Europe digs in for the long innings

Tim Brooks tells the story of a brand of the game that, against the odds, displays an uncanny knack for self-sustenance

Alan Gardner
Alan Gardner
Chris Pearce, chairman of Czech Cricket, coaches a youngster

Thanks to the drive of volunteers, enthusiasts and expats, the continent has vibrant pockets of cricketing activity  •  Kriketova Akademie CR

It was an unfortunate coincidence, surely, that Cricket on the Continent was published a few months after the UK's seismic vote to leave in last year's EU referendum. Towards the end of Tim Brooks' excellent compendium of the game on mainland Europe, he invokes the Remain campaign to suggest countries where cricket is a minority sport, such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, would be better off working together - ideally with some sort of help from the ECB - if the game is to carve out a viable niche. Symbolically, at least, England has decided to turn its back.
Then again, as Brooks well knows, European cricket has been clinging on in a variety of inhospitable outposts pretty much from the start. Even the ICC, which oversaw an extensive development programme in the region during the 2000s, has withdrawn much of its support in the era of "contribution costs" and preferential treatment for a select few Associate nations - in Europe's case, Ireland. "A line appears to have been drawn, and continental Europe sits nervously beneath it," Brooks writes.
It is to be hoped that the volunteers, expats and enthusiasts who make up the dots on Europe's cricketing map won't be deterred. There is strength in numbers and Brooks' meticulous detailing of what seems to be pretty much every scratch game ever held, from Gibraltar to Finland via Cyprus, should give encouragement that there is a viable base - even if it is not yet one to make the ICC's media rights department sit up and say "Zut!"
While immigration from the subcontinent has contributed to much of the recent growth - refugees from Afghanistan and elsewhere have been behind the "extraordinary expansion" of the game in Germany - several countries in Europe acquired a taste for the English summer pursuit a long time ago. The Italian Cricket Federation can point proudly to the fact that Nelson first staged a game in Italy in 1793, during the Napoleonic wars, and cricket's part in the founding of two of football's grandest names, AC Milan and Juventus, hints at a tantalising missed opportunity. That historical link is still visible today in Genoa Cricket and Football Club.
Brooks' meticulous detailing of what seems to be pretty much every scratch game ever held, from Gibraltar to Finland via Cyprus, should give encouragement that there is a viable base
Stronger roots were to be found in Germany, where Felix Mendel terrorised many a schlagman (the German word for batsman) with his medium pace in the early 20th century, but it was Denmark and the Netherlands that really took cricket to heart. Danish cricket had an ardent supporter in the aristocrat Captain Hoskjaer, who was behind an 1860s manual that helped establish the sport, which had antecedents in native bat-and-ball games langbold and knatt. In 1883, the Nederlandsche Cricket Board was founded, making it the world's second-oldest national Cricket association (behind the MCC).
However, perhaps due to the obvious links with British empire-building, as well as notions of breeding, class and even morality, European cricket struggled to break out of its enclaves; at the same time football was rapidly embedding itself as the team sport of the masses. "Cricket would not find you," Brooks writes, "in fact over much of the continent it would be a miracle if you stumbled across it." Which leads to the insoluble question: "Is there something about the English that makes them like cricket more than, say, an Italian?"
Ashis Nandy famously described cricket as an Indian game discovered by the English, and demographic changes may eventually succeed where official bodies have largely failed (from its first incarnation as the Imperial Cricket Council, support from the ICC for the game on the continent has been patchy at best). But while Sri Lankans in Italy and Pakistanis in Norway may keep clubs and leagues running, that has led to arguments over how to strike the ideal balance between indigenous and ethnic player bases.
There are obvious similarities between Cricket on the Continent and another recent book that proudly flew the Associate flag, Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts (not least because Brooks contributed a chapter to the latter). The situation has changed somewhat since 2015, with a "post-Big Three" ICC touting its global development credentials again, but as Brooks makes clear, international cricket has hierarchies within hierarchies and the likes of Afghanistan, Nepal, USA and China are of greater interest to the ICC than the majority of its 33 European members. "There is a lot more to cheer for an Irishman than a Belgian," he writes of proposed changes to funding and status.
But that certainly does not mean giving up on the game in Europe (as RC Robertson-Glasgow wrote, "Who ever hoped like a cricketer?") From Saif Rehman, a former player and pioneer of disability cricket in Bulgaria; to Jason Barry, who put cricket on ice in Estonia; to Peter Borren, still the driving force in Netherlands' bid for recognition; to Brooks himself, who finishes his book with a manifesto for the future, there is inspiration aplenty. Brexit may be inevitable, the ICC may have its focus elsewhere but cricket on the continent has always been prepared to dig in.
Cricket on the Continent
By Tim Brooks
Pitch Publishing
£12.99, 254 pages

Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick