Late on a Friday as nightclubs, restaurants and patios are packed to the brim, you can hear the whip of a cricket ball smashing a ball in an empty Mississauga parking lot. A group of nearly 30 men, mostly from India and Pakistan, are ending their week by playing the game they grew up with.
“We have been playing throughout our life, so it’s something that is in our blood,” said Syed Ali, organizer of the weekly cricket game. “We’re keeping our tradition alive.”
Cricket is the most popular sport in South Asia by a wide margin, wherein a cricket match between opposing India and Pakistan racks up 15.9 billion minutes of viewership. The professional game is played on grass fields in stadiums, but the everyday person will often grab a bat, a wicket and play in the streets, alleyways or dirt fields.
Instead of a regular hard ball, it’s a tennis ball with electric tape covering it, and players are not padded up. The games are intense, with back-and-forth chirping on both sides. Sitting behind the batter’s wicket, there’s also a peanut gallery of older uncles chiming in with opinions. They often happen once a week during the summer months.
“It feels like home, it feels like what we’d play like in Pakistan,” said Ali.
Eight years ago, Ali first moved to Mississauga to pursue a career in engineering. At the time, he didn’t know many people, and with little time to make friends, he joined an alumni group for his former school in Karachi, Pakistani.
Shortly after, while getting tea one night and sitting outside on a warm summer day on their cars, Ali asked his friends if they wanted to play cricket, and quickly everyone was in.
“It’s empty, so why don’t we just start playing if we don’t hurt anyone?” he said.
The next week, they had about six to eight players show up, he recalled. But, that had changed over the years, with the game expanding far beyond anything he could ever imagine.
“We started as a few people … now we have 32 people waiting to play today,” he said. “I don’t know all of them,” he said.
“Cricket is really much a culture in Pakistan, it’s just part of the lifestyle there,” said Ali Saeed.
Saeed is a veteran of the parking lot cricket matches. The 30-year-old has been playing them regularly every summer barring COVID-19 and looks forward to it at the end of every workweek.
“I want to enjoy life after work hours on a Friday night, not in a club, not getting drunk, just outside sober, playing cricket,” he said.
Brampton and Mississauga are home to several cricket grounds, but their times are limited and, in the evenings, they’re next to impossible to book, according to Saeed.
“We’re playing in the parking lot because there’s nothing out there open at night. There’s no infrastructure for cricket at this moment where I can leave my work late and go play,” he said.
But, it’s not just about the game, it’s about building relationships, according to Ali. He said that people here become friends quickly, end up going on camping trips with their families and build friendships that extend outside the parking lot.
“A lot of people here have helped each other find jobs, they network, they make new friends,” he said. “It’s become a community of people helping each other.”
No one knows that better than Muhammad Khan, who moved to Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic and had just a limited circle of people he knew in the country. Once restrictions opened up, he began playing with the cricket group and made friends fast.
“Cricket drove us to connect with each other,” he said. “During the pandemic, it was difficult for everyone to connect again, but it allows us to reconnect and to spend quality time with each other.”
Whether on the streets of Karachi or a Staples parking lot, the passion for the game lives in the hearts of the players more than 10,000 kilometres away. And while their generation continues to love the sport, Ali hopes he can pass it on to his son, who can one-day play in the same parking lots.
“My grandfather used to tell his stories to my father, and my father would tell me, then probably I’m going to tell my son I used to play,” he said.