gathered in a parking lot and another vast expanse of desert wedged between roads.
Some seemed nervous as Associated Press reporters stopped by their matches, and several asked if they would be in trouble for playing cricket on vacant lots in their autocratic nation. Others, however, smiled and invited visitors to look.
Hary R., an Indian from the southern state of Kerala, showed a reporter the mobile phone app he used to keep track of runs and overs. While Friday’s match was a friendly, there are tournaments organized between the Indian and Sri Lankan communities in Qatar to compete for supremacy.
“We are working throughout the week and we just need to relax and meet our friends just to pass the time and entertain ourselves,” he said. His teammates on the Strikers, some of whom were wearing matching uniforms, yelled at him to keep track of the game.
Pakkirisamy, who shouted encouragement near two discarded sofas used as benches by players, praised his company for helping his colleagues participate in broader competitions.
“My father and grandfather have been playing cricket since childhood,” he said, describing a lifelong love of the game.
Pakkirisamy and his teammates, although cricket lovers, were still excited about the World Cup in Qatar.
“We’re here for work, we’re here to earn something for our family,” he said, adding that being in Qatar means “it’s easy for us to be there, to watch the game on the pitch, not just on TV.”
Cricket, with its lush green grass pitches, may seem like an anomaly in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. Yet the need for migrant labor has seen Gulf nations attract cricket-playing workers to their shores for decades.
The United Arab Emirates has a cricket team that qualified for the International Cricket Council T20 World Cup in Australia last month.
Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is even home to the ICC headquarters and has hosted major cricket events including the Indian Premier League, Pakistan Super League and T20 championships.
But for workers in the region, any vacant lot can be turned into a pitch.
“You can, you can be in any path. You can be anywhere,” Pakkirisamy said. “In any small place, you can play cricket.”
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