Somewhere along the border that separates Turkey and Bulgaria, Abdul Shakoor lost his way.
A trek that should have taken two days ran into six or seven. He can’t remember exactly how many, probably because he was starving and thirsty.
He had already done a similar journey before, walking 48 hours from Iran to Turkey. He was 15 years old.
Shakoor left his home in Peshawar, northern Pakistan, with the dream of reaching England. He paid $2,000, money he got from relatives, to what he calls an agent. That was the price of reaching Turkey.
More money was needed to travel across Europe. When he finally got to Bulgaria, avoiding police that would not hesitate to fire on him, he moved on through Serbia, Hungary and Austria.
In Austria, he received word from friends who were already in England that caused him to rethink his plans. Germany would provide a warmer welcome, they said. He should go there instead.
On arriving in Germany, Shakoor had the clothes he was wearing, about 100 euros in cash and a mobile phone. Nothing else.
Now, five years on, he is the opening batsman in the national team of one of the fastest-growing cricketing nations on the planet.
Even the darkest clouds can have a silver lining.
As Britain is gripped by the coronavirus pandemic, hearts have been warmed by Captain Tom Moore walking laps of his garden. Nine months after the 9/11 attacks, ante-natal classes in New York were said to be swamped by expectant mothers.
In 2015, millions of people fled Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, other parts of Asia and Africa. Some were escaping war, other years of violence. Some were just looking for what they hoped would be a better life.
Around one million refugees and migrants ended up in Germany. One estimate is that about 180,000 were Afghans, the vast majority of whom were male and under the age of 30. In other words, cricket fans and players in a nation where the sport has never been a natural fit.
Still, it is cricket that has helped these men settle in a country where they knew little of the language, culture or heritage. As a result, the German game is on the rise, primed to make a mark on the world stage.
Shakoor’s dream of getting to England was partly fuelled by cricket. He wanted to study at Lancaster University to improve his job prospects and his game. He initially tried to get a visa. When that was turned down, he and some friends hatched the scheme to travel illegally.
“I was too young and I made the wrong decision to do it that way,” he says. “It was so dangerous. At the borders, police or soldiers can shoot you. I could have died.”
It took Shakoor a couple of months to gather the money from relatives, but he didn’t tell his parents of his plan. When the time came to leave Peshawar, he took a bus to the Iranian border then walked to make the crossing and a meeting with another agent.
It’s a pattern that would be repeated as his cross-continental journey unfolded. Bus or car through a country, then across a border on foot. Agent to agent, some of whom would take him to their house to wash and eat. Ten days after leaving Peshawar, he was in Turkey and ready to tell his parents what he had done.
“They were sad. They wanted to know why I left,” Shakoor says. When he explained, his parents agreed to fund the next payment to the agent that would help with the journey to Bulgaria. A first attempt to cross from Turkey ended in a brush with the Bulgarian police.
“They caged us and fired on us,” he says. “They were behind us and we were running. We ran back to Turkey. We found a Turkish soldier who was good to us. We went back to a refugee camp.”
A later crossing was just as problematic, but for different reasons.
“We weren’t with an agent. The agent in Turkey just told us to go straight, then someone would meet us in Bulgaria.
“We didn’t know which way to go and ended up on the wrong path. After three days we ran out of food. We had to things like apples from the trees, and drink from rivers. We walked for six or seven days.”
When the nightmare crossing into Bulgaria was finally complete, Shakoor pushed on. On reaching Austria, he received the message from his friends in England that would alter his destiny.
“They told me it would be difficult in England. I could have been deported. If that happened, my money and hard work would be gone. I thought a bit and decided to go Germany. I thought if I can’t play cricket there, at least I can work.”
Shakoor was taken into a refugee camp for boys under the age of 18 in Regensburg, a Bavarian city of about 150,000 on the Danube. He was fed, sent to German classes and given an allowance of 10 or 15 euros each week.
“Everybody was new,” he says. “No-one knew anyone. Everybody was thinking ‘how can I settle here?’ Nobody wanted at that time to play cricket. It was about how to learn German, then get a job. I was the same. For a month and a half I did nothing apart from going to school to learn German.
“In the second month I asked my teacher how I could find a cricket club. She had an Indian boyfriend who played tennis-ball cricket. Then, in the following week, I got sent to a new city. I’d found cricket, but they sent me to a new place.”
Shakoor’s new home was Weiden, a smaller city about an hour’s drive north, not far from the border with the Czech Republic. Over the next year and a half his German improved enough for him to be able to start a diploma in construction. He was allowed to leave the refugee camp and get his own apartment. The hunt for cricket began again.
“It is so difficult to start in a new country,” he says. “You know nothing. You have to learn the language, know the people, know the culture. If you find something like cricket, then you can make it fun and enjoyable. You can feel better.
“The summer was coming to an end when I spoke to a club. I went back to them over the winter and trained with them. I signed for them for the following season. That is when I knew things were good. I had a plan for every weekend. I was happy for Sundays, to be playing cricket.”
Brian Mantle says immigration has become part of his life. The man from Shropshire moved to Germany in the mid 1990s to teach English and eventually found himself as the chief executive of the German Cricket Federation (DCB).
In 2015, the DCB was, in Mantle’s words, “ambitious to a level”. Then, almost overnight, it was handed a massive influx of fanatical players with time on their hands, desperate to build a life in a new country.
“We were getting an inquiry to set up a new club almost on a daily basis,” he says.
“Where I live in Essen, we had been trying to scrape a team together for 15 years. Then, all of a sudden, we had over 100 players. Every week at training there would be five or six new faces.
“When they arrived, they were in camps. They weren’t allowed to work. Maybe they could go to a German course but, on the whole, cricket was their life. For these guys it was everything, and that was something we had to get used to.
“They were sitting around for six days and at the weekend they could play cricket, so they put everything into it with passion and energy. Sometimes that boiled over. Most of them couldn’t believe cricket took place here.”
With the new arrivals came the stories of what they had been through.
“You could sometimes see the trauma in their eyes,” says Mantle. “Running away, being told if they didn’t leave they would be shot. Young people knowing that their parents had been killed.
“But you could also see that they were looking around thinking ‘I can trust everyone here, I’m not going to get shot and there are no bombs going off’.”
Among the huge numbers, inevitably, was talent. Along with Shakoor, there was Izatullah Dawlatzai, an opening bowler who played nine games for Afghanistan, taking the wickets of England’s Eoin Morgan and Jos Buttler at the 2012 World T20. Batsman Amir Mangal had also been around the Afghan international set-up.
In 2017, changes in the International Cricket Council’s eligibility criteria meant the new arrivals only needed to have lived in Germany for three years – down from seven – before they could play for the national side. And the changes also unlocked a number of players of German heritage from county cricket – Glamorgan all-rounder Craig Meschede, Leicestershire fast bowler Dieter Klein, former Middlesex off-spinner Ollie Rayner and ex-Durham wicketkeeper Michael Richardson.
They are yet to all feature in the same team at the same time, but when they do Germany will be a serious force in Associate cricket, the level just below the international elite.
Last summer, in the European qualifier for the 2020 T20 World Cup, Germany only missed out on a place in the Global qualifier – where the likes of Ireland, Scotland, and the UAE came into the mix – on net run-rate.
In addition, strides are being made in the women’s game, where the Germany team attracts a greater number of ethnic Germans. The women even sit higher than the men in the T20 world rankings – 27 to 32.
“We never dreamt of creating a sport that would be well known here,” says Mantle. “It’s still not well known, but we have ambitions to go to a World Cup, to become members of the German Olympic Federation. Those are very realistic.
“Nobody took us seriously. Now they do.”
Richardson knew little about German cricket when he was called up to play in Guernsey last summer.
The son of former ICC chief executive Dave Richardson, the South Africa-born wicketkeeper was considering moving into investment banking as his time with Durham came to an end.
Now, after qualifying to play through his grandfather, he is, in his own words, on the German cricket “ride”.
“Naively, I had a skewed perception of refugees,” he says. “As a general rule they speak about five languages each. There I am with my horrendous German, average English and a little bit of Afrikaans from school.
“These guys are fluent in German, can hold a full conversation in English and speak all their native languages. It’s very, very humbling.”
Richardson had a decade-long career with Durham, winning the County Championship in 2013.
There is little from the English domestic grind that compares to taking the field with his new team-mates.
“They get very, very animated far too quickly. If we bowl a dot ball in a T20, the field erupts,” he says.
“At the same time, the captain is shouting at fielders to move here and there, but no-one can hear because they are in a fired-up frenzy just because someone bowled a dot ball.”
The Germany squad is nothing if not diverse. The Afghanistan-, India- and Pakistan-born players are joined by Richardson’s fellow native South Africans Meschede and Klein. Rayner, another County Championship winner who also played for England Lions, was actually born in Germany.
“Mostly we speak in English,” says Richardson. “We try to throw in German words because we are aware of who we are representing. It’s baby steps, little things we are trying to do, because we realise we are representing Germany, rather than just an ex-pat team on a jolly.
“What would finish it off would be if we could get born-and-bred Germans into the team. Our physio was, but he had to pull out of the last tournament. It was good having him around, even if it’s just to ask a German phrase, just to keep that authenticity that we are German.”
That hunt for born-and-bred Germans is being led by an Australia-born multi-millionaire.
In his youth in Perth, Daniel Weston was a good enough wicketkeeper-batsman to count the likes of future Australia internationals Shaun Marsh, Adam Voges and Marcus North among his contemporaries.
At 15 he began trading stock and not long after that started his own business. At 23, the business was sold and he was off backpacking across Europe, trading from his laptop on the way.
He wasn’t planning on staying in Munich, but a chance meeting in 2007 led to a job and, eventually, to him establishing a hedge fund that in 2016 was worth in the region of $30m.
In the intervening time Weston was featuring at Munich Cricket Club, but had made the decision to leave for New York. He might have been lost to German cricket altogether had it not been for a Tinder date with Manuela Meltl, the daughter of Josef Meltl, who founded one of Europe’s largest yacht manufacturers. The relationship persuaded Weston to stay in Germany and Manuela is now his wife.
When Weston got involved in the German national set-up, the businessman inside him was interested in the thousands of people watching a live stream of the players walking off the field after a game in Sweden.
Knowing that investors would not be attracted to German cricket unless they could see it, he began uploading clips of players to Facebook. German Cricket TV was born.
“Football is probably at its peak,” says Weston. “I don’t know how football can grow any further in Europe. It’s the number one sport by a long way.
“It’s very strange that Europe doesn’t have a hitting, bat-and-ball sport, apart from cricket in the UK. France, Germany, Spain, Italy – they have football and then they have holidays.
“Everywhere else on the planet has football or rugby in the winter and either cricket or baseball in the summer. In France, Germany, Spain, Italy – these four, big, monster countries – you don’t have a team bat-and-ball sport in the summer, which is completely bizarre to me.”
German Cricket TV took Weston to an ice cricket event in Switzerland and a chance encounter with Frank Leenders and Thomas Klooz, the men who revamped the Uefa Champions League in 1992, and former Fifa head of broadcasting Roger Feiner.
They were on the lookout for a new sport to promote and asked Weston to pitch an idea for cricket. The European Cricket League (ECL) held its inaugural event in 2019, broadcast live in 112 countries on the European Cricket Network.
It is the ECL that Weston hopes will inspire all Germans, either ethnic or immigrant, to take up the game.
If the league rings a bell in your mind, it is where Romanian Pavel Florin was ridiculed, then taken to hearts on social media for his unusual bowling action and subsequent declaration of love for the game.
Florin might be at one end of the ability scale. At the other, champions VOC Rotterdam had Netherlands internationals Max O’Down and Scott Edwards opening the batting. In the final against SG Findorff of Germany, Edwards clubbed 137 not out from 39 balls, with 18 sixes.
“We are on a trajectory where we are igniting clubs around Europe with something to play for,” says Weston. “When there’s something to play for, the performances start to really rocket, but it also means if you’re a member of a cricket club in Europe, your kids could play cricket on TV, just like football.
“Go to the central station in Paris, Milan or Berlin. There is a vast number of people in these cities coming from places which historically have played or loved cricket. They just need a good reason to get involved in the game. I hope the ECL is that reason.”
If Weston is right, it is the spread of people from traditional cricketing nations to other parts of the globe that will eventually cause the game’s power base to shift.
“Australia and England are dead,” he says. “In 20 years, cricket will be run by India, Europe as a whole, and America. England has 10 million cricket fans. This is tiny, tiny stuff compared to India.
“You could end up with a lot of cricket fans in America, a lot of cricket fans across Europe. Australia and England, I’m sorry to say, will be irrelevant.
“The ECL can become the world’s second biggest cricket event, after the Indian Premier League. It’s pretty easy, to be honest.”
Shakoor’s diploma led him to a job as a foreman on a construction site. He recently returned to Peshawar to get engaged and is working on arrangements for his bride-to-be to join him in Germany.
In his most recent appearance for Germany, a T20 against Spain in March, he made 59, his highest score.
“I never thought that one day I would wear a German national shirt. I was very happy to make that score,” he says.
“I am so happy they gave this very good opportunity to a foreigner. We came here and they gave us everything.”
For all the talk of German cricket’s potential, each of Shakoor, Mantle, Richardson and Weston are realistic about the short-term challenges. Finances, facilities, players having the opportunity to train together on a regular basis.
But the rate of progress is also undeniable. It is not likely that Germany will be meeting England, Australia or India in the near future, but contests with international teams just below the very best – Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands and Nepal – are a real possibility.
And maybe, one day, Shakoor will line up for Germany against Pakistan.
“That is my dream.”
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