In the footsteps of Nelson, Tito and 007
Croatia boasts more than a thousand islands, of which Vis is touted as the most remote of all. Lying some 50 kilometres off the mainland, it remains unspoiled by mass tourism, and those who come here are making a deliberate choice to enjoy pristine nature and avoid the crowds that maraud the better-known islands. The principal activities in this place, with its sparkling waters and scent of spruce, are fine dining, swimming, hiking and cricket.
Yes, cricket. That it should rate even a mention on a windswept Croatian isle is surprising enough. That the local club, Vis CC, can point to a 200-year tradition that finds its origins with a Royal Navy captain and protégé of Lord Nelson is downright astonishing.
It all began with Captain Sir William Hoste, who spent several years on Vis and celebrated a famous victory there when outnumbered by Napoleon's warships in 1811, during which he coined the cry, "Remember Nelson!" When not harassing the French in the Adriatic, Hoste encouraged his men to play cricket, establishing a club and noting in a letter home that "when we anchor for a few hours, it passes away the time quite wonderfully".
With the island's year-round sun, he had certainly found an ideal location. There is no evidence that Hoste was a great player himself, although he harboured hopes that the game would capture the locals' imagination. While some did, in fact, take to the sport, ultimately these hopes remained unfulfilled, and when he set sail for England for the last time, in 1814, the cricket left with him.
One has to fast forward to the Second World War for a renaissance, when Vis was selected as a strategic air base by intrepid British adventurer and officer Fitzroy MacLean, who was a friend of Ian Fleming and is popularly believed to have been one of the inspirations for James Bond. Marshall Tito also settled here for a time, working closely with MacLean while directing Partisan operations from a mountaintop cave.
The island's sunshine and wide open spaces were a treat for idle servicemen, who inevitably turned to cricket to pass the time. MacLean and Tito must have witnessed these matches, and, though apocryphal, the idea of the original 007 smiting Tito for six on Vis is not without appeal.
Yet even this was not enough for the game to catch on among the island's inhabitants. Instead, a second dark age for Vis cricket was ushered in when the island was closed off to foreigners after the war, when it became a major naval base of the Yugoslav People's Army.
Another half-century elapsed before the game was brought back, in 2002. This time it was revived by a private individual, Oliver Roki, an ethnic Croatian who spent his early years in Australia before returning to Vis to make wine. Stumbling by chance across Hoste's letter and the tale of his cricket club, Roki decided to re-establish it, albeit with no gear, no ground, and no one who knew how to play; the first "pitch" was on an abandoned helipad.
However, word of this new club in an idyllic location spread fast, not least with the assistance of intrigued Croatian media outlets, including television stations and the local edition of Playboy. Before long, Vis CC found itself playing its inaugural international against the Saumur Strays, a French club chaired at that time by Sir Mick Jagger.
Vis CC club secretary Craig Wear describes the ensuing carnage, during which Roki was persuaded to open the batting and was skittled for a memorable diamond duck: "Vis was bowled out for about 15; Saumur lost one wicket. But the Croatian press reported that it had been an extremely tight game, with Saumur winning by 16 points to 15."
From this inauspicious start, however, Vis CC has moved from strength to strength, becoming a popular touring destination for teams from across Europe; even the MCC, loaded with six first-class cricketers, including Darren Bicknell and Rob Turner, played a series of four matches on Vis to celebrate Croatian cricket's bicentennial in 2010.
What sets Vis CC apart from other such teams in Europe is that it is largely comprised of locals, and it comes as something of a surprise to hear Croatian banter on the field. This is largely due to the club's committed efforts to engage with the island's schools, where the game has been received enthusiastically and has spawned many of the current generation of players
The small size of the population and Vis' isolation have actually been beneficial, allowing cricket to penetrate more readily than is possible on the mainland, where it has to compete against Croatia's traditional sporting bastions of basketball, football and handball. This said, cricket is growing across the water, where the finest player Australia no longer needs, Simon Katich, has expressed interest in paying tribute to his Croatian heritage by fostering the local game's development.
Vis CC has also found institutional support, with the European Cricket Council providing significant funding and sending across an English coach in 2002. Wealthier touring teams - the MCC was no exception - frequently donate gear. With several locals in the village of Plisko Polje having lent their land since 2008 to create the Sir William Hoste Ground, the game now enjoys a high profile on the island and beyond.
As Wear points out, conditions - and sometimes the style of play - are literally agricultural. With a vineyard to one side, a cabbage patch to another, and thistles bristling on the far side of the boundary rope, outfielders must contend with unusual obstacles. Indeed, it is not unusual to see the entire fielding team dutifully troop off to pick through the vines in search of a lost ball, occasionally pausing to pluck some fruit to sweeten the task. Wine never seems too far away, with even the scoreboard mounted on two converted barrels.
Yet the cricket is played competitively and the future looks as bright as the sun that ripens the grapes. The Vis side this writer witnessed was bolstered by five guest players from Zagreb CC, including three Croatian internationals, and more than held its own in a round-robin T20 tournament against visiting teams from Prague and North Weald in Essex.
If he could see "Remember Nelson!" emblazoned on the players' shirts, the admiral would presumably be pleased with this lesser-sung legacy. And while the vicissitudes of history have twice seen fit to deprive Vis of cricket, one has the feeling that this time the game is surely here to stay.
Fabian Muir is an Australian writer now based in Berlin