May 12, 2012

The past was war, the future is cricket

Fabian Muir
The Berlin Cricket Club lost its old ground due to an administrative directive but has now gained a new and better one - with a dark history thrown in

There is an unspoken rule amongst writers on matters German that references to certain aspects of the past are best avoided. When a monumental vestige of that past literally casts its shadow across a cricket field, however, there is no choice but to break this rule.

Welcome to Berlin, one of Europe's most fascinating and liberal capitals, a city humming with arts, politics, nightlife and culture. There are so many museums and activities here that it is difficult for the average visitor to know where to begin. Cricket fans, however, could do worse than start with the Berlin Cricket Club (BCC), where they will find the game played competitively on brand new pitches and in a distinctly unusual setting. All signs suggest the game is set to prosper here.

But first a little history, for just 12 months ago things looked very different. Shortly before the 2011 season, authorities quietly dug up the BCC's pitch and expropriated the field, citing danger to passers-by and parked cars from flying balls. That the pitch had been in use since it was first laid by British servicemen in the 1950s counted for nothing.

With no formal avenue of appeal, the situation looked hopeless, for the recondite ways of German bureaucracy mean that an administrative decision, once made, is inviolable. Accordingly the BCC's initial entreaties to discuss the matter were met with a sonorous "nein". With nowhere to play, the club, founded in 1985, was on the brink.

Outsiders might consider the authorities' attitude surprising, for one could reasonably expect that cricket, with its toughness, subtlety and infinite variations, is a sport well suited to Germans. If their potential were harnessed, they could combine the physicality of the South Africans, the mental strength of the Australians and the analytical prowess of the British. Their ability to withstand pressure has been demonstrated often enough in agonising penalty shootouts, while what they lack in Caribbean flair or subcontinental deftness of touch would be offset by their capacity to spring surprises, not unlike their modernist composers. Moreover, cricket is governed not by mere rules, but by compendious laws, of which they are famously fond.

BCC vice chairman and former German international Volker Ellerbeck agrees, saying that "the clichéd German cricketer is most likely to resemble a Jacques Kallis, Allan Donald or Justin Langer". However, as he also points out, the country's contemporary multiculturalism leaves room for hybrid players, as reflected in its current football team.

And football is a keyword, for in Germany it is a difficult assignment to entice players away to cricket. A lucrative profession, football completely dominates German sport, a direct consequence of the team's surprise triumph at the World Cup in Switzerland in 1954. Previously, cricket had actually enjoyed some popularity as an amateur sport, but this was swept aside in the wake of what Germans still refer to as the "miracle of Bern".

Despite dalliances with tennis, basketball, Formula 1 and even handball, nothing galvanises the German sporting public like football, which effectively relegates most other sports to the status of esoteric pastime. More often than not, baffled locals confuse cricket with croquet (pronounced "krokkett" in German), wondering, not unreasonably, why anyone sane would want to watch people dab balls through hoops over five days. Cricketers wishing to enjoy a sunny afternoon having a hit in the park can be certain that before long an unassuming local will spread a towel in the centre of the pitch and lie down.

Given this context, the BCC is a flyweight on the domestic sporting landscape. With just 45 registered members, seven of them German nationals, the chances of overturning its eviction were slim. But cricketers know how to settle in for the long fight, and perhaps the authorities should have spied upon a BCC training session, where they would have fast established this is a deadly serious outfit, determined to win and not averse to a spot of mental disintegration.

With four change rooms, sight screens, two fields, a net cage and shortly a scoreboard, the venue wants for nothing. Perhaps the only thing the BCC currently misses is a coach, although, as club chairman Martin Haynes quips, "we do have a small bus"

Helpfully, the BCC's story was taken up by the media, including the London Times, after which the authorities were suddenly prepared to allow the BCC to play out the 2011 season at the old ground and to engage in talks. Arduous negotiations ensued, culminating in a completely unexpected offer: the provision of new sight screens (based on the intriguing notion that these would offer protection for the cars), a substitute ground for 2012 and two brand new pitches.

For the BCC, this was their miracle of Berlin, because the new venue, the so-called Maifeld, is quite unique. This sweeping expanse, completed in 1936, was originally conceived as a space for National Socialist rallies. The open area has capacity for 250,000 people, the stands for 60,000. Hitler and Mussolini gave speeches from the podium here in 1937, mockingly promising peace before settling back to enjoy the torchlight military parade that followed. And now it is a cricket ground.

Today, but for weeds sprouting through the cracks, the main stand looks exactly as it did when first constructed. Even its bell tower, the only section damaged in the war, soaring 77 metres above the pitch, was faithfully restored in the 1960s. As stated at the outset, it is difficult to overlook the past when sitting upon it, and downright impossible with the bell tower's shadow marking time on the field like the world's largest sundial.

On the far side of the field looms the Olympic stadium. Flanked by four monolithic stelae, it formed the centrepiece of the subverted Games of 1936. More recently it was the venue for the 2006 FIFA World Cup final, and today it remains the home of the Berlin's ever-struggling football team, Hertha BSC. In future, whenever the cricket coincides with Hertha's match days, the gladiatorial roars of thousands will roll across the field, as they did on the opening day of the 2012 season.

Thus, against the odds, the BCC's expulsion from its former ground proved a blessing in disguise. Although it will have to share the Maifeld with the German polo championships in August, the vastness of the area has put to rest initial fears of a conflict. Only Russia, where the Moscow Cricket Club plays before the Stalinist tower of Lomonossov University, offers a remotely comparable setting.

In fact, the BCC now boasts the best facilities of any cricket club in the country. With a sponsor from Qatar, four change rooms, sight screens, two fields, a net cage, and shortly a scoreboard, the venue wants for nothing. For a nominal annual contribution, players enjoy access to all of this as well as the club's gear. Perhaps the only thing the BCC currently misses is a coach, although, as club chairman Martin Haynes quips, "we do have a small bus".

Watching the team in action, it is clear that the BCC is no mere collection of village cricketers out for a trundle. An affable and articulate group off the field, they play the game hard on it, complete with club-branded kit. Umpires are qualified and paid for their services. The white lines are measured and marked out impeccably, and once they are crossed, a real battle is joined.

Importantly, the club is also actively engaged in promoting the game in Germany. With the Maifeld as its trump card, it is now hoping to attract new players, stimulate greater local awareness and bring in touring sides. It has launched initiatives at school level. A German member of the 2nd XI, Hans-Heinrich Mai, is coach of the national women's team. There is even talk of ICC Division 6 matches being played there.

However, it is far too early to say that the game is thriving. As mentioned, finding German players is particularly difficult, for most of them come to cricket only by living in a country in which it is played; Volker Ellerbeck, for example, took to the sport after unexpectedly taking a wicket when invited to a net at Oriel College, Oxford.

Nor is enthusing German administrators an easy task. This said, another welcome result of the BCC's dispute has been the opening of new channels of communication with the authorities, who to their credit are now showing an unprecedented willingness to try to understand the game and its needs, as well as to provide facilities and generous subsidies.

The standard of the cricket is solid. Many BCC members played for universities, county schools or even county 2nds. With the BCC having won the national club championship in 2010, potential touring teams should come here ready to compete, after which they can enjoy the post-match beer, brewed by a club member in full compliance with German regulatory requirements.

In the club's opening 50-over match of 2012, the first of 12 rounds for the local championship, their opponents were the Berlin Lions, mainly comprised, as the name might suggest, of Sri Lankans, along with a couple of Germans. With England, India, New Zealand, Australia and Afghanistan all represented in the BCC XI, this was a friendly and multicultural occasion, the kind of event at which Berlin excels. On the field, however, both teams played to win.

As befits the first game at a new ground, nerves were apparent. The pitch, which had been laid just two weeks earlier, was spongy and slow, while the uncut outfield had more body than a movie idol's hairdo. Having won the toss, the BCC at times found scoring a laborious process, with several batsmen becoming frustrated and throwing away their wickets after looking well set.

Nevertheless, despite an extraordinary 8 for 38 by Lions bowler Indika Gunasekara, the BCC's eventual total of 176 all out was better than it looked. There was enough elegant strokeplay on show to suggest that the BCC has what it takes to amass more intimidating totals in future.

Fired by chirpy fans and the baying of furious Hertha supporters, the Lions' turn at the crease began as a Lankan innings must, with 17 smashed off the first over. Thereafter, however, they contrived to lose wickets every time they threatened to gather momentum and ultimately fell well short with 138 for 9.

Most importantly this was a very promising start to a new chapter in Berlin cricket. For now, it seems that only Berlin's most unpredictable player - the weather - threatens to occasionally darken an otherwise shining future.

Fabian Muir is an Australian writer now based in Berlin

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