June 17, 2012

French cricket's Olympic legacy

A match between France and MCC to mark cricket's inclusion at the 1900 Olympics highlights attempts to grow the game across the Channel

The scene could hardly have been more incongruous. In the gardens of a château, deep in the French countryside outside of Paris, Richie Benaud is watching a cricket match between France and the MCC. Occasionally the roar of a lion from the château's wildlife park rises above the sound of bat and ball and birdsong.

A press officer interrupts Richie: "Could we take you to the elephant enclosure for an interview about cricket in France?"

"Of course," says Richie, with the good-natured, phlegmatic air of a fellow who had been interviewed about French cricket in elephant enclosures on numerous occasions. "Are we walking?"

"No, an antelope might attack you," the press officer replies. "Or a lion might eat you. And that's not really the sort of publicity we're after."

Were an unicycling unicorn to take a turn at umpiring, the whole scene could hardly be any more odd. Or appealing. Château de Thoiry, the backdrop for this game, which was staged to commemorate cricket's only appearance at the Olympics (in Paris in 1900) is an achingly beautiful place. The Count and Countess de la Panouse, who own the château, have welcomed cricket teams into their gardens for 20 years ("They keep the grass down beautifully," the countess says. "It's true that I could have bought goats, but cricketers tend to eat fewer flowers.") and Thoiry Cricket Club has established itself not just as an idyllic venue for touring teams but a beacon of excellence in instilling a love of cricket in young people.

Yet, beneath the beautiful but somewhat surreal surface, there is a real - and rather heroic - battle for survival in progress. Cricket in France is at a crossroads. Thwarted by a lack of facilities, particularly pitches, and its perception as the epitome of Englishness - and, round these parts, it is deemed better for your daughter to marry an axe murderer than an Englishman - the game has progressed little over the last 20 years; 50 years, even.

There is hope, though. Inspired by a new general manager, Mark Moodley, and his group of volunteers, a new team and a new spirit is emerging. Indeed, Moodley might just be the architect of a quiet miracle.

Unsurprisingly the French team is overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) comprised of first-, second- and third-generation Asian immigrants. A few, such as 17-year-old legspinner Zika Ali, who will shortly return for a second trial at Kent, possess extravagant talent. Just as they lost in the 1900 Olympics (they took silver to Britain's gold), France lost the 2012 Olympic commemoration game - a T20 encounter - by 35 runs on Saturday to a strong MCC team containing Josh Marquet, who was once thought of as one of the fastest bowlers in the world, and Rob Turner, who was a key part of the Somerset team of a decade or so ago. France's flaws were tactical more than technical and their commitment in the field bordered on the insane. There was plenty of talent.

Next week France travel to La Manga in Spain to play games against Belgium ("Our bogey team," Moodley says), Gibraltar and Austria. If they win all three, they will be admitted to Division 8 of the ICC's World Cricket League (WCL). They would have taken a step on the road that leads, eventually to ODIs, World Twenty20s and, one day, perhaps even Test status.

Elevation would bring its own challenges. Promotion to the WCL would not bring an increase in funding from the ICC, which currently provides around €250,000 ($315,000) per year, but would demand commitments costing around €800,000 ($1 million) per year. While Moodley insists that France would not - unlike at least one of their rivals - decline the invite into the WCL, cricket in France desperately requires extra funding. The search for a sponsor goes on.

The Olympics presents one obvious solution. As is the case with many nations, the government provides funding for Olympic sports from seven years ahead of the event. It would also bring widespread exposure for a sport that often talks with self-satisfied pomposity of its global reach but can act with small-minded parochialism.

There are several substantial impediments to cricket's return to the Olympics. For a start, it seems unlikely that the ICC will even bid for cricket's inclusion. Such is cricket's reliance on broadcast revenues that the Future Tours Programme is packed for many years ahead. You may as well try to convince one of the lions at Thoiry of the virtues of vegetarianism as attempt to persuade some of the major figures within the ICC to compromise their short-term commercialism for some long-term vision.

Besides, even if the ICC applied for Olympic inclusion, it seems unlikely that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would receive the application with warmth. Cost is one issue. It is unlikely that any cricket-playing country will bid for an Olympic Games in the foreseeable future and so a future host might be reluctant to put on a stadium sport like cricket, even T20, in addition to football, due to difficulties in finding venues. The Games are already unwieldy, containing 27 sports.

What the IOC calls "gender parity" is another issue. In the London Games, the IOC hopes, for the first time, that there will be equal participation in all sports between men and women. The ratio was 42:58 in Beijing. Women's cricket, though developing, has not taken root everywhere, and the IOC is unlikely to sanction a sport that would set back their efforts. Realistically, if cricket could not win inclusion at London, it will not win inclusion anywhere. The chances of cricket becoming an Olympic sport before 2032 are very, very slim.

That is a shame. In France, as elsewhere, it would bring new sources of funding and new levels of exposure. If cricket is serious about developing into a global sport, it is exactly the sort of step the ICC should take.

But there is still Moodley's miracle. Preposterously unlikely though it sounds, Moodley has persuaded schools in France - well, 200 of them, anyway - to not just allow him to expose their children to cricket but to introduce it as part of the curriculum. By the end of this year, he hopes to have 3900 French children playing cricket. In three years' time, he aims to have reached 200,000.

At first glance that might sound surprising. At second glance, too. But football's reputation - particularly among teachers - has waned considerably. It has developed - or regressed - into a sport where role models do not just question authority, they snarl and sneer and swear in its face; where fair play is seen - like penny-farthings and shire horses - as a charming relic of a bygone age. It is seen, by some teachers who have to deal with children copying the actions of their heroes, as ugly and disruptive.

That is not the case in cricket. Despite the likes of Cronje, Butt and Westfield, the reputation of cricket is still synonymous with fair play and respect. Those are qualities that any teacher would like to instil. Moodley has recognised that and taken advantage. Given some investment, he could reap a rich harvest on soil that once seemed inhospitable to the sport.

Relations between England and France will always be tinged with that love-hate dynamic that is inevitable in neighbours who have been to war over their boundaries. But amid the lions and limes of Thoiry, it seemed the entente was more cordiale than ever.

"The English lead the world at three things: binge drinking, teenage pregnancy and cricket," a French spectator said as the match came to a close.

"Yeah, but we were expecting you to surrender as soon as the umpires called 'play'," replied his English companion.

The pair laughed heartily and departed together for tea - pâté, brie and cucumber sandwiches. Wherever you find yourself - Los Angeles, the Caribbean, Afghanistan or Europe - cricket's power to unite and heal remains quite remarkable.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo