September 18, 2011

Eyeing the orange future

Cricket has survived for hundreds of years in the Netherlands - if not exactly thrived. The current board is hoping to change that, with some help from across the channel

On July 10 last year Netherlands played Spain in the football World Cup final at the grandly named Soccer City in Johannesburg. A packed stadium shook with the cheers of 84,490 deliriously joyful fans - and their vuvuzelas - as Spain triumphed over the Dutch courtesy an extra-time goal by Andrés Iniesta. The evening was a riot of hype and colour beamed to an audience of hundreds of millions worldwide.

On the same day, on an uncelebrated field in Rotterdam, Netherlands played Afghanistan for the honour of third place in the World Cricket League Division One competition. And lost. Understandably, the nation's thoughts were elsewhere.

The difference between the two matches provides a handy scale to measure the extent of the challenge faced by the Koninklijke Nederlandse Cricket Bond (KNCB), the Dutch cricket board. Sitting atop the Associate pile, yet nowhere near to cracking into cricket's elite circle, with a proud cricketing history that stretches back two centuries, but an uncertain future, Dutch cricket is in a liminal space between amateur and professional.

"We live in a dichotomous environment whereby the national team is ranked 12th in the world, the national women's team is ranked 10th in the world, and yet the sport in its own country is ranked somewhere in the mid-30s due to the lack of players," Richard Cox, chief executive of the KNCB, told ESPNcricinfo. "So you can see that they're in some ways more well known outside of their own country for cricket than they are within it."

While the average Dutch citizen might be surprised to find out that their country even has a national cricket team, Netherlands' cricketers have clearly done something right for the game to have been kept alive in the country for this long. Cricket was first seen being played on Dutch soil in the 1780s by an English traveller in Scheveningen, and by the turn of the 20th century, Dutch teams were touring England regularly.

Cricket even found enough of a following to survive the German occupation of the country between May 1940 and May 1945. The sport, famously dismissed as "unmanly and un-German" and "insufficiently violent" by Adolf Hitler himself, endured thanks in no small part to the dogged enthusiasm of local players, who shrugged off the requisitioning of grounds and restrictions on weekend travel - not to mention the presence of thousands of heavily armed Nazis and the bombing of the main sports dealers in Rotterdam - to organise as many as 300 matches a year. All of a sudden the problems Dutch cricket faces today don't seem nearly so insurmountable.

Cricket can only be carried so far on the inspired performances of individuals, however, and the struggle to survive has made the managers of Dutch cricket necessarily industrious. They have in Cox a chief executive of enviable pedigree and experience. He spent 21 years in Warwickshire's set-up, and was appointed director of their cricket academy in 2006, after which he played an active role in bringing the Dutch allrounder Tim Gruijters into the academy scheme.

Cox was also instrumental in the organisation, management and development of club cricket across Warwickshire as the county's director of cricket. His club experience will have stood him in good stead in the Netherlands, where cricket has not escaped the common Associate malaise of a lack of a first-class cricket structure, due to which development has been aimed at the grassroots, on the logic that an organic, vibrant club scene will provide a solid foundation for further progress.

"We've got 6500 cricketers in this country," explained Cox. "So you have to raise the base really to professionalise the top. We're very much at the moment about creating a stronger base of youth cricket and stronger structures in our coaching development to move the game forward rapidly.

"We also recognise that we have about 1100 young cricketers here, and we try to sustain a programme of age-group cricket from Under-12 to Under-19 for our youngsters' development. And we need to broaden that base, so we're in the final process at the moment of putting a big youth plan together in consultation with all the clubs, parents, board members, and anybody else who should be consulted in the process, to start, hopefully, in January next year."

Cox, who also served on a variety of panels for the England & Wales Cricket Board, has worked to strengthen and maintain Dutch cricket's links with the ECB. "We're supported by them in terms of being able to enter their competitions, which is very, very important to us," he said. "Without them, our international programme would be very limited and would be also very costly. Getting across to England isn't too bad.

"But if we only played international cricket we would not develop our players, and we do very much need the CB40 and the women's competitions that we're in. We also get support from them in coaching and coach development and education. We run coach education programmes; they send tutors over and assess us. The links are strong. My background is with a county, so I've tried to make sure we maintain those."

Netherlands' continued involvement in domestic limited-overs cricket in England has begun to bear fruit, and this season the men's team registered wins over Yorkshire (home and away), Derbyshire, Kent and Worcestershire.

The Dutch women, who, unlike the men, have both Test and ODI status, courtesy their ranking in the top 10, have been even better. Under Cox's watch the ladies' team has blossomed in the women's County Championship, maintaining a season-long unbeaten streak this summer and storming to a third successive promotion since 2009. In 2011 they brought home two ECB trophies, winning the Midlands T20 championship and Division Three of the County Championship, having beaten the likes of Worcestershire, Lancashire and Scotland to secure their promotion. They also have two ICC Europe trophies in the bag, and the World Cup qualifier in Bangladesh in November beckons.

There is, as always, plenty more to be done. Increasing professionalism is a vital step. Cox explained that while Netherlands have just three part-time contracted players at the moment, the plan is to take on at least three full-time contracted players, two part-time contracts, and two academy contracts for young, homegrown players thought to have a bright future. "So that's a stepping stone for us. And then we hope those numbers will grow. But we need the system to be in place to allow them to be professional, and to be playing a lot, not occasionally.

"If we're looking to do any more, it would be to play full members on a more regular basis, here in the Netherlands," said Cox. "That would provide profile, context and opportunity. Even if we could play A teams, that would be helpful, and that would be a starter to maintaining stronger links and playing better cricket.

"We'd like to be embedded in a programme with ECB, at all levels, not just the CB40, but also our Under-19s, our Under-17s, possibly even our Under-15s, because that will give us continuity and a vision for our young players to see what the opportunities are out there. We'd like to be embedded in an ODI league which allows promotion and relegation, embedded in an opportunity to enter World Cups and be truly part of a global game. I'm sure anything is possible, but there's a lot of hard work to be done."

Cox had the chance to plead his team's case at the World Cricket Business Forum - a meeting of chief executives, business leaders and ICC representatives - in London this week, while the recommendations that may flow from the Lord Woolf report will also have a significant bearing on the future of Dutch cricket.

In the end, though, it all comes back to the grassroots. In an ever-changing cricket landscape, the game needs to be safeguarded at home first. The lack of interest in cricket in the country has been a serious concern for Netherlands' status as an Associate, but if Dutch boys and girls can be brought into, and kept in, the game, the future could be bright. It could be orange.

Liam Brickhill is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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