Friday 19 October 2012 

Cricket In Europe - A Summer Of Discovery

Cricket in Europe?  Yes really.  Not just the United Kingdom?  Well I know Netherlands do too but no-one else surely?  Most of Europe?  Seriously?

Well yes, they do. This summer I have experienced a fair bit of it and have gotten a real feel for ICC associate & affiliate national cricket in Europe.

Over the last 2 years our Twenty20 Cricket Company have been sending coaches out to Bonn, Hamburg, Geneva, Basel and Rome to coach local children so we were well aware of efforts being made to promote the game to juniors in those cities and countries but in June this year I ventured out to Tallinn, capital of Estonia for the ICC Europe Division 3 tournament.
The regional ICC tournaments work in an unusual way.  Each division plays a one-off tournament every 2 years and the top team or teams are promoted to the next division up which may well take place in a short period of time.  This is what led me to my most recent trip in September to Corfu for the ICC Europe Division 2 tournament, more of which later.

Tallinn is a strange venue for cricket.  A beautiful ancient city sits uncomfortably with the stag/hen do visitors and the stunning old town is punctuated by bars and strip clubs, making an amazing historical city come across as frustratingly seedy but here it was that the Europe Division 3 nations would be playing.  Quite what the former Russian “owners” would have made of this who knows but the KGB museum at the top of my hotel which they used as their local headquarters during the time it was the USSR was a stark reminder that this was an old iron curtain location.

The ground itself is just 15 minutes from the city centre by taxi and doubles up as a racetrack.  It’s an amazingly incongruous site to watch cricket with horses and carts racing around the outside of the boundary but that’s the view I had from the sidelines as hosts Estonia beat all before them to gain promotion to Division 2 in Corfu.  “All” turned out to be just Bulgaria and Slovenia with the Swiss national team banned by the ICC as they couldn’t come up with just one representative body nationally.  That is a whole story in itself for another day…….

What was the standard of the cricket like in Tallinn?  It’s very hard to describe.   For those of you who are involved in colts’ cricket in the UK where you have maybe 4 or 5 good cricketers in the team and maybe 5 or 6 near beginners will understand it best.  A collection of ex-pats with good club experience in their own countries (albeit sometimes a good few years ago) are generally the “stars” with the remainder local born players who have only been playing the game a short period of time.  Some of these locals are going to be really good too.  Probably the most technically correct player I saw all week was an Estonian national who had been playing only a very short time and who, I was told, had learnt the game via You Tube! 

Apparently this was a common way for the locals to learn about cricket as it was one of the few sources to watch the game.  Damn good job it had done too.  For all three teams to have managed to get locals playing the game to this standard is fantastic.  They need to go further but, with time, they will.

The ICC were disappointed by the standard on show that week as they’ve seen better from all 3 teams before and I can see why, but the game is still very young in these countries and we all have to start somewhere.  It’s all a question of experience and the more quality games these countries can get, the quicker their development will be.

Here is where some of the biggest challenges lie.  Some countries have maybe just a handful of pitches, if that, in the whole country and this is often a shared facility with more mainstream sports, particularly football and rugby, so finding time to play more matches can be a struggle and, of course, persuading teams to travel some considerable distance to play them.  This is where we can help in England.  Instead of touring the usual places in England, teams should be looking to Europe.  It can be just as cheap as much more exciting and you’re giving something back to the development of cricket to boot.  Give it some thought when you’re planning your next tour.  Just about every country in Europe has a national team and clubs.  In Germany alone there are over 80 cricket clubs and that is far from the exception.

So Estonia were the tournament winners, winning fairly comfortably in most matches, albeit surprisingly losing the final match against a Bulgarian side without a win up to then, and it was a well-deserved win in a fantastic match.  What some of these teams lack in experience, they more than make up in team spirit and enthusiasm, a lesson that could be learned in many clubs sides back in the UK!

Estonian cricket is headed up by a larger than life Australian Poker website owner, Tim Heath, who has clearly put a lot of energy, time, effort and, I suspect, money into the sport in Estonia to get it going.  And going it is.  As a measure of how seriously they take it, they even organised pre-tournament warm up games in Berlin (beautiful new ground next to the Olympic stadium) on their way to Corfu.  Watch this space because cricket in Estonia will grow and grow.

It generally takes these sorts of single minded individuals to get cricket going in their adopted countries.  Saif Rehman has done it in Buglaria and even runs blind cricket events as well as being team captain for the last few years (unfortunately at the time of writing he has just been sacked).  He is an absolute saint and would have received a gong of some sort if he’d been in the UK for his services to cricket and disability sport.

Brad Eve and Mark Oman in Slovenia are similar icons.  Mark is captain of the team, school teacher by day and long term supporter and driver of cricket in the country.  Unsung heroes them all; I’m delighted to be able to sing their praises here.  They are not alone, I’m sure but the world needs to know what great work these people are doing.

And so to Corfu.  Did you know there are 5 cricket pitches in Corfu in an island that is less than 250 square miles in size and a population of just over 100,000 people?  The most famous ground in Corfu town centre is only used for exhibition matches now (the local car park is part of the outfield) but to be able to host a 12 team week long tournament on an island this size is amazing.

Joining Division 3 winners Estonia are, Isle of Man, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Luxembourg, Cyprus, Israel, Malta, Finland, Croatia and hosts Greece, or Hellas as they are known in cricket circles, for the right to be promoted (top 2 teams) to the top league in Europe.  From Division 1, teams are promoted into the first of the 8 World Cricket Leagues (playing 50 over rather than the Twenty20 matches in the regional divisions) with teams from all over the world.  Just a few years ago Afghanistan were in a lowly World Division and they are now a One-Day International playing team so things can happen very quickly in associate and affiliate cricket.

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