Cricket on a divided island
Head west out of the bustling port of Limassol, Cyprus' second city, along the old coast road to Paphos, and soon enough you'll reach the Akrotiri Sovereign Base Area (SBA). Pass the ancient Roman amphitheatre at Kourion, then funnel on through the barbed wire-topped mesh fencing of the Episkopi garrison and a couple of kilometres beyond that the gloriously named Happy Valley Sports Ground will appear below, an incongruous tongue of lush green amidst scrubland the colour of a Richie Benaud suit.
Providing temporary sanctuary from the severe financial crisis that has recently threatened to engulf the country, this oasis of cricket, soccer, rugby, hockey, archery, athletics and equestrian facilities, kept verdant by a nearby water treatment plant, is the heartland of Cypriot cricket - its three grounds hosted the ICC European Division 4 Championship in 2009 - yet actually sits on British soil, as any soul wandering blithely in will be sharply reminded.
This military presence - from the jets buzzing out over the stretch of sea from which Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, is said to have emerged, to the radio masts stuck in the landscape like pins in a cushion - has pervaded the country's truncated cricket history. Britain leased the island from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 in order to protect its trade route through the then recently opened Suez Canal, and a scorecard from a game between King's Royal's Rifles and "Nicosia" from as early as 1886 appears in the journal Cricket: A Weekly Record of the Game: a certain Constantinidi bagged five cheap wickets as KRR were routed for 34. However, regular cricket wasn't played until after the Second World War - by which time Britain was the full sovereign power, a role assumed after finding itself opposing the Ottomans during the Great War - and even then was confined to British armed forces, soon to be otherwise occupied.
Armed resistance from Greek-Cypriot nationalists favouring union (enosis) with Greece led Britain to grant independence in 1960, on the proviso that two large SBAs were retained and Britain remained - along with Greece and Turkey, reflecting the ethnic split on the island - one of the new constitution's three "guarantor powers". However, following much political strife and communal violence, and amidst Cold War intrigue, an Athens-sponsored, pro-enosis coup in July 1974 prompted a Turkish invasion and a short-lived, bloody war, since when the island has been partitioned by the UN-monitored Green Line that cuts through the old Venetian ramparts of Nicosia, the world's last divided capital city.
The Cold War may have passed, but the island's ongoing strategic and geopolitical importance means that this corner of a foreign field is likely to remain, if not forever England, then certainly so for a few more years. So it was that, for the season-opening T20 warm-up, the Akrotiri SBA - bolstered by a couple of ringers from the Combined Services side out on warm-weather pre-season preparations - faced a team of Indian software engineers employed by Israeli firm, Amdocs.
The pitch is astroturf (there are no grass wickets on the island) and of variable bounce; enthusiasm is as high as the ability is mixed, attested by the number of grassed skiers - although this is perhaps mitigated by a swirling sea breeze that, at this time of year, barrels up the valley to send lofted shots over the 45-metre boundary and into the foliage beyond.
The make-up of the two teams is broadly representative of domestic Cypriot cricket, which predominantly comprises subcontinentals (Sri Lankans CC are strong favourites in all competitions) and British servicemen. The island's first civilian team, Moufflons, was founded in 1989 by a Welshman, then, over the following decade, waves of cricket-savvy expats of Greek-Cypriot heritage returned from South Africa, and this was supplemented by the fervour of students and migrant workers from Asia. Cyprus became an ICC affiliate member in 1999, and four years later, duly fulfilling conditions of membership, the national league and Cyprus Cricket Association (CCA) were constituted.
The undoubted cricketing high point thus far, as CCA Chairman Muhammad Husain explains, came at those Division 4 Championships, a six-nation round-robin won by the hosts on net run rate, when, in the final game, having scored 183 in 50 overs, they needed to restrict Finland to under 135 and duly skittled them for 99.
Nevertheless, building on such success is far from straightforward and CCA faces a continual struggle to embed cricket in the wider culture. The transience of the playing base is the biggest of a clutch of problems.
"Cyprus is like a conveyor belt", laments Husain. "Nobody stays. We had 200 players five years ago and we still have 200 players". Not only does this affect the domestic league - as does the strength of the army teams, which fluctuates with postings - but the four-year residency period for national team qualification means that no sooner are players eligible than they have graduated and likely migrated anew. Take Tahir Mohsin, player of the tournament in last September's European Division 2 Championship in Corfu, recently departed for Pakistan.
Of course, the long-term solution is to penetrate schools and build from the grassroots - Husain's goal is that, by 2020, 0.5% of Cyprus' 840,000 population (1.1 million with the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus) will be playing some form of cricket (beach, Kwik, indoor, whatever) and that 5% will be aware of the game - yet this is no easy task given the sway football and, to a lesser extent, basketball hold.
On top of that, CCA is not yet recognised as an official sporting body by the Cypriot government, which means that not only does it receive no central subsidy - $10,000 "admin funding" comes in annually from ICC Europe, with additional money (last year, an extra $10,000) dependent upon performance: team results; numbers of registered players, coaches, teams, umpires, etc - but also, crucially, that cricket cannot go on the state school curriculum. Husain freely admits that the financial crisis means money from Nicosia would in any event be unlikely (while also proudly pointing out that last year's accounts show just a €141 loss, albeit helped by the national team paying €500 each toward the Corfu trip), yet is quick to underline that obtaining official recognition - a "governance issue" to do with the registration of players - and thus getting into more schools is "high on the agenda".
Meanwhile, however, independent schools remain an option. Phil Bell, a former Thames Valley policeman and CCA committee member responsible for training the small band of umpires and scorers, supervises after-school training and matches at Heritage and Foley's schools in Limassol. An annual six-week coaching course attracting over a hundred kids between eight and 18 years old and of all nationalities is held there, with a handful of the city's plentiful Russian expat children showing surprising aptitude for, and interest in, the game.
The CCA is also prioritising the development of more coaches - at present, 20 of the 56 on the database are active - with programmes overseen by ECB Level 3-qualified national team coach Graeme Rickman. Hearteningly, given the island's chequered history, three of the eight subscribers for the latest Level-1 course were from the English School in Kyrenia, north of the border (two Turkish Cypriots and a Frenchman). With 22 "Young Leaders" there also recently trained to assist with Kwik cricket-based PE lessons, CCA intends to send a junior team across the Green Line for informal matches.
It is perhaps ironic that the stifling climate contributes to the difficulties in spreading the cricket bug. Cypriot parents aren't keen to have their offspring out alongside the mad dogs and Englishmen under the midday sun. The cricket season takes a summer break, its players - many of whom will observe Ramadan - aestivating during the searing heat of July and August before the programme resumes from September to December.)
Bell takes heart in the rapid emergence of another minority sport on the island - the Cypriot national rugby union team, founded in 2007, recently equalled the world record for the longest international winning streak. That embryonic sporting culture began with expat South Africans in Paphos, and it is Johannesburg-born Mike Kyriacou who currently captains the national cricket team, albeit himself lamenting that more locals aren't yet playing. Formed in 2005, they have bi-monthly training, bi-annual tournaments, and play occasional touring sides such as the MCC team led by Mike Gatting that visited in 2007.
The national side has not yet been graced by the biggest name connected with Cypriot cricket: Andrea Agathangelou, Lancashire's 23-year-old top-order batsman, part-time leggie and "the best slip fielder on the staff" according to assistant coach Gary Yates. "I was born and raised in South Africa," says English cricket's second most famous "Aggers", "but through my ancestral visa I'm actually Cypriot. I see myself as more Cypriot than South African. I have family in every city and town in Cyprus. My grandmother lets everyone there know all my achievements."
Though Cyprus is the country of both his passport and heart, he is at present deemed ineligible to represent the national team, ICC regulations stipulating that he must either spend a minimum of 183 days there each year or invest 800 hours of "cricket work" annually. Given the general bonhomie, mutual support and lack of real rivalry at this level, Bell is perplexed: "I think it's outrageous. We know there's good reason for it and we fully accept that. However, in the real world we're European Division 2. We're not seeking an advantage. We just want someone who's Cypriot through and through to be able to play for us".
Bearing in mind the impact that the likes of Ryan ten Doeschate have had on European cricket, it is a cause for concern that a country that has suffered its fair share of upheaval, particularly lately, could miss out on such a potential boost, at all levels, to its cricketing culture. "He could teach Cypriot players so much about professionalism, about the standards required," Bell continues. "And if you had someone like him playing, it would attract publicity, new players, perhaps others at a high level would want to play. As I say, I can understand the reason behind it, but is that fair to him? Is that fair to Cyprus?"
Scott Oliver tweets here