Cricket in the land of murderous flies
The revival of cricket in Newfoundland is moving along very positively. The league has started well, the playing facilities are improving, and people in various parts of the province seem to be aware of our presence, even if most of them are still not quite sure what it means. The cricket-croquet confusion is still to be eradicated.
The full name of our organisation, however, is the Cricket Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. So what about the cricketers of Labrador? Are there any? Have there ever been any? And is there the slightest chance that organised cricket could become truly provincial?
Having never been to the place, I wasn't sure, but an online search for "cricket in Labrador" yielded precisely no results. The closest match was a YouTube video of a dog called Cricket with a penchant for diving into water and retrieving rocks. There was only one thing for it. I would have to visit Labrador myself.
The opportunity to assist a colleague (and fellow Cricket NL member) on a palaeontological reconnaissance mission gave me just the excuse I needed, so in early August we set off for a week in The Big Land. The extremely long drive from St John's to St Barbe, where one catches the Labrador ferry, was broken up with an overnight stay in Green Point, in Gros Morne National Park.
Conveniently (some might say suspiciously), Green Point just happens to be home to a major geological junction, where rocks of the Cambrian period give way to those of the Ordovician. The opportunity to hit another boundary was too good to miss. Mission accomplished, it was off to the ferry terminal, and across the Strait of Belle Isle to Labrador.
Disembarking in Blanc Sablon, which is actually in Quebec, we set off along the coast towards our campsite on the Pinware, one of Atlantic Canada's great salmon-fishing rivers. The first place we came to was L'Anse au Clair, but there was no sign of a L'Anse Klusener or a L'Anse Gibbs. It became quickly apparent that cricket and the south coast weren't going to be comfortable bedfellows. The landscape is ancient and uneven, the population is sparse - a couple of thousand people across 10 villages - and the weather volatile.
And then there are the flies. Bees and flying ants may have stopped play in international cricket, but neither species was actually pursuing the players, so the delays were temporary. Not so with Labrador's black flies, bloodthirsty little blighters that turn up in their thousands whenever the wind drops. Ideal cricketing weather is ideal black-fly weather, and anyone standing in a Labrador field for a whole summer's day would be a dried-out husk by the end of it.
If you're dedicated enough, and tough enough, though, you can endure them. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one cricket fanatic did just that: Wilfred Grenfell. Whilst a medical student at the London Hospital Medical College, Grenfell had served as secretary of the London University cricket club. Indeed, it is said he often snuck out of lectures in order to indulge his love of the sport.
Having heard of the miseries of life on the Labrador coast, Grenfell set out in 1892 as part of a British medical missionary team, bringing health and educational supplies to the remote, neglected outposts. The following year he returned to found what would become known as the Labrador Medical Mission, an organisation that improved beyond measure the lives of the people of the region. It built hospitals, brought in nurses, set up factories, and arranged healthy social activities, all under Grenfell's brand of "muscular Christianity".
Though it never became an organised feature of Labrador life, cricket did feature in Grenfell's work. One photograph, taken in June 1893, shows his small team playing cricket on board the medical vessel Albert. The pitch doesn't appear to have encouraged shots square of the wicket, but at least by playing at sea they avoided the flies. They could probably also use icebergs as sightscreens too.
After Grenfell, the only signs of Labrador cricket came with the development of the air force base at Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Sited on a flat, sandy spot by the Goose River, the base was built for Canadian-US use in the Second World War, but when the Royal Air Force arrived in the late 1950s, so did cricket.
One Newfoundlander I spoke to remembered watching the game with amused bafflement as it was played on the tarmac. Cricket NL treasurer Glenn Richardson recalls being one of those players. "I represented the RAF in Goose Bay in 1995-96," he says, "and we used to use an ice rink to play on and made up our own indoor league rules. We even toured Ottawa during that time, where we got thumped!"
There was no ice on the rink, before you ask, and playing indoors was a second way of thwarting the flies (and, in winter, the abundant snow). Some very good cricketers played there, including one or two who went on to represent the Combined Services team at Lord's. The departure of the RAF from the base in 2006, however, meant the departure of cricket too, and for Labrador that seems to have been that.
With fewer than 30,000 souls dispersed across a region the size of Italy, Labrador really isn't set up for cricket. There's no way an organised league could ever establish itself. But maybe on the grassy plateau of the Goose River, a few hardy souls with a plentiful supply of fly repellent might still make a fist of it. Even just for Wilfred Grenfell's sake.
Liam Herringshaw is a medium-paced palaeontologist who moved to Newfoundland from the UK to improve his chances of opening the bowling