Loyalties split as Pakistan cricket stars make first appearance on Dutch soil

Published August 17, 2022
PAKISTAN fans are seen in the stands during the first One-day International against the Netherlands on Tuesday.—courtesy KNCB Cricket
PAKISTAN fans are seen in the stands during the first One-day International against the Netherlands on Tuesday.—courtesy KNCB Cricket

ON the outskirts of Rotterdam, near the airport and the sleepy neighbourhood of Schiebroek, chants of ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ and ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ rolled off the tongues. With flags — some of them even belonging to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf — shirts, bats, wigs and about everything they could find in green, Pakistani supporters descended on the modest but picturesque ground of the local cricket club, V.O.C. Rotterdam.

The venue, with makeshift stands and a capacity of 3,000, is surrounded by trees, ponds and waterways. All the meadows and greenery matched the passion of the Pakistani fans, who slogged their way across the continent from Germany, France and across the channel from England to watch the first ODI between Pakistan and the Netherlands.

Salek Chishti, an IT specialist from London, took the 3am train in Folkstone and then drove from Calais in France to be in time for the toss. Near the boundary, he got a chance to get Shaheen Shah Afridi’s autograph. He also clamoured for captain Babar Azam, with supporters asking stewards and photographers to move out of the way and not obstruct the view. Beaming, Salek said: “It’s a lovely and intimate ground. You get some contact with the players which doesn’t happen at Lord’s or some of the big English grounds.”

“You watch these players, absolute superstars back home, on TV and now they are here,” enthused Usama Liaqat, who lives in nearby The Hague, the capital of justice and home to the International Criminal Court. “It’s so cool.”

It’s part of the reason why Salek, Usama and other fans came — to see Pakistan’s stars up and close, in the flesh, and to take in the colours, the smells and the textures. It was a grand day out. They cheered as Fakhar Zaman got Pakistan off the mark in a slow start for the visitors with little initiative to take singles. Stung by a wasp in the 17th over, Fakhar maintained a perfect strike rate to score 109 runs from 109 balls.

Before Tuesday’s game, Pakistan had played the Netherlands three times — the first coming in the 1996 World Cup at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore. The second meeting came during the 2002 ICC Champions Trophy in Sri Lanka and third during the 2003 World Cup in South Africa.

This, however, is the first time Pakistan are touring the Netherlands. With the T20 Asia Cup on the horizon and very different wickets in the United Arab Emirates, some may question the wisdom of playing in Rotterdam, but the series was carried over from last year because of the coronavirus pandemic and the matches contribute to crucial World Cup qualifying points.

Hosts Netherlands are no powerhouse in cricket, but they have a major claim to fame. In 2009, the Dutch defeated England in the curtain-raiser of the Twenty20 World Cup by four wickets, prompting scenes of jubilation and ecstasy at Lord’s. Britain’s The Guardian encapsulated the match as “a thrilling contest as orange shone bright in the murky twilight of a memorable evening.”

“I simply couldn’t stop laughing,” recalled Sander Tholen, who has been following Dutch cricket for decades. “It was the opening game. At Lords! It was simply not supposed to happen.”

In the late ’50s, Tholen played as a part-time blower for Volharding Rap Amstels (VRA), one of the oldest clubs in the Netherlands, who played visiting teams from England in the Olympic Stadium, the Vondelpark and even at Museumplein, all landmark tourist attractions in Amsterdam. His uncle was a marquee player at VRA and so Tholen got enrolled in the club by birth.

He fears that Dutch cricket has flatlined since that heady night in London. “You have to be careful that the sport doesn’t stagnate,” said Tholen. “It is not taught at school and it is not very popular. Cricket got a bit of a boost because of the ‘new Dutch’, with new clubs and new umpires. Those second-generation immigrants simply love the game.”

Usama is one of those new citizens. The Netherlands counts 25,000 inhabitants with a Pakistani background, according to a 2020 Dutch census, with about half of that total living in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague.

Born and bred here, he identifies as Dutch, but it is often an awkward and difficult tightrope to walk, at work, in society and even at a cricket match.

“Over here, I am Pakistani and in Pakistan, I am seen as Dutch,” explained Usama, who plays for the reserve team of VCC, the Hague Club of Dutch and Mumbai Indians batter Bas de Leede. “Imagine a football game between the Netherlands and Turkey. Imagine you are Turkish, living in the Netherlands. You will long to support Turkey. But you don’t begrudge the Dutch a victory.”

His personal connection to De Leede aside, Usama and other Dutch-Pakistanis have another reason to cheer their adopted country. The Ahmad brothers in the Dutch team have Pakistani ancestry. The elder Ahmad, Musa, was even born in Lahore. But neither Musa nor his younger brother Shariz made the playing XI on Tuesday as Pakistan won by 16 runs.

On Thursday, Pakistan and the Netherlands return for the second ODI with a sell-out crowd expected. Once again loyalties will be split and once again anything but a Pakistan victory will be a major upset.

Published in Dawn, August 17th, 2022

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