JOUNIEH, Lebanon: Every Sunday morning at 6 a.m., Souheil Hussein drags himself out of bed and endures a nearly three-hour bus ride east to Jounieh. Sunday is Hussein’s day off, but there’s no rest for the wicket.“In Bangladesh, cricket is our favorite game,” he says, standing on the pitch’s sideline surrounded by his cheering teammates. “Back home, people will leave work to come and watch a match.”
Hussein plays in a 4-year-old cricket league made up of members of Lebanon’s Bangladeshi community. The league, founded by Bangladesh nationals Mohammad al-Amin and Mohammad Mango (pronounced Manjo) Hassan, runs every Sunday and draws players and fans from areas as far away as Beirut, Nahr Ibrahim, Zahle and Baalbek. The league has expanded exponentially from eight teams in 2013 to 23 this year.
The aim of cricket is to get the most runs, which are achieved by the batsmen, and prevent the other team from scoring by catching or bowling them out. The game’s origins are not clearly defined, but some believe it dates as far back as 13th-century northern Europe. Bangladesh’s history of cricket is older than the state itself, with records of English expatriates playing there in the 18th century. Bangladesh gained independence in 1971 and was granted test status in 2000, elevating it to the ranks of elite cricket alongside countries such as Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
Usually, cricket balls are made of cork and bound with leather. But here, due to the fact that the teams play on a football field, players use tennis balls wrapped with white electrical tape in order to give it a bit more bounce. “Cricket fields [normally] have concrete underneath them but since there is none here we use tennis balls,” says one observer, as he winds tape tightly around a fuzzy, neon ball.
Since Sunday is often the sole day of the week Hussein and many of his compatriots get off work, even those that don’t play come to the field to see friends, speak their native language, and eat freshly made Bangladeshi food.
“We work all week and since Sunday is our only day off we come here,” says Mubarak Hussein, 30, who works in an Ashrafieh supermarket. “There is no other place for Bangladeshi people to hang out.”
The Bangladeshi community in Lebanon numbers at around 60,000 and many of them work either in manual labor or as domestic workers.
Hussein’s love for cricket started at the age of 14 when he and his brother would play together. The 25-year-old has now been in Lebanon for the last five years, and says he is excited to play in his first organized match here. “I used to play the same way in Bangladesh and I want to continue playing.”
About 50 people, a mix of players and fans, loiter around this dirt park where patches of wild clovers grow in clusters on the field’s less-used periphery.
“There are usually more people here but the weather is not so good today,” Yaacoub Ali says, addressing the clouds hanging overhead and the chilly breeze. At the league’s opening weekend last Sunday, Ali says the matches drew an impressive crowd that included Bangladeshi U.N. workers and Bangladesh’s ambassador to Lebanon.
The group has picked this ground in Kaslik, just off the Jounieh highway, as their home turf because parks in Beirut are much more expensive than the LL100,000 they pay to play here. The cricket kicks off at around 10 a.m. and runs into late afternoon. Eight teams play each Sunday, paying LL30,000 to participate. At the end of the season, the winning team wins a trophy and LL1,200,000 while the runner-up gets LL600,000, adding a bit more competition to an already intense atmosphere.
The cricket craze seems to be gathering steam in Lebanon, with several big events planned for this year. A daylong tournament will see local residents from England, Australia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India battle it out in Monnot on April 27, while a competition pitting elite teams from the four Asian nations against each other is planned for some time in the fall.
The presence of cricket teams spearheaded by migrant communities in Lebanon, however, is much older. One Sri Lankan team, the Nomads, has been playing in the country for 20 years.
Ali has worked in Lebanon for the past four years and joined the league last year as managing director. “I came to Lebanon only because I needed money and it was easier to get the visa for here than other countries,” he says, jotting down match notes as he speaks.
He describes his work selling refrigerators and air conditioners at an Ashrafieh-based store as hard but rewarding, especially since he’s recently gotten a pay raise. “I like Lebanon, but there is now a problem with terrorists causing explosions,” he says.
Reminiscing about the atmosphere at matches back home, he says he is content in Lebanon but still hopes to return home one day. “All people love their motherland,” he says, “and Bangladeshis love cricket.”