BY JON GAMBRELL
DOHA, Qatar (AP) – As dawn broke in Qatar on Friday, the workers of this energy-rich country were building the World Cup Football stadiums, streets and subways filled empty asphalt tracks and clay courts to play the sport they love most – cricket.
The sport, which spread across the expanses of the former British Empire, remains a favorite of the South Asian workers who power the Arabian Peninsula’s economy.
It’s a moment of respite for workers who normally only have Fridays off in Qatar and many other Gulf Arab countries. And it’s one they look forward to all week, batting and bowling before the heat of the day fully sets in.
“It’s in our blood,” said worker Kesavan Pakkirisamy as he trained his team on a clay court with the Doha skyline in the distance. “We have been playing cricket for a long time. It is a happy journey for us.”
Workers’ rights were a focus of this World Cup since Qatar won the bid for the tournament in 2010. Workers face overtime, blackmail and low pay. Qatar has revised its labor laws to introduce a minimum wage and free up visas from employers, although activists have urged doing more.
On Fridays, however, the workers determine their day. Right next to the global headquarters of Qatar’s satellite news channel Al Jazeera, workers gathered in a parking lot and another large expanse of desert sandwiched between roads.
Some seemed nervous when Associated Press journalists stopped by their games, and several asked if they would get in trouble for playing cricket on vacant lots in his autocratic nation. Others, however, smiled and invited visitors to watch.
Hary R., an Indian from the southern state of Kerala, showed a reporter the cellphone app he uses to track his runs and overs. While Friday’s game was a friendly, tournaments are being organized between the Indian and Sri Lankan communities in Qatar to compete for dominance.
“We work all week and we just need to relax and see our friends just to pass the time and have fun,” he said. His Strikers teammates, some of whom wore matching uniforms, yelled at him to watch the game.
Pakkirisamy, who shouted encouragement near two discarded sofas used by players as benches, praised his company for helping his peers enter bigger competitions.
“My father and grandfather have played cricket since they were children,” he said, describing his lifelong love of the game.
Although cricket fans, Pakkirisamy and his team-mates were nonetheless 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 in Qatar it means “it’s easy for us to be there, to see the game on the ground , not just the TV.”
Cricket, with its lush green grass fields, might seem like an anomaly in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. However, the need for migrant workers has meant that the Arab Gulf States have been attracting cricket-playing workers to their shores for decades.
The United Arab Emirates have a cricket team that qualified for the International Cricket Council’s 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 empty piece of land can be turned into a parking lot.
“You can be on any street. You can be anywhere,” Pakkirisamy said. “You can play cricket in any small place.”
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.