Serbia emerges from humble beginnings
Walking around Belgrade for the first time feels akin to entering a time warp. Its drab exterior is littered with dilapidated buildings appearing on the verge of collapse. The eyesores, tarnished with dark holes and crumbling interiors, are stark reminders of Serbia's bloody history and the NATO attacks on its capital city just 13 years ago. Scathed sites remain from the spectre of World War II. Decrepit Yugo and Zastava automobiles serve as relics of its socialist past. "Pretty" isn't in the lexis when describing the former Yugoslav capital. Grungy but gritty is a stereotypical description by transients.
Admittedly, other European destinations offer more aesthetically but few can match Belgrade's zeal as it reinvents itself as a mini Balkan version of Berlin, with its rich culture and energetic nightlife helping flee its turbulent past. In 2009, travel bible Lonely Planet ranked Belgrade as the No. 1 party destination in the world. Contrary to perception, it is believed to be one of Europe's safest cities. Belgrade surprises but is still relatively untapped by the throng, who maraud popular neighbour Croatia. Few are aware of Belgrade's allure. Less would be aware of cricket's expeditious development here.
Serbian cricket has evolved from the infamy of being an international punchline, exasperated in Angus Bell's hilarious madcap travelogue Batting on the Bosphorus (2006).
After several aborted attempts, cricket began its Serbian journey in 2007. A group of puzzled locals were introduced to the quaint British sport, derided in these parts as the English invention for procrastination, on the grass patch in front of the historical Belgrade Fortress, situated at the confluence of the River Sava and Danube.
Belgrade native Vladimir Ninkovic is an assiduous pioneer of Serbian cricket, wearing the varying hats of Serbian Cricket Federation (SCF) general secretary, national team captain and Serbian language cricket commentator for Eurosport television channel. He believes cricket is slowly making an impression in the national sporting consciousness after its humble beginnings five years ago.
"It was crazy, five or ten of us went to the park and it was a bit of a joke as we were just doing what we saw on YouTube," Ninkovic remembers with a smirk.
"We now have four teams mostly comprised of home-grown players. Each team only has two or three players from overseas because we capped overseas players after the first season. We play 20 and 40 over cricket."
Serbia does not have ICC affiliate membership, prompting Ninkovic and his band of dedicated followers to seek financial assistance.
"We are self-funded," he says. "The ICC don't fund us but they provide some equipment. We have had English club teams visit and they leave equipment. We are hopeful for affiliate status next year. To fulfil requirements, we must have two allocated grounds, which we have.
"Usually, you need to have eight clubs for affiliate status but our emphasis is on home-grown players. We could have eight if we wanted to."
Ninkovic believes developing a cricket culture within the local community is paramount for the sport to be "accepted in Serbia". "In the other countries in the region, cricket is not considered to be part of the sports system," he says. "Even in the Netherlands, which is a good cricket country, cricket isn't really known there. We have introduced cricket into the schools. We have also been part of the Street20 cricket charity to help change the lives of disadvantaged young Roma gypsies."
Serbia represents an important gateway between east and west Europe. During the Cold War, the former Yugoslavia flirted with both the west and the Soviet Union. With the European Union mired in financial woe, Serbia, one of the poorest countries in Europe, has set its sights eastbound. "Our country is looking east every day to export, mainly to Russia, China and India," Ninkovic explains.
"There is more money in the east. The government recognise cricket is a big sport in India. If we could develop relations with India it could in turn help develop the sport here."
SCF chairman Haris Dajc believes cricket's infamous "British snobbery" stereotype is starting to erode in the Serbian populace. "Cricket in a communist country was perceived as a tool of English colonialism," says Dajc, a history lecturer at the University of Belgrade. "It was never encouraged. It was considered bourgeoisie and back then there was only first class matches. If there was no ODI or t20, I doubt cricket would spread. People take cricket more seriously these days, although some still regard us as snobs and 'acting British'. I can see cricket being popular but it will take time."
During my final night in Belgrade, I down too many samples of the nefarious rakija - a lethal alcoholic brew I vow never to consume again. Amid the mayhem, I engage in lively cricket conversations with Serbian national team player Slobodan Tosic. Naively, I expect to provide him a Cricket History 101 tutorial because often players from non-traditional cricket cultures enjoy participating in the action but do not necessary like watching the staid game. Instead, I'm flabbergasted by his extensive knowledge and fervour for cricket. We discuss the memorable 1999 World Cup semi-final tie. We are bonded by our love of listening to cricket on the radio. He recounts memorable Steve Waugh knocks. Of course, this is possible because of the digital age. One can become a sport expert thanks to cyberspace. But, what astounds me is the intrinsic love for cricket Tosic and the other indefatigable Serbian cricket folk possess.
"To be honest, I never thought you would know so much about cricket, and be this passionate for the sport," I confess.
"Don't judge a book by its cover," Tosic chuckles.
For Serbian cricket, and Belgrade itself, this hackneyed idiom resonates.