May 23, 2011

Hit-and-run in Singapore and Switzerland

Our chaotic game has had a long history in two famously orderly states

Cricket in Dubai? When I first heard of the phenomenon, I had visions of Bedouins on camel-back trying to turn chinamen upon the desert sands, and scorecards bearing the regular notation "dust storm stopped play". Enlightenment soon followed, however: I learned about the Air-India Sports Club, the Dubai cricket development programme, and the "subkha grounds" with their sand outfields. Not to mention, of course, the famous stadium in next-door Sharjah, and the stunning performance of the United Arab Emirates team in the ICC trophy. Now Abu Dhabi has followed, even staging Test matches as a "home ground" for Pakistan.

So cricket in Dubai is no trifling matter. And that is increasingly true in many of the game's less likely outposts around the world. In the course of a peripatetic life I learned not only that Italians and Israelis played cricket, but ended up playing the game myself in two less likely countries, Singapore and Switzerland.

If ever Singapore gets around to nominating a national sport, you can be pretty sure it won't be cricket. Most Singaporeans appear to believe that the term applies either to a noisy insect or a trademark cigarette-lighter. So the fact that, during my years there, I would dress up every Sunday like a poor relation of the Great Gatsby and venture hopefully into the drizzle clutching my bat invariably mystified my Singaporean friends. Bats, of course, they associated more with vampires than umpires. And the notion that anyone would spend the best part of his Sunday on an uneven field in undignified pursuit of five-and-a-half ounces of cork provoked widespread disbelief. "You mean they still play cricket here?" exclaimed one Singaporean. "I thought that ended with the Japanese occupation!"

In fact there were 20 teams in the two Sunday Leagues run by the Singapore Cricket Association when I was there in the early 1980s, and innumerable others playing "friendly" matches on Saturdays. They ranged from the sometimes plebeian Patricians to the tavernless Tanglin Taverners, from Non-Benders who chased every ball to Schoolboys who didn't, and from the two teams of the elite Singapore Cricket Club to the more esoteric acronyms of SAFSA and SPASA (known to the initiated as the Armed Forces and the Polytechnic respectively).

"I do not play cricket," Oscar Wilde once wrote, "because it requires me to assume such indecent postures." Most Singaporeans, a notoriously serious and straitlaced breed whose recreations are golf and economic growth, appeared to share his disdain. The Archbishop of Canterbury, who described cricket as "organised loafing" and the Nobel Prize-winning author who termed cricketers "flannelled fools" would have felt right at home in Singapore.

Many a local utilitarian with the national devotion to statistics pointed out to me that cricket simply wasn't cost-efficient enough. The amount of space and time it took to give 22 players a game could, I was reliably informed, be more productively allocated to 100 squash players, 200 swimmers or 300 joggers. When I responded that 88 cricketers could have more fun and exercise in the space taken up by the prime minister's daily game of golf, the silence that greeted me could have made central air-conditioning obsolete.

Of course, neither Singaporeans nor Swiss, law-abiding citizens to a fault, can be expected to approve of any sport based on the principle of hit-and-run. So expatriates tend to dominate the game in both countries.

But cricket has a surprisingly long pedigree in Switzerland. The Geneva Cricket Club's wine label (yes, they are a rather refined lot, these Swiss cricketers) bears an illustration of a cricket match being played on the city's Plainpalais field in 1817. Nearly two centuries later, the game continues to flourish in Geneva, having survived interruptions during the two World Wars. The present Geneva Cricket Club (GCC), revived in 1955, plays in a well-equipped stadium that offers underground parking to sportsmen and the luxury of bowling (and fielding) on Astroturf.

The environs of this international city also house the cricketers of CERN, the Centre Européen de la Récherche Nucléaire, where a hefty six might dent the casing of the world's biggest proton synchrotron accelerator. An amiable lot, the CERN cricketers tend to be at their best during the expansive tea breaks for which they (and their gifted if long-suffering spouses) are deservingly famous. (I played for them for three years, and apart from consuming more calories than I expended, I am pleased to report that for years I featured in at least three places in the club records, which they had helpfully posted on the internet.

There is also an assortment of teams from the other major cities - Basel, Bern, Winterthur, Zug and of course Zurich, which supports not one but two Sri Lankan XIs, who are not on speaking terms with each other. The Swiss teams are organised in an annual competition for the 40-over Brennan Cup, named for the former Australian ambassador who donated it, and they even boast an annual journal, named - what else? - Swissden.

Though neither the climate nor the quality of the cricket comes close to the ideal that every good Swiss would wish to aspire to, cricket in Switzerland - a country of diplomatic conferences - has found its own place in the scheme of international exchange. Here, British-educated Swiss returning from South Africa (and a few South African émigrés) field alongside Indians, both east and West; Pakistani and Sri Lankan refugees shatter the stumps of Indian diplomats and United Nations officials; irrelevant Pommies hit sixes off irreverent Antipodeans. And they all retire to their convivial beers at the end of the game. Even if, in most cases, they don't have a pavilion to drink them in.

It may be a long while before cricket acquires the global following of soccer or even tennis, but thanks to the mobility of modern labour and the passion for the game shown by its émigrés, the game is spreading around the world. And in our post-colonial times, it is doing so far more successfully than during the days of the Empire that invented the game.

Shashi Tharoor is an Indian MP and a former United Nations Under-Secretary General

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