November 6, 2010

Denmark eye the step up

Robert Forsaith
Cricket in Denmark was at its strongest in the 1960s, but the national side, comprising journeymen, students and one pro, is hoping to spark a revival

Anyone doubting cricket's reach should take a moment to consider how the recent spot-fixing controversy affected Copenhagen's active population of proud Pakistan supporters. In a nation where football is entrenched as the national sport, pastime and obsession, cricket has a longer, if not quite as successful, history.

English railway workers first brought the game to Denmark in the mid-19th century, but more recently Pakistani immigrants have helped ensure its survival. A wave of Pakistanis came to the nation in the 1960s and their devotion to cricket has stood the test of time. Their descendants now represent the vast majority of youngsters taking up the game.

Thankfully there is nothing rotten in the state of Denmark. The children's enthusiasm for playing the game is free to prosper, and it will survive despite the latest turmoil that has embroiled some of their former idols. It's a good thing, too, as the country's cricket board, the Dansk Cricket Forbund (DCF) could hardly afford a drop in participation.

Cricket has endured a turbulent time in Denmark, with too many troughs and a limited number of minor peaks since the DCF was admitted to the ICC in 1966 as an Associate member. In those 44 years, the nation has produced a handful of first-class cricketers. The list is headlined by Derbyshire's Ole Mortensen, who claimed 434 wickets at an average of 23.88, and more recently Amjad Khan, who obtained British citizenship and played one Test for England in 2009.

The national side has been on the cusp of qualifying for the World Cup on a number of occasions, with a semi-final loss to Sri Lanka, a fellow minnow at the time, in the 1979 ICC Trophy arguably the most notable.

Domestically the game was at its strongest in the 1960s. "There was more interest in cricket then, compared to the 70s and so on," DCF president Thomas Kentorp said. "We were mentioned on the radio, you had scores from the various matches on the news. There were a lot of cricketers. There are different ways to measure the numbers, but we think we had about 4000 players in around 40-something clubs. Today we have about 2000 players in 32 clubs." That figure represents roughly 0.04% of the population.

Kentorp finds it hard to pinpoint a single reason for the game's decline, although he makes special mention of the ever-increasing focus on academic pursuits. "The parents say to their children, 'You have to focus on one sport from the age of 10.' Once the children turn 18, some of them say, 'Well, enough's enough' and they don't play anything anymore, not even one sport. It's a shame."

Understandably, "game development" features prominently in the DCF's slim budget. The group receives roughly US$382,000 annually from the Sports Confederation of Denmark, and a little less from the ICC.

Local clubs are able to sign one overseas playing coach each season, and the DCF provides limited assistance for this. The programme's biggest success story is undoubtedly Bryce McGain, who carried the moniker "Glostup coach" long before he became "former Test spinner". McGain moved his family to Copenhagen and even made his List A debut for Denmark in 2002, but tight residency requirements mean the DCF is unable to aggressively poach talented foreigners for the national team.

Cricket's low profile ensures that sponsorships are minor and rare, although the Danish Integration Ministry is currently funding a project that helps introduce schoolchildren to the game. The man spearheading the scheme is Simon Talbot, Denmark's full-time national coach, who also oversees development and travels the country, selling the game.

Talbot, an Englishman and a product of the county cricket scene, was appointed last year. The carrot of coaching a national side was too tempting for a man who was awaiting an Australian visa to work with the WACA in a development role.

He first came to Denmark 20 years ago when he booked a youth tour while working for Surrey. Soon after, he found he had "fallen in love" with the Danes, especially those involved in cricket. The fact his wife Tina (who also doubles as the national side's physiotherapist) is Danish suggests the statement is true literally. Talbot's passion for Danish cricket is infectious.

Denmark were recently relegated to World Cricket League (WCL) Division 3 when the side went winless at the 2009 ICC World Cup Qualifier in South Africa. Talbot was called in soon after and has persisted with a youth policy at the selection table.

"I inherited an old team and cricket these days is a young man's sport. I think the average age of the team was over 35, so there lay the problem," Talbot said.

The side consists of local amateurs, apart from gun batsman Freddie Klokker, who recently signed a contract with Dutch club Excelsior 20. Among the playing group is a postman, two IT professionals, an employee of Danske Bank, and plenty of students. The youngest of Talbot's new-look team, Basit Raja, is still in high school and has made quite an impression on the coach.

"He has got a trial for the MCC Young Cricketers next year, and I confidently predict he will be offered a place there," Talbot said.

Raja was a standout performer at the European Under-19 Championships in July this year. The right-arm seamer's next chance to shine is likely to come in January 2011, when Talbot's charges will take part in the six-team WCL 3 tournament in Hong Kong. Denmark will be up against Italy, the USA, Oman, Papua New Guinea, and hosts Hong Kong. The stakes will be high. Two teams will remain in WCL 3, two will be relegated to WCL 4, and two promoted to WCL 2.

The harsh Nordic winter will keep the side mostly indoors as they prepare for the competition, although they will be given the chance to acclimatise at a five-day training camp in Sri Lanka. The sub-zero temperatures are hardly ideal, as Talbot points out.

"Your hands go soft [in the arctic weather]. You need hard hands to play cricket, ball-ready hands. So it would have been nice to go away and get some sunshine before we went to Sri Lanka, but obviously we haven't got the funding to do that. We'll have to make do with what we've got."

Considering the DCF's limited budget, Talbot has an impressive number of coaching tools at his disposal - including video analysis, a fitness training program designed by Tina, who is an ex-Surrey physio, and a psychology program - and a set of very dedicated amateurs.

"I reckon we will have 12 sessions together as a team to prepare for Hong Kong," he said.

"I'm really happy with all of it. They're amateurs, but I can't honestly think of anything else that we could provide for them, apart from a team trip to somewhere like South Africa or Dubai."

The ICC's recent decision to trim the number of teams at the World Cup means Denmark's task of qualifying has become all the more monumental. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely Twenty20 will be any kind of silver bullet for the Associates.

Nonetheless Talbot is upbeat about his inexperienced side's chances of climbing the ICC's rankings in the next few years. "If my team performs the way I know they can [in Hong Kong] and performs the way I want them to, then we can compete with anybody."