Italy’s immigrant cricketers seek to make a point

Rome, Nov 27 (DPA) Charith Rajamanthri is a rarity in Italy’s under-15 age group cricket team. He is one of just three Italian nationals in the 13-member squad, which also includes Britons, Bangladeshis, Indians and Pakistanis.

The official playing season may have ended, but on a crisp autumn morning Rajamanthri and a group of fellow teenagers practise on a grassy stretch sandwiched between a bus terminal and a road flanking Rome’s River Tiber.

Born to parents who arrived more than 20 years ago from Sri Lanka and who eventually obtained Italian citizenship, Rajamanthri is passionate about a sport that draws hundreds of thousands of spectators in the land of his ancestors.

In football-crazy Italy though, cricket is still largely unknown, even if more people are taking up the sport, many of them second-generation immigrants from south Asia. “When I first told my schoolmates I played cricket, most had never heard of it. Others confused it with croquet,” Rajamanthri says, referring to the genteel game in which balls are knocked with a mallet through hoops planted on manicured lawns.

“Then I showed them my helmet, gloves, leg pads and box (to protect the crotch area) and told them cricket balls can top speeds of 140 kilometres an hour,” he says, pointing to the equipment in his kit bag.

“They were impressed and also a bit scared.”

Mainly a top order batsman but also a proficient medium fast bowler, Rajamanthri in August was part of the team that captured Italy’s first international cricket trophy — the 2009 under-15 Division 2 European Championship. The following month, he accompanied team captain Mohammad Adnan on another mission.

They visited parliament’s lower house Chamber of Deputies for the presentation of a bill to change Italy’s restrictive citizenship law.

Adnan, born in Italy to non-Italian citizens who immigrated from Pakistan, can currently only qualify for Italian citizenship when he turns 18 and reaches legal adulthood. Italian citizenship is mostly acquired through having Italian parents and other forms of ancestry, or marriage to Italian citizens. Otherwise, one must have lived in the country legally for at least 10 years.

“We all represent Italy, but when we return from a trip abroad, most of my teammates are quizzed at passport control about their residence permits,” Rajamanthri explains.

Among other provisions, the bill seeks to render foreigners born in Italy eligible for immediate citizenship, provided their parents have been residing legally in the country for at least five years. It is backed by the opposition centre-left but enjoys far less support among Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative coalition.

Proponents chose as testimonial the under-15 team, which has benefited from the international cricket governing body’s regulations that allow players to represent their country of residence.

In a cheeky move, Italian Cricket Federation President Simone Gambino even dedicated the European Championship win to Umberto Bossi, leader of the anti-immigration Northern League party. The victory proves that immigrants “don’t just cause trouble but actually bring honour to Italy”, Gambino said.

A key player in government, the Northern League has led the thrust behind tough new laws, including making illegal immigration a punishable offence. Its leaders equate the presence of foreigners with rising crime.

Not so, says Catholic group Caritas, which in a recent study showed that immigrants produce 10 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and are neither more nor less likely to commit crimes than Italians.

According to Caritas’ annual report on immigration, the number of legal immigrants in Italy has increased by 246 percent over 10 years to more than 4.5 million in 2008, or more than seven percent of the population.

While favouring curbs on illegal arrivals, one prominent government coalition politician, Chamber of Deputies Speaker Gianfranco Fini, also wants an easing of the citizenship requirements. Caritas estimates that more than 70,000 children will be born to immigrant parents in 2009 in Italy, or around 13 percent of the total number of births.

“If these children were not left in limbo for many years, then their chances to integrate would be much better,” Fini said.