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Thursday, Sep 19, 2019

In Cluj? How about some cricket?

The cricket league bringing together the game’s most unlikely teams in Europe, from Barca to Brescia

cricket Updated: Aug 11, 2019 18:10 IST
Somshuvra Laha
Somshuvra Laha
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
File image of Romanian players taking part in the European Cricket League.
File image of Romanian players taking part in the European Cricket League.
         

Weekend night shifts at PHI 18, a posh nightclub in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, keeps Pavel Florin on his toes. A professional bodyguard for 16 years, Florin has to be on the prowl for over-enthusiastic party-goers, and tame the revelry if called for. It requires a fair bit of muscle, and Florin, who has Popeye arms and brutally shorn hair, feels it hampers his bowling action.

“I think I have the moves. But tell me seriously, is it really that ugly?,” asks Florin on a video chat while waiting for his flight to Bucharest, a couple of days after breaking the internet with his unique bowling action at the three-day European Cricket League (ECL) held in La Manga, Spain.

It is a sight to behold. There are doubts whether it can be called round-arm at all. Florin releases the ball before his hand has even cleared his head, and the ball takes a trajectory seldom seen in cricket. But it confuses batsmen; and Florin now has support from the likes of Shane Warne and Jofra Archer, who were moved by the Romanian’s love for the game. Even though his team lost all the league stage games at ECL, Florin returns with a bit of respect, a fair bit of fame, and some goodwill that he wants to leverage into building a cricket ground at Cluj-Napoca, a bustling city with stunning architecture dating back to the 14th century.

“That’s the dream. To be honest my team is broke,” says Florin. “We don’t play every day and have improved only in the last couple of years. It’s not Romania’s national sport. So it hurts when people say we are poor in cricket. Some people think I’m exotic because I play cricket. But I don’t care. I love it.”

Florin, who is also the president of the Cluj Cricket Club, is one of only two native Romanians in the Cluj side. The other 15 players are all Indian or Pakistani in origin. In fact, apart from VOC Rotterdam, which won this inaugural edition of the ECL, and to some extent Denmark’s Svanholm, the story is the same for the other five teams — Catalunya Cricket Club (Spain), Dreux CC (France), SG Findorff (Germany), JCC Brescia (Italy) and St Petersburg Lions (Russia) —all of whom are made up largely of immigrants from traditional cricket-playing nations. Many of them second or third generation immigrants, and some who moved more recently.

ECL founder Daniel Weston is Australian himself, but has now lived in Munich for 12 years.

“We involved clubs because they are in local communities,” Weston says. “Clubs play other sports and they also have juniors. Franchise cricket can’t help juniors. When the immigrants have children they can go the local club and play cricket with children who may not be into it.”

With two locals each, St Petersburg and Cluj really represent the backwaters of European cricket; they were also the only two teams not to win any matches at the tournament.

Catalunya CC, based in Barcelona has no Spanish origin player, being made up almost entirely of immigrants from Afghanistan and Pakistan, but boasts of good infrastructure. Rotterdam has two players of Australian and Kiwi origin, but they have Dutch passports.

“Their mothers were born in Holland,” says player-coach Corey Rutgers, himself an Australian who has been involved with Dutch cricket for four years now. “The funny thing is that do you call them Dutch nationals or overseas players? This VOC team has four Asian origin players, all born in Holland, but their parents are from Pakistan and India. They have Dutch passports.”

Most of the players in Findorff and St Petersburg Lions too are of Indian and Pakistani origin but with German and Russian passports. Some are in Europe on work visas as well. Like Satvik Nadigotla and Sivakumar Periyalwar, the first and second wicketkeepers of Cluj. An economist from Hyderabad, Nadigotla has been living in Romania for close to four years.

“Since I had played district-level and South Zone University cricket, I was keen on playing here as well. I got to know about Cluj from Facebook,” he said. Similarly, the first thing Periyalwar — a project engineer from Tamil Nadu — did after checking into his new workplace in 2015, was to start looking for weekend cricket tournaments.

22 yards at La Manga

Weston, a former hedge-fund manager who came to Germany on work and began to spend his weekends looking for a game of cricket, launched German Cricket TV in 2016, a pet project intended to live stream all cricket events in the football-crazy country. Its Facebook page has almost 1.3 million followers now. Enthused by the results, Weston gave up his day job to plan a broader canvas for cricket in mainland Europe, where the game has little reach.

That project expanded into the ECL, an ICC approved T10 tournament involving club-level national champions — not franchises — from eight countries. With considerable help from Roger Feiner, a former broadcasting head at FIFA, and Thomas Klooz and Frank Leendars — once part of UEFA’s Champions League marketing team ,Weston was provided the backing to give shape to his dream.

“Frankly, I am doing this so that my children and the children of my co-workers can play cricket in the future,” Weston says over the phone from La Manga. “I just decided to copy how football works in Europe. It has to be a club based contest. And I wanted to start with eight teams in two groups of four. Like in Champions League football, here too all clubs were champions in their respective national domestic leagues.”

Being an ICC approved event, ECL came with the packages associated with a top-flight league — anti-corruption teams, quality production and commentary teams with proper television and social media coverage. The venue, La Manga, which is essentially a thin strip of land—21km long—in the south of Spain between the Mediterranean Sea and a lagoon called Minor Sea, building a reputation for cricket. It has hosted camps for Cricket Ireland and Cricket Scotland, as well as pre-season camps for English first-class teams.

The tournament didn’t go without glitches though. Their travel plans scuppered by a country-wide transport strike in France, Dreux CC undertook a seven-hour drive by bus to get to La Manga.

Florin too had to drive for almost 500km to join his team. Technical issues with visas cropped up, which is expected when so many immigrants are involved. Brescia, the Italian team, had to forfeit a match because of an ineligible player.

Cricketers tend to eat fewer flowers

Cities like Cluj or Brescia, with its medieval churches and Roman public buildings, may seem like they are a world apart from traditional cricket playing nations, yet the game’s history with mainland Europe goes further back than the immigrant connection.

Like in France, where the Devon County Wanderers, representing Britain, had beaten France’s Union des Societes Francaises de Sports Athletiques by 158 runs in a two-innings game to secure gold in the 1900 Paris Olympics—the second edition of the modern Games, more an exhibition event than the Olympics as we know it now. The late and legendary Richie Benaud took such a liking to France that he shifted his summer base from London to Beaulieu-sur-Mer on the French Riviera in the late 90s. In 2012, a journalist met the former Australian captain during a match between France (their team made up largely of 2nd and 3rd generation Asian immigrants) and MCC, held in the gardens of a chateau in the countryside outside of Paris. Benaud, who revealed that he is of French origin, spoke of the introduction of cricket in primary schools in France. (When the reporter asked the owner of the chateau, the Countess de la Panouse, why she has been hosting cricket on her grounds for 20 years, she replied: “They keep the grass down beautifully. It’s true that I could have bought goats, but cricketers tend to eat fewer flowers.”)

By 2013, according to Wisden, the France Cricket Association had already introduced the game in over 150 schools. Neighbours Germany had witnessed the formation of the German Football and Cricket Federation (DFCB) way back in 1891. Around 110 clubs now play cricket in different formats now.

Italy’s first official tryst with cricket started with the establishment of the Genoa Cricket and Athletic Club in 1893. Even football giants AC Milan had begun life as the Milan Football and Cricket Club in 1899. Neither club has cricket now, in their names or in their programmes.

Wisden gathers that at least three Russian Tsars ‘had exposure to cricket’ throughout the 19th century but the first proper cricket match was probably played in the early 20th century in South Moscow, with the Russian capital boasting of two cricket clubs by then.

Denmark and Holland are the nearly stories though. The introduction of the English railway system brought cricket to Denmark in the 1860s and they have built on that. So far, six Danish players have played County cricket. Formed in 1956, Svanholm CC is Denmark’s preeminent cricket club, and home to four of their six County exports. Four-time World Cup participants Netherlands, of course, has a more illustrious and thus more well-documented history than all the other countries combined. With four divisions of cricket, Netherlands is also the most organised European country in the ECL. No wonder the ECL was won by a Dutch club.

Yet, even Holland is not a professional cricket nation yet. “Nearly everyone, I would say 85%, have a day job,” says Rotterdam coach Rutgers.

Weston believes cricket will continue to grow, and dreams of a time when it will become the sport to watch when football takes a break in the European summer.

The European Cricket League holds different hopes for different people: some seek a taste of home in a new land, some seek a future, and some, like Florin, just want to build a cricket ground.

First Published: Aug 11, 2019 09:21 IST