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Cricket's not all greek to the Greeks

In Corfu and Athens the sport is catching on, and the locals are getting their countrymen from all over the world to visit and play as well

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
The Marina Gouvia cricket ground in Corfu, Greece

The ground at Marina Gouvia in Corfu  •  Hellenic Cricket Federation

In Cape Town cricket is played against the backdrop of Table mountain, in Dharamsala the Himalayas watch over the sport, and in Corfu it's the Venetian New Fortress that guards the pitch.
Yes, Corfu. That Greek island soaked in sunshine, decorated with olive groves and vineyards and accessorised with French and Italian architecture is now home to a real-life version of My Big Fat Greek Cricket Match.
Matches, in the plural, in fact. In April the Hellenic Cricket Federation (HCF) invites schools from across the globe to compete in a multinational tournament to open their season. The HCF covers the teams' accommodation and breakfast and dinner, effectively leaving the parents with not much more than flight costs to bear. In September they close the summer with the Greek Cup, a competition in which people from the Greek diaspora play. Sandwiched between these two highlights is a thriving domestic season that includes 20 clubs, 13 of them in Corfu.
Surprisingly to some, cricket owns a part of the island's history too. It has been played there since 1823, when a British Garrison and Royal Navy Team contested the first match on Corfu. Since then, English teams have often combined beach holidays with pre-season tours. Having observed the visitors over the years, the locals began to take an interest as well.
Within 12 years of the game's introduction, they had set up two of their own clubs. One catered for top-tier players and was named Large and the other one, Small, for players at a slightly lower level. For 58 years these were the only two clubs to play cricket in Corfu. Eventually they merged but they remained the founding stone on which the rest of Greek cricket was built.
More than a century and a half after, in 1995, Greece became an affiliate member of the ICC. They have featured in the European Outdoor and Indoor tournaments and won the ECC Trophy in 1999, earning promotion to Division Two of the European league, in which they still play. Like many Affiliate nations, their goal is to be able to play at a higher level and qualify for a global event such as the World T20, and they have found a novel way to try and do it.
"Cricket is a wonderful vehicle to bring communities back to Greece and teach them about their culture," Iosif Nikitas of the HCF told ESPNcricinfo in Kensington, Johannesburg, where a team from the federation spent the first week of February. They had come to South Africa on a reconnaissance mission, scouting for players of Greek descent, and to meet with the Africa Cricket Union about developing their relationship. Saheti Secondary School in the suburb of Bedfordview was their main focus. It is a traditional Greek school, attended mostly by students of Greek heritage, who have been invited to play in the April festival.
On the face of it, it would appear as if Greece wanted to poach these talented schools players for their own side, but Nikitas was quick to dismiss that idea. He explained that the HCF is trying to tap into the diaspora so it can perform the dual role of uniting people with their culture and benefiting from the skills players would have learnt in countries with strong cricket traditions.
"Three years ago we went to Melbourne, where there are more than 400,000 Greeks," Nikitas said, "and we told them, 'Look, we play cricket.' They were very surprised.
In 2011, they had Tom Smith's Cricket Umpiring and Scoring Book translated into Greek, using people from the island's university. The terminology proved tricky in some cases because the Greeks have invented some of their own words for a few terms
"Some of the third- and fourth-generation Greeks came to Corfu after we spoke with them, and because of cricket they feel they are Greek again. They speak Greek, they want Greek books from their fathers, that kind of thing. They came for a big tour that was not only cricket. So this is very important. It's more than cricket."
One of the players the HFC discovered on that trip was Australian Under-19 Theo Doropoulos, who has taken an interest in cricket in Greece. Along with South African-born wicketkeeper-batsman Nic Pothas, Doropoulos has assisted with coaching clinics and teaching the Greek national side the basics. Pothas, who is now based in England, where he has spent nearly a decade playing for Hampshire, is also going to be involved in a series of training camps as he develops his relationships with the Greek team.
"The Hellenic Cricket Federation found me on Facebook and asked if I was Nic Pothas the Greek cricketer," he said. "I don't usually entertain messages from people I don't know but I replied to this one and we started chatting. I was properly amazed by how passionate they were."
Pothas is "100% Greek, not one of those people who just say they are Greek", and reads, writes and speaks the language. Most of his family still lives in Greece, and he has been a regular visitor to the country. Having only recently discovered that they play cricket, he is now hooked. "It's always nice to give something back, and to see people playing cricket just for the sake of playing is so refreshing.
"Talent-wise they are fantastic. But they need help with some of the basics, things like field placings and developing a cricket culture."
For Pothas, who was schooled at King Edward VII in Johannesburg, the customs of cricket are sacred, and he wants to be able to pass that on. He only played three ODIs for South Africa but has spent almost two decades as a professional cricketer, and said he wants to show others that it is possible to do that, even without reaching the top tier.
"I want to make sure that young kids can work within a time frame of maybe 20 years and build a career. I have made peace with knowing I could have performed at international level and I'm proud of what I have done outside that. It can be the same for some of these guys."
Pothas just may be the Greeks' ticket to county or club contracts, and he has already started taking age group sides from England to Corfu so the Greek teams have opposition to compare themselves with against.
"Sometimes you can perceive yourself as good but you need to be able to measure that," he said. For the Greek team, it is particularly important that they are able to quantify their abilities, because unlike some of their neighbours they are trying to create a team of which the spine consists of born and bred Greek players.
Already they have succeeded in getting the game to be played all year round, instead of just in summer, with an indoor league for the winter months. "When we only played between May and October, all the kids would disappear to football or to basketball and then we would have to find them again and convince them to play cricket. Now they play the whole year," Nikitas said.
Cricket in Greece is mainly played in Athens and Corfu but Nikitas hopes it will spread to other islands as well. For now, they hope to strengthen the sport in the country's capital and have asked for another ground, because the one they currently use is shared with horse riders and is too far from the city centre.
The government provides most of the HCF's funding, despite the country's national financial crisis, which has been worsening. "This year we will get 20% less than what we get every year, but it's still enough. It will not be a problem because we also get US $25,000 a year from ICC Europe," Nikitas said.
Off the field as well, Greek cricket is taking strides. In 2011, they had Tom Smith's Cricket Umpiring and Scoring Book translated into Greek, using people from the island's university. The terminology proved tricky in some cases because the Greeks have invented some of their own words for a few terms, Pothas said.
From rule books to making use of the diaspora, the HCF's efforts are being made with a view to qualifying for the European Division One and, as Nikitas said with a wistful look in his eye, maybe one day for a World T20 spot.
"We have a very good team," he says. "We don't have very fast bowlers, but we have medium-fast and spinners. When you see Greek cricket, you will see that it has its own style."
With an ancient and revered castle overlooking the ground and the possibility of a ball landing in a teacup in a café by the boundary's edge, in Corfu they most certainly do.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent