It’s not the National Stadium in Karachi and during the dark wet months of winter in Ballaghaderreen it is sometimes hard for them to imagine playing cricket again. But for over a decade now, the famous football border town, in the heart of Dillon country has also operated as the stronghold of cricket in Connacht.
“I don’t even remember when I started playing,” says Sajjad Hussain in evoking a childhood in Hroonabad, a village a good many hours drive from Islamabad. “I was too young.”
He was one of nine – five brothers and four sisters. It was more than enough for epic games in the back garden before he moved onto the village team. For the past 15 years, Hussain has run a barber shop in Ballaghaderreen. His English is excellent and accented and inflected with familiar localisms.
As often happens with good things, the local cricket club evolved by chance. Sajjad was still finding his feet as a barber when John Corcoran came in for a haircut.
“Sometimes a few of us would meet to play little informal games of cricket in the church car park And John and I started talking about the game. This was in 2007 when Ireland beat Pakistan in the World Cup. And we spoke about starting a club.”
He was slightly taken aback by the speed of it. Hussain had originally arrived in Ballaghaderreen to work in the Dawn Meat factory, a halal plant which had been started by a Pakistani entrepreneur in the 1980s. He had graduated from college and was unsure of his future at home.
“It was hard to find a proper line of work at the time and the Irish Government was issuing a lot of permits. I had friends here. So I decided to come over.”
He is naturally outgoing and has an easy way and from the beginning he began to connect the similarities rather than the cultural differences between Hroonabad, the village where he grew up, and this stately border town. Take away the language, take away the dress code and the places had more in common than not. But not long after he arrived, the meat plant in the town closed in 2008, with operations moving to the nearby plant in Ballyhaunis. Some employees returned to Pakistan. Hussain was among those who stayed. Playing cricket, even informally, felt like a custom worth preserving.
“It wasn’t easy to buy equipment. I went back to Pakistan for holidays around then. So I bought some bats and a ball and wickets. And so we started. Then we went for proper kits. We pitched in 100 euros each and got uniforms and proper bats. We didn’t have a ground.”
Another hair cut partly solved that dilemma. Tom Keane called in one afternoon. He knew that Sajjad played and he volunteered to put it to the local golf committee that a patch of flat ground could be re-imagined as a cricket pitch.
“He was captain at that time. John Corcoran was also involved and they got us a space. So we started there every evening.”
Before they knew it, Ballaghaderreen Cricket Club was in practice for the Connacht League. They won it during their maiden season and have taken nine titles since.
Zeeshan Azfal was captain of the team last year. He learned to play cricket in Roscommon. He moved to the town when he was five years old and his memories of Pakistan are hazy. "It was back in 2013 when I began to play proper cricket here," he says.
Right now, April turning to May, is when the game would usually provide the rhythm to his working life. They train two or three times a week and the nets are there in the community park whenever they want to go along for an informal game.
“We have been trying to get the Irish lads to come up for the crack and see how it is but they don’t take much interest in cricket here. But it can grow, I think. In the past few years, the club is becoming bigger because we are winning the league regularly. And we do play against Irish lads too so we are hoping to expand the team.”
The national quarantine has made Zeeshan realise just how central a role cricket had come to play in his weekly life.
“We would be starting up around now. It has been difficult without the cricket because it is in our blood. We can’t really live properly without it. Cos we have the net made up and everything in the community park so we just go along and play. The best part of my game is batting. I wouldn’t think it will happen this year because of the situation. You know yourself like. So you need two or three people at least to go use the nets but we can’t do that now.”
Since he closed his barber’s at the outset of the Covid crisis, Sajjad’s phone has been hopping with customers requesting haircuts on the q-t. He enjoys the chat and cheerfully declines the business: apart from anything else, the family has a young baby in the house.
“They tell me they won’t vote for me,” he laughs.
“I say no problem.”
Hussain ran in the last election as an independent. He is an old hand now at the political cartography of the complex Roscommon-Mayo border: 38 polling stations spread over an hour’s drive. It’s a lot of leaflets, a lot of houses. “I got a vote from 26 of those stations” he says, which will give him reason to run again. He is one of those people that like to get involved: in the Tidy Towns, in the Foróige, in the refugee centre. He was moved to run for election by his experiences as a small business owner and from watching what a thriving town struggle during the merciless years of the recession.
“There are a lot of issues. There is no help from small business. Half of the town is empty. When I opened the barbers 15 years ago I had to struggle for quite a time to get it going. And there are at least 150 empty houses in Ballaghaderreen and it is the same in any town that you walk through. And yet the rent has gone very high and there is nothing available. Why are these houses sitting empty? We need to make these houses available.”
The Pakistani community are so well assimilated in Ballaghaderreen that one of the local taxi drivers, whose first name was Abdul, quickly earned himself the unofficial name of Abdul Abhaile. For Sajjad, the sense of community within the town was one of the reasons that made it easy to settle there.
“I lived in Dublin for a while and it is a huge difference because in the city life people are busy and don’t know each other. But if I walk down the street here and if I meet 20 people as I go, if 18 don’t say hello, then that would surprise me.
“And I am here 15 years so I know people from calling in when they were boys getting a hair cut and they are now taller than me. One time my window was broken and people were helping. It was the same in my village. Someone’s problem was everyone’s problem. That was a big thing for me. There were lots of similarities.”
And when the cricket club materialised from nothing and began winning season after season, the community began to take notice. Small articles began to appear in the local press. People heard of the wins by word of mouth. And then a story about the cricket club appeared in a national paper. This coincided with a deluge of bleak news emanating from the west of Ireland.
“First of all, nobody really noticed. Some English people living around here do know cricket. But after we won the league, there were some reports in the papers here and it shocked people that there was even a club here. Because unless you are a cricket fan, you won’t know about cricket. In the barber shop, people came in and did say they were so proud. Because there weren’t many good headlines. It was a great reaction. People shaking hands, all of that.”
As a barber, Sajjad has become knowledgeable in the casual conversations about Mayo and Roscommon football. He gets that the game is the lifeblood there much as cricket was in Pakistan. But cricket has unlocked doors for the Ballaghaderreen team all over Ireland, taking them on trips for games in Tipperary, Kilkenny and Dublin as well as the established clubs in Connacht.
Mount Juliet is his favourite ground in the country. But it is more the sense of meeting kindred spirits and keeping what he believes to be the greatest sport alive. In recent years, he became involved with the efforts to help Syrian refugees assimilate and settle in Ballaghaderreen. Many were waiting for permits and living in temporary accommodation, separated from family and traumatised by their experiences in just reaching Ireland.
“If you have a couple of hours to play after work it is good for mental and physical health too. In other clubs though the majority of players are Irish. And there are refugees in Ireland now with literally nothing to do. And learning a new sport like Gaelic football or hurling is not going to be easy for them. But many do know cricket in their old lives and they can go and they can go to grounds and play and it is important to them.”
But for now, like all sports, the Ballaghaderreen cricket project is on pause.