The Sri Lankan expats who turned a Beirut car park into their field of cricket dreams...

... and caught the eye of the legendary Kumar Sangakkara himself

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Fernando Sugath walked up to the chalk-lined crease, eyeing up the gaps in the field.

He looked down and thudded the worn fibre bat into the tarmac as he took his stance, ready for the first delivery. A sleepless night making final preparations for the tournament had left him weary.

It didn’t take long for Fernando to find the gaps; he smashed a beautiful cover drive for four runs, his team’s first boundary of the day, which brought cheers from the watching crowd and the blaring of the infamous IPL trumpet from a sound system.

As the over ended, Fernando looked relaxed. He gazed across the Beirut car park towards the scorers set on the backdrop of what could only be described as a fiesta, a celebration of cricket and music.

It was quite a spectacle; on Sunday, September 18, match after match of car-park cricket was played out in front of crowds of players and spectators.

Fernando had invited 30 teams (including three women’s teams and four teams from refugee cricket school, Alsama) with players from 10 different countries. Many were practicing throw-downs while others danced around DJ turntables.

Sri Lankan food was being served under gazebos, where earlier in the day ambassadors from Sri Lanka, the UK, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines had been in attendance for an opening ceremony.

It was an unlikely scene in what would usually be a quiet Sunday afternoon in the opulent Beirut neighbourhood of Monot, but one which stirred happy memories for Fernando.

Fernando first came first to Lebanon in 1996, looking for work as a means to support his family in Colombo. He first found work as a cleaner, earning just $150 per month.

It was by chance on his way to work one day that he met someone who asked him if would like to play cricket.

Having played a lot growing up in Sri Lanka, Fernando latched on to the opportunity and started practicing in an underground car park on Saturday evenings.

Fernando Sugath is one of players who first set up the cricket matches the Université Saint Joseph car park in Monot. Matt Kynaston for The National

It was then in 2000 that he and his friends discovered the Université Saint Joseph car park in Monot, a huge space, bordered with tall ficus trees that was left empty on a Sunday. He and his friends began playing with the permission of the Jesuit Church, which owns one-third of the car park.

In Beirut, a city devoid of public space, news of the new “ground” soon spread, and more players began to turn up. Every Sunday for over 17 years, Fernando congregated with other migrant workers to play their favourite game together.

“We used to have 20 teams turn up on a Sunday,” Fernando tells The National, “That’s over 200 people.”

Cricket clubs were founded, teams based on neighbourhood and nationality, and communities formed around those clubs. For migrant workers who had limited free time in Lebanon, the ground acted like a hub for a disparate and marginalised group.

“The only time I can spend with my friends is when I come to the cricket,” says Fernando.

Tournaments were huge events with many hundreds of attendees. Teams would travel to the car park to play for trophies, pride and cash prizes.

However, the events also brought with them unwanted attention. For example, in 2005, the Lebanese Army raided a tournament, arresting dozens of cricketers and attendees at gunpoint, using the event to check for legal documentation of migrant workers.

Then, in 2017 with just a few days to go before a big tournament, lawyers of the other owners of the car park got in touch, ordering for the cricket to cease, threatening the players with arrest for trespassing if it went ahead.

“It hurt the cricketing community a lot in Lebanon,” says Fernando with regret, “because we had no other place to play.”

Fernando, along with the help of co-organiser William Dobson, tried to engage with the car park owners, hoping to find a way to bring their game back.

A women's team watch the action at the Université Saint Joseph car park. Photo: Usidu Dilmika Marasinghe

Then with the onset of multiple economic crises in Lebanon, a popular uprising in 2019, the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the obstacles to retrieving their sacred playing space began to stack up.

As the crises deepened, it was the migrant worker communities in Lebanon that bore the brunt of the economic fallout. Already low wages began to diminish in value as the Lebanese Lira lost over 90 per cent of its worth. Many South Asian workers began to return home or look for opportunities elsewhere.

“Very many of the cricketers have since left now,” says Sugath.

Five years went by of email exchanges, meetings and phone calls until eventually in June this year, after an intervention from the Jesuit Church, the owners finally agreed to allow play to continue.

“It took a long time and a lot of angst, but we finally got the ground back,” Dobson said. “This tournament was a chance to celebrate that and bring the communities back together.”

The story of this struggle reached none other than Sri Lankan cricketing legend, Kumar Sangakkara – who sent his own personal video message congratulating Fernando and the guys for fighting for the playing space, saying they represented the ‘very essence of cricket.’ The video was played during the opening ceremony of the tournament.

Majid Satti is stumped by Nalin Sampath of the Sri Lankan embassy team. Matt Kynaston for The National

A historically under supported group in Lebanon, South Asian migrant workers have one of the pillars of their community back, now dubbed ‘The Lords of Lebanon.’ However, the same security firm that had been deployed to shut down the games in the past still patrol and occasionally watch over the matches, and a police car appeared as the final games of the day were being played.

Dobson hopes that with the right funding and support, the community will be able to continue playing for many years to come.

“I’d like enough money to stage regular tournaments in the car park and for other teams to be able to host their own,” says Dobson, “When you come to an event like this and you see how much joy it brings to people, you can see how important it is.”

Back on the pitch, Fernando’s batted out a respectable innings of 12 not out to contribute to his team’s total of 45, which was enough of a total to see his side progress to the next round of competition. However he would have to wait.

An oversubscription of teams had meant that only the first round of the tournament could be concluded on the Sunday, the competition would have to continue in weeks to come.

Regardless of the outcome, nothing could have taken the smile off Fernando’s face.

“Cricket makes everything possible,” he says emotionally. “I cannot tell you how happy we are to have it back.”

Updated: October 01, 2022, 6:34 AM