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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Javed on June 19, 2012, 10:35 GMT

    Great article. Lovely to see the spread of this game we love.

  • Jason on June 19, 2012, 9:09 GMT

    @clarke501, I think it goes deeper than that any person born to one/two french citizens anywhere in the world would have dual nationality. I've previously read articles that said France was looking to have a full FC system in place by the end of this decade and look at trying to get Full membership by the mid 2020's, something I look forward to as it will also help england having another test nation on the doorstep. The same goes for Ireland but they look to be playing catchup with the french.

  • Dummy4 on June 19, 2012, 5:09 GMT

    Great to see French playing cricket. Interesting would be if they ask BCCI for help as they are the big boss of world cricket now. Also, I always think why not these associate countries pick cricketers from countries like cricket where the no. of players playing the sport is astonishing. They could easily hire there services and even give them citizenship so that they can represent them. At least, It will give them edge in competing with other major cricketing nations. And, if the games get popular which is bound to be with some victories will give a natural boost to local aspirants not just fan following.

  • Andrew on June 19, 2012, 1:18 GMT

    @Mark Moodley - just want to say great work & hope it all works out, I think the fruit will take about 10 to 15 yrs to bear!

  • Dummy4 on June 18, 2012, 17:05 GMT

    A great article about the development of our sport in France. More than folklore, ringers and expats, a genuine sport propelled by real passionates. France Cricket was awarded the title of volunteer of the year in 2011 by ICC through Mickael SELIG. The French national team won on Sunday with their best players on the pitch this time. They're pure amateurs who play for their country and the love of the game unlike the mercenaries we're used to at any professional sport. They deserve our respect for their efforts and hopefully they will deserve our admiration for their results. ALLEZ LA FRANCE

  • Cricinfouser on June 18, 2012, 14:29 GMT

    @Mark Moodley - you may have misunderstood my post. That was exactly the point I was making - namely that a person born in France is a French national and entitled to represent his country in any sport. Thanks to you and Michael Selig for your illuminating contributions to this interesting article and for your work in spreading this great sport.

  • Jem on June 18, 2012, 12:31 GMT

    Beautifully written article, George. Getting into schools is the key - as it is over here... that and the opportunity for kids to watch cricket on terrestial TV... but we won't go into that! And for what it's worth, @Lee Mathews... Richie Benaud did exactly the same thing to me over 40 years ago, when my dad approached him at, I think, Clive Lloyd's testimonial match, played at Didsbury CC... My dad asked for his autograph for me and was told "If I'm not giving my autograph to any kids, I'm not giving it to you either." Such a shame to have memories like that when thinking about such an icon of our sport.

  • Dummy4 on June 18, 2012, 12:29 GMT

    In reply to navjot2000, here in France we have signed an agreement with the schools ministry organisation (USEP) that runs Primary schools. We are going to roll out Kwik Cricket to 200 schools in the next 3 years. Bringing cricket to over 20 000 children.....a totally new market with both boys and girls in our objectives. Depending on finances, partners and sponsors, our overall schools target is to introduce cricket to 14 000 PRIMARY SCHOOLS and over 2 MILLION Children.

  • Dummy4 on June 18, 2012, 12:22 GMT

    HI Clarke501, Our 2nd & 3rd generations Asians are French Nationals, born and raised in France. Same thing the world over.

  • Dummy4 on June 18, 2012, 11:24 GMT

    Navjot: icricket develops first through expats, then through the local population - the schools' program is feasible only because you have something - namely a place in the national team - for the kids to aspire to. It should be noted that the vast majority of the side are French nationals; as pointed out, 2nd/3rd generation french is still French in my view, or can we not consider Panesar English?

    A better measure, rather than talking about "expats", is where the players learnt their cricket (so Strauss is English, but Pietersen less so), and it is testament to the French development program that 7/13 of the squad have played age-group cricket for France before being picked for the senior side.

    I also must make an addition: although Mark's involvement has given French cricket a fantastic boost, the primary school program is really the pet project of David Bordes - pure French and current national team selector - David has done a huge amount for cricket here and deserves recognition

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