Friday 19 October 2012 

Cricket In Europe - A Summer Of Discovery

he Corfu grounds are perfect for the tournament.  Some boundaries are a bit on the small side but it’s the same for everyone.  The pitch at Messonghi beach, my day one venue, is in the grounds of the Messonghi Beach Hotel and has a lovely feel to it, a bit like one of the grounds on Barbados.  Small and intimate and yet with atmosphere provided by the non-playing teams who are staying at the hotel and a smattering of supporters making the most of a great holiday too. 

The pitch itself is artificial, like 99% of pitches in Europe and the boundary on one side is so short that the fielding circle is only about 2 or 3 meters from the boundary edge, creating some very odd looking fielding positions.   Spain trounce Estonia in the first match thanks to an astonishing 150* from opener Tariq Ali, who made the most of being dropped twice to flail the attack to all parts.  Credit to Estonia who fought back in the last 7 overs otherwise a 250 plus score was looking on the cards.

The innings demonstrated what a different game cricket is on these grounds.  Tariq clearly has a great eye and very fast hands relying on a very simple technique of hitting through the line of the ball and on a true surface risk is minimized greatly.  Short boundaries add to the carrot and top edges fly regularly for 6, not that he failed to middle many!

How do you bowl on a surface that offers you little seam movement and in bright blue skies and 35 degree heat there’s not too much swing either?  The secret looks to be in change of pace.  All the while the ball is coming on to the bat at the same velocity every ball, it is easy to have a swing as you know it’s not going to deviate.  A regular change of pace makes that a more difficult proposition and it was noticeable in the last few overs of the innings how the Estonian bowlers had cottoned on to this and sure enough the run rate dropped.

The fielding is different too.  Outfields aren’t the flattest.  Often they double up as football pitches so the odd pot hole, small mound or longer grass is not uncommon in Europe.  The one at Messonghi has had turf laid (and when I said laid I mean thrust on top of the existing earth and rolled in) and to be fair it’s not been too bad.  A couple shoot along the ground but given what it looks like up close, that can’t be a bad result.  Catching, however, really does appear more difficult.  The ball travels more quickly in the heat and against a bright blue sky (or with large hills in the background as at Ropa Valley) it is really hard to judge the trajectory of a ball hit at pace and the number of misjudged catches resulting in balls sailing over the incoming boundary fielder is startling but on reflection quite understandable.  Coaching that would be an interesting challenge……..

Estonia fell well short of the Spanish total and Tariq was at it again in the following match on the same ground against the Portugese team, this time scoring 148.  Clearly no fluke!

It’s proving a very open tournament.  Favourites Isle of Man were surprisingly beaten by Sweden on day one and Israel have been winning but not overly convincingly.  At the end of day 3 (my second day in Corfu), only Luxembourg and Croatia remain without a win.

My day two took me to the Ropa Valley ground – two of them side by side.  I missed match 2 in Messonghi on the first day to go to the ground but got horribly, yet wonderfully, lost.  One simple wrong turning took me to a gorgeous hillside town Pelekas and then up and down unfeasibly windy steep roads to Glyfada, apparently the best beach on the island and, to my disappointment, a dead end!

Anyway day 2’s trip straight to Ropa Valley from Corfu Town was a doddle.  Embarrassingly so!  And what a ground!  The entrance is between two houses off the main road and down a dirt track for what seems like an age and then, right in front, are the two grounds.  Facilities are basic currently (a couple of Portaloos and a covered area on a concrete base) but it is plenty and the view is magnificent.  For me it is the most picturesque cricket ground I have been too.  So far.

To give you an idea of the struggles these countries face, this ground hadn’t been used since the last tournament here 4 years earlier and the outfield grass was cut just moments before the first match this time (and the first cut since 4 years ago too).  It’s a travesty that a ground like this isn’t used more often.  It was built by a business man who wanted to create a sports share with football, cricket and other sports but, like many others in Greece over the last few years, he went bust and the vision was never completed.  Let me tell you, it must be completed!  This is a venue that must be used regularly by cricketers from all around the world.  If we leave here this week and the grass starts to grow again it will be an almighty waste.

Ropa 2 is the better of the two.  It is a proper size ground and, like the smaller Ropa 1, is in a part bowl so the view from the makeshift pavilion area on the top of the hill is amazing.  I could sit and watch cricket here for all my life.  What is needs is a proper pavilion, toilet, showers, etc.  It’s a small investment but only worthwhile if the ground is used.

Money is a massive problem for these countries and the global recession has just exacerbated the issue.  Affiliate nations receive just US$15,000 a year from the ICC.  It’s peanuts.  Nowhere near enough.  And with it comes stipulations.  2 courses (coaching, umpiring, scoring) must be run each year at a cost of around US$1,000 each plus balls need to bought which cost about another US$1,000 so the remainder must cover the whole country for a year.  This isn’t to blame the ICC. 

You can only give what you have and I have no doubt budgets are stretched as much as possible to develop cricket in these nations but so little with barely any funding or sponsorship at local level, makes it one hell of a challenge to develop a minority sport in countries.

The ICC rightly insist that teams must attend their tournaments too.  But they only pay for the flights.  Teams must pay for their own accommodation.  With national budgets clearly not being able to fund all of that, players are often expected to pay for their own accommodation for these tournaments – as well as taking a week off work – and this just adds to the complexity.  If they do well and get promoted, as in Estonia’s case, you’ve then sometimes got a couple of months, or less, to find another pile of Euros to fund the next trip. 

It’s not easy and players and officials from these countries should be praised for their dedication.  It’s a far removed world from the IPL!  If only a fraction of the money made from the IPL could filter its way down to this level.  Another US$15,000 for each country, doubling their budgets would make a big difference.

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