October 1, 2011

Égalité, fraternité, pirate

A team in Quebec makes the United Nations look like an exclusive club

In the small Quebecois town of Otterburn Park, just across the Richelieu River, on a field between a chocolate factory and a volcano, a revolution is taking place. French may be the official language but cricket is the lingua franca.

The revolutionaries call themselves the Pirates of the St Lawrence, and their mission is straightforward: cricket for everyone.

Male or female, novice or expert, young or old, the Pirates will welcome you into the fold, and they don't care where you come from. Indeed, they revel in introducing cricket to people from non-cricketing nations, and their success has been extraordinary. In under five years they have become the most multicultural multinational cricket club in the world.

The man leading this Pirate charge is an expatriated Scotsman, Angus Bell, who seems to thrive on cricketing challenges. Before founding the club, he toured Eastern Europe in a clapped-out car, hunting down the thwack of Ukrainian leather on Albanian willow, and ending up Batting on the Bosphorus. Back in Canada, however, Bell discovered officially organised cricket in Montreal to be a dispiriting experience. "I tried to play in the league for two half-seasons," he tells me, "but found it so unpleasant, with all the fights and lack of opportunities, that it made me give up cricket."

Determined not to abandon the sport for good, however, Bell decided a different approach was needed. "Having seen cricket enjoyed by Slovak gardeners, Croatian wine-makers and Bulgarian medical students," he says, "it was clear anyone will play cricket as long as it is made visible, accessible and fun.

"It is an open society here. People are willing to try anything. But you can't just toss a beginner into league cricket and ask them to field from fine leg to fine leg and carry the drinks for 100 overs, as happened frequently in the past."

So Bell started a new social cricket club, where players of all backgrounds and experience were encouraged to give the game a try.

"Until the Pirates came along," Bell recalls, "there was no effort in Quebec to allow people born in Canada, or any other non-traditional cricket country, to play the game. Opening the doors to people - no matter their age, gender, nationality, ability, income or time table - saw us welcome more than 250 players in three years."

And what an amazing array of players it is. The nationality tally stands currently at 56. From a Chinese who bowls chinamen, to Iraq's greatest cricketer, via Matt Horne's brother, the Pirates have passed on their love of the game to people from all over the world. And they don't just do it in the summer either.

"Our Snow Cricket World Cup, based on the ice tournaments of Estonia, has grown into a massive annual intra-club event," says Bell, "starring teams from Canada, Australia, England and the Asian-Bloc-Celtic-Alliance. It has even featured on national TV twice and is a recruitment boon."

It helps that this cricket dans la neige is played at a historical site. The venue - Île Sainte-Hélène, Montreal - is where, in 1785, the first recorded cricket match in Canada took place. The Pirates hoped the isle might serve as their summer home too, but the plan fell through. Fortunately Bell has some very accommodating in-laws, who offered the use of the land adjacent to their Belgian-chocolate factory, at the foot of the volcanic Mont Saint-Hilaire. The setting, renamed The Candy Fields, couldn't be much sweeter. "It means there are no complaints from wives or children about cricket taking all day!" jokes Bell.

With Mexicans, Vietnamese and Syrians taking part, the Pirates have evidently taken an approach of wide-ranging appeal, but the largest proportion of club members is people born in Canada.

"Canadians," says Bell, "turn from the dark side of baseball quickly when they learn they can hit the ball more than once, in any direction, and everyone can bowl."

With the transitory nature of expats, this is vital to the long-term health of the Pirates, he says, but Bell also notes that the social aspect of the club is critical. "Without social cricket, there is no stepping stone for kids or newcomers, no last dance for older players, and likely no future for the game."

With 250 Pirates at the last count, cricket's prospects in this unlikely corner of Francophone North America look far rosier than one could rightfully expect. There are only a few barriers still to overcome.

"I was shopping for shoes," recalls Bell. 'What sport is it for?' asked the clerk in the mall. 'Cricket,' I said. 'Cricket? You've got me stumped there...' He had no idea of the significance of what he'd said."

Liam Herringshaw is a medium-paced palaeontologist who moved to Newfoundland from the UK to improve his chances of opening the bowling

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