How one man (and his kit bag) is giving cricket-loving refugees hope in Serbia


T20I Captain
Apr 16, 2013
Vladimir Ninkovic has arrived early to discover that, just an hour before the scheduled start of play, most of his players are still asleep.

The general secretary of the Serbian Cricket Federation is standing in the middle of the Krnjaca Asylum Center, a few miles outside of the capital Belgrade, waiting to begin what has become a regular match for him and the Afghan and Pakistani refugees who live here.

Twice a week he comes to the camps, by public bus, often dressed in cricket whites, eliciting strange looks from his fellow commuters. At his feet is a bag stuffed full of batting pads, balls and a single box. The handle of a bat is poking out of the zip.

"There are not many cricketers in Serbia," he says. "And definitely not at this time of the morning."

Though there are several well-established clubs and a full national team, as well as youth teams, cricket is not wildly popular in Serbia.

But in 2014 something changed. It became a key transit point on the Western Balkans refugee route in to Europe. Tens of thousands of Iraqis, Syrians and Afghans passed through here, heading for the Hungarian or Croatian border, hoping to get to Germany or Austria.

When those routes were closed last year, thousands were effectively stuck in Serbia - unable to go home, and unable to get past the newly erected fences on the Hungarian border.

The vast majority left were young men and boys from Afghanistan and Pakistan. And the game of choice to pass the time in the refugee camps was cricket.

Enter Vlada, and the Serbian Cricket Federation, which in 2015 was given associate membership by the International Cricket Council.

The Serbian commissariat for refugees recognised that a strange game they barely understood appeared to be doing some good. After a few phone calls, they found Vlada and asked him to organise some matches.

"We have about 10,000 refugees in 17 camps across the country," says 35-year-old Vlada, who began coming to the camps in April.

"During these two hours, twice a week, it gives them a few hours where they don't think of themselves as refugees or migrants or inmates, just good cricketers," he says. "They are extremely passionate and enthusiastic about the game. And they have quality. I'd say 70% of these players could play club-level cricket in England."

About 800 refugees live here, in tidy, well-kept lines of barracks that once hosted Croatian and Kosovan refugees from the Yugoslav Wars.

One Afghan player who plays for Vlada's Mirijevo club is Noor Ahmad Sherzad.

"I used to have a job as a police officer in the anti-narcotics department," the 32-year-old says of his life in Afghanistan. "We had a lot of problems with smugglers from the Taliban side. They called me and threatened me, so I left."

Sherzad is one of the few refugees here who has claimed asylum in Serbia. "Serbia is a transit country," explains Vlada. "Less than 1% want to stay.". For Sherzad, there were few options.

"When I was in Afghanistan I played for my police team in the academy," he says. "When I got here, after three months I told my lawyer: 'I like to play cricket.' And he called Vlada. I went to training. I am happy, I am alive and have friends, a small job and a cricket team."

About 30 young men and boys have now gathered around Vlada as he organises the teams. It is a half-hour journey on two public buses to Belgrade's cricket pitch. Many are unaccompanied children, which means their official guardian - a social worker - has to accompany them to the game.

"They are crazy for cricket. It is like with basketball in Serbia," says Miroslav Budimir, who is responsible for 40 boys, some as young as 10.

Many have had horrific experiences at the hands of people traffickers and various different border guards. Many have been beaten severely or jailed for long periods. Sometimes, the frustrations boil over in the camps. There was a riot involving 100 refugees in the camp the previous week.

"They are isolated form the rest of the population and sometimes it gets tense here," he says. "We had some fights, some unpleasant situations. But cricket is the best way to just release the pressure."

Belgrade's single pitch can be found next to a small airstrip, near the Padinska Skela prison. A grey, concrete factory dominates one side.

Other members of the Serbian Cricket Federation are here, setting up a mobile scoreboard before handing out fresh fruit and water to the players. Kings XI will take on RCB.

"These are good people who respect the refugee," says Prince, a young Afghan refugee in his mid-20s who will captain the RCB team.

He fled his country after his brother joined the military. The Taliban threatened his family, he says, so his brother insisted he leave. Prince travelled most of the 5,000 miles by foot.

"I was in a closed camp for seven months in Hungary. It was like a jail. It was very bad. They do not treat you like a human; they treat you like an animal," he recalls. "But we are so happy in this country. Inshallah, we are playing cricket in Serbia. I'm so happy."

Vlada walks the two captains out to the wicket and flips a five dinar coin. Prince's RCB team win the toss and bat first, setting a challenging 141-8 in a match reduced to 15 overs thanks to the intense Balkan summer heat. Sixes are sprayed around, the ball sometimes disappearing for long periods when it lands in tall grass past long-on.

Vlada is the umpire, holding his hardback scorebook and meticulously noting every run, wide and no-ball. Occasionally there are heated arguments between players over the speed of play or overly aggressive bowling. But Kings XI chase down the target to win by four wickets.

A few days later, Vlada is back in the camps. This time he takes a bus to the Obrenovac camp. He arrives with plastic wickets to set up regular tape-ball cricket tournaments.

This is the bigger of the two camps. About 1,000 young men and boys live here and roughly 100 come out to watch the tournament, won by the Afghan Champions, beating the Afghan Eagles off the last ball.

As ever, Vlada notes each run and ball in his hardback book. "The underdog won - the Afghan Champions won by one wicket," he says, reading from his book of statistics.

Serbia's refugees are not going anywhere soon. Many are now talking about staying. For Vlada, that could mean a sudden influx of talented players in to Serbian cricket.

"We heard from the camps that young guys are now thinking about Serbia as an option, which previously wasn't happening," he says, before leaving the Obrenovac camp with his bag full of bats and balls, taking the next bus back to the city.

"Once the summer passes and the cold weather settles in, maybe they will change their minds."