Episode 103: The cricketing car park of Beirut

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

Fernando Sugath, a Sri Lankan expatriate, has been playing cricket in Lebanon for 25 years, in some extraordinary places and despite some extraordinary obstacles. With Will Dobson, an English expatriate and a bookseller in Beirut, he recently organized the biggest cricket tournament in Lebanon’s turbulent history. They are the guests of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their latest cricket-themed podcast.

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Fernando describes his arrival in Beirut in 1996 and his first job as a cleaner. Desperate for a game of cricket he was delighted the following year when a compatriot invited him to play with his group – in a tiny underground car park. In 2000 they found a better location, the open-air car park of a Roman Catholic church, and Father Martin (a non-cricketing American) gave them permission to use it. They played there for some sixteen years with the church’s blessing.

In 2005, they staged a tournament in an excavation site, watched by 500 people from a Sri Lankan community of 80,000 in Lebanon. It was ended abruptly (with Fernando’s team in a winning position) by a very threatening encounter with armed soldiers from the Lebanese army. Some thirty players were detained for supposed documentation offences and were released only on payment of fines. The incident had a chilling effect on supporters and spectators. Tournaments were abandoned and the players went back to pick-up matches in the car park.

William arrived in Beirut in 2012 and soon developed the typical expatriate ambition to form a cricket club. He attracted sponsorship for it from Lebanon’s first micro-brewery, which, by good fortune, was owned by a cricket-loving American. After one of its early matches, involving English and Indian expatriates, he fortuitously encountered Fernando and his team mates playing at a rather higher level. He heard their story of the cancelled tournament, and enlisted his contacts, including the British ambassador to help them revive it. This time they were given police protection.

The British ambassador’s interest may have tipped the scales. Fernando says that although the Sri Lankan ambassador had given them constant support in organizing the tournaments his country did not have the influence in Lebanon to overcome official obstacles. He gives a vivid picture of the British ambassador, Thomas Fletcher (now Principal of Hertford College, Oxford) as a spectator, braving the rain and enjoying Sri Lankan food under an umbrella.

Tournaments resumed from 2013 at the car park but in 2017 they  encountered a jobsworth working in security for the local university, a co-owner of the car park. He made false reports against them about noise, alcohol and litter and the university banned them. No car had ever been damaged by the games of tennis-ball cricket, says Fernando, and in any case the university did not use the car park on Sundays, when they were played.

In spite of high-level lobbying and intense searching for other premises they were unable to resume cricket for four years. Fernando describes the heartbreak for the Sri Lankan community of losing such a link to their homeland. They used to go to their match venues even in heavy rain, just to feel part of a cricketing scene. He describes his childhood love of cricket and the efforts his parents made to fit work and home routines around matches.

The story got a happy ending when the church car park was restored to them by Father Richard (a Sri Lankan) after being used in April for the Sinhala and Tamil New Year festivities. He knew that the Sri Lankan community was eager to resume cricket and sought out Fernando to invite the cricketers back. The church fathers secured permission from the other owners.

With William’s help and the Sri Lankan ambassador’s he organized a fresh tournament expecting a maximum of sixteen teams. It actually attracted thirty, including four from the Alsama Project, which has expanded mightily since their memorable podcast with Peter and Richard last year. https://chiswickcalendar.co.uk/episode-39-the-sky-is-the-limit-for-alsama-cricket-club-where-refugees-from-syria-get-new-lives/

It is striking to hear Fernando compare the car park pitch and conditions to Alsama’s. In space and surface they are much closer to being “a real cricket pitch.”

The tournament received a heartwarming video message from Kumar Sangakkara, hailing the tournament as the very essence of cricket. It was typical of the great man to cut through the snobbery which tennis ball cricket often attracts.

There were several women’s teams and some from other nations, and from the UNIFIL peacekeeping forces, but cricket has yet to draw recruits from native Lebanese. Fernando plans another tournament very soon for women only from the migrant communities and to give more opportunities to Alsama.

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Peter Oborne & Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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