March 17, 2011

Two men, a camera, a spark

A couple of Dutch film-makers came to India recently with their country's team, hoping to whip up interest in the sport back home

Jeroen Stekelenburg and Aard van der Hulst sit nursing beers in a bar in Nagpur. A producer and cameraman from Holland, they are the only TV crew to have come over from any of the Associate nations to cover the World Cup.

Cricket is not too popular in Holland. Laughing, Stekelenburg recalls holding a bat for the first time in Delhi and hitting a few balls. Their flight back home leaves in a few hours and neither wants to go. Their journey has been memorable.

A clip from the film

Both men work for the Nederlandse Omroep Stichting (NOS), the Dutch broadcaster, which owns the rights to every sport played in the country. A veteran with 16 years in the business, Stekelenburg decide he had to make the trip as soon as Netherlands' participation in the World Cup was confirmed. He had read enough to understand how gripping cricket could be. And what better place to experience the sport than in India, where the nation's pulse fluctuates with each game? His idea was to capture the passion and use India as a platform to raise awareness of cricket back home.

"People in Holland see cricket like maybe you see polo - a bit for the elite, for the rich," Stekelenburg says. "People always think cricketers wear whites, they can't get dirty, they don't run. They only stand in the field. They hit the ball. They look cocky. They walk to the other side. That is how people look at cricket in Holland."

Most of the shooting for the film was in Delhi and Mumbai. One section deals with the state of the game in India and why cricketers are revered so highly. Stekelenburg and van der Hulst filmed on streetcorners and near the Jama Masjid in what was once medieval Delhi. Stekelenburg's voiceover ,narrates in Dutch, various facts, stories and legends.

Naturally, Sachin Tendulkar finds a mention. Stekelenburg put together a four-minute montage about cricket's most-recognised figure, consisting of, among other things, images from commercials and billboards. "That [kind of celebrity] is so unknown in Holland. That is also something I wanted to let the people know." To wrap up he put together a few minutes on the phenomenon of the IPL.

The focus then shifts to the Dutch team - a more or less unknown entity back home. "Nobody knows anything about the team. They know cricket exists, and a team exists, but nobody knows about who is playing in it," Stekelenburg says.

This is his second World Cup. The first was in 2003. That trip, though, was more about the experience of travelling in a troubled country, Zimbabwe, which Nasser Hussain's England decided to boycott. "Me and a colleague thought that it would be a great story to do, as it was more than cricket. Just as cricket in India is now, cricket in Zimbabwe was more than cricket," Stekelenburg says. At first his bosses at NOS did not agree but he stood his ground, and he eventually ended up making a 17-minute film, half of which was devoted to the Zimbabwe-Netherlands match, with the rest focusing on Zimbabwe as a nation and on Robert Mugabe's regime.

An avid sports fan who can bring the same enthusiasm to watching a game of bowls and curling as he can to covering soccer, cycling and speed skating (the three best-known sports in the Netherlands), Stekelenburg liked cricket as a teenager."Once you start to understand the rules, cricket becomes a very nice game which involves a lot of different parts that makes sport interesting: you need to be patient, you need to have strength, you need to be physically fit. It seems to be a mindgame." Stekelenburg says he is the only one at NOS who follows cricket.

This time around, cricket was his main and only character. He was careful about not boring people with technical details. "I did not want to explain the rules. If you are watching TV and someone is explaining you the rules as if you are a baby then he will switch to another channel. But if you have a good story about cricket, about the history of cricket, about the Dutch team with all its immigrants, then that makes it interesting. Maybe we made the Dutch public a little bit enthusiastic about cricket."

"People always think cricketers wear whites, they can't get dirty, they don't run. They only stand in the field. They hit the ball. They look cocky. They walk to the other side. That is how people look at cricket in Holland"

We met the day after the Dutch had lost a close match, their first in this World Cup, against England. Ryan ten Doeschate's gritty 119 set up a challenging target. England were far from comfortable in pursuit and if not for the inexperience of the majority of the Dutch players, Andrew Strauss's men would have started with a embarrassing loss to an Associate. Stekelenburg and van der Hulst were at the ground, filming from the sidelines.

Their film aired three days before I met the two, on February 20. It ran for an unprecedented 50 minutes on Studio Sport NOS' grandstand segment on Sunday afternoon. The ratings were promising. "About 600,000 viewers. For a speed-skating event about a million watch," Stekelenburg says.

Ed van Nierop, Netherlands' manger, says he heard good things about Stekelenburg's film from back home. "In the past it was all bad news that would be mentioned in sports bulletins. So for these guys to come over and show cricket in a different light was a real good thing."

Jeroen Smits, who led Netherlands to victory against England at Lord's on June 25, 2009 in the World Twenty20, the most significant moment in Dutch cricket to date, was the cricket expert at NOS headquarters in Hilversum, on the outskirts of Amsterdam, when the show aired. The IPL mention, Smits thinks, may have been an eye-opener. "In Holland people know athletes can earn money mainly playing soccer and tennis, but now they know something like IPL exits. So the general view about cricket has evolved."

Smits reckons that for the Dutch media at large to join in, the cricket team needs to perform better. "The results needs to come before you get the attention of the Dutch media. Unfortunately it has not worked out in this World Cup. But there is a World Twenty20 coming up next year in Sri Lanka."

On March 9 in Delhi, Netherlands played India in front of their largest crowd ever. Stekelenburg was in Inzell in the south of Germany, covering the World Speed Skating championships. He had done a short preview on the eve of the match but he made sure he caught the final hour of the play over the internet.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo