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The Finnish touch

Cricket in Finland? It's over 150 years old and it's multicultural

Tom Jeffreys
The Viapori Cup on the island of Suomenlinna, off the coast of Helsinki, Finland

A match in the Viapori Cup on the island of Suomenlinna  •  Jani Kyllönen

At first, the 18th-century fortress island of Suomenlinna, just off the coast of Helsinki, Finland, seems an unlikely location for a cricket match. Certainly, the tourists are baffled, as they look down upon us from the grass-covered battlements above. So too do the army cadets doing laps of our makeshift ground. However, it was the presence of fortifications such as Suomenlinna that first brought Finland to the attention of the British navy. And where the navy went, cricket came too.
I moved to Finland in 2014, and found, to my surprise, that cricket was thriving. Most cricketers here come originally from India or Pakistan but there are players from every Test-playing nation, as well as from many others, including Switzerland, Germany, Afghanistan, Nepal, and, of course, Finland. Empire Cricket Club, who I've been playing for regularly, contains an especially diverse mix. Members include students and software developers, researchers and scientists, a restaurateur, a theatre producer, and a former Navy commander with a passion for contemporary dance.
Recently, Nicholas Hogg wrote beautifully about how cricket can provide a home for the homeless, a new family for refugees. That is certainly true in Finland. One player here - who asked not to be named - left his native Pakistan due to death threats following his campaigns for women's rights. After 20 days in Russia and three months in a refugee camp, he is once again relishing the chance to bowl fast and drill near yorkers over long-on. "I was not aware there was such a great cricket community here," he told me. "I've been able to meet people from so many different cultures."
"The game does more than just the game," explains Jo Hadley, chairman of Empire CC. It was this that first drew Hadley, a retired UK policeman, to cricket. He had never been interested in any sport until moving to Finland in 2002 to complete a doctorate in sociology. He is now one of those selflessly dedicated figures at the heart of so many small cricket clubs. "Somewhere in a Finnish suburb are these people dressed in white playing a quintessentially English game," he says. "I was attracted to that poetry."
Hadley contrasts cricket to the example of pesäpallo, a Finnish version of baseball invented by eugenics-championing fascist Lauri Pihkala, and promoted from above after the right's victory in Finland's 1918 civil war. Cricket's growth, by contrast, has been an organic one fuelled by immigration - a journey from the periphery towards the centre. "I see cricket as the sporting expression of multicultural Finland," says Hadley.
But both pesäpallo and cricket have been encouraged by the military at various times. The Suomenlinna match, known as the Viapori Cup, is a legacy of a time when a few cricket-mad Finnish naval officers organised cricket games to build team spirit among cadets. Contested since the early 2000s, the Viapori Cup is now a very relaxed affair.
Much of the cricket played here is far more competitive. Credit for its organisation should go to the Finnish Cricket Association (FCA), founded by Andrew Armitage in 1999 and approved by the ICC the following year. "I wanted to see cricket here develop into something more than just the occasional match," says Armitage, a former banker who moved here with his Finnish wife in 1988. "I wanted us to get better organised - it was something I was passionate about."
The FCA has certainly succeeded. Today, there are 30 registered clubs, mostly in the south of the country, and around 600 licenced players. Cricket here is sponsored by Hardy's Wine (just like the England cricket team) and the FCA has kit deals with MKK-Newbery. In the summer, there are leagues for both 40-over cricket and Twenty20. In Finland's long, dark winters, cricket moves indoors. Outside of the FCA structure, there are popular tape-ball leagues as well as one-off games like the Viapori Cup or Cinders - an annual two-innings contest between Empire and Stadin Krikettikerho (SKK).
The FCA's major triumph has been the opening of a new purpose-built cricket ground in Kerava, 25 minutes north of Helsinki. The ground was officially opened in June 2014, in the presence of Mike Brearley, Lord Mervyn King, and various Finnish dignitaries. Given that most matches in Finland are played on gravel outfields (many of Finland's sports grounds are converted into ice rinks come winter), playing on the grass at Kerava feels like a serious luxury. This summer, the ground played host to the first Nordic-Baltic tournament between Finland, Sweden and Estonia.
But how did cricket get here in the first place? In 2015, Wisden's short overview of cricket in Finland includes no mention of anything before 1952, when a visiting team from the Agincourt, a Royal Navy destroyer, decided that a spot of cricket at Helsinki's new stadium would be a perfect way to mark the Olympic Games. But there is evidence that cricket was played in Finland almost 100 years earlier. Tony Lurcock's delightful No Particular Hurry: British travellers in Finland 1830-1917 - the second of a three-volume compendium - contains several accounts of cricket played here as far back as the 1850s.
It was during this period that Britain and France united against Russia in the Crimean War. In the UK at least, the Crimean is now best known for the charge of Light Brigade, and the "Baltic theatre" has been largely forgotten. Not so here. Finland had been taken from Sweden by Russia in 1809 and remained a Grand Duchy when the British navy sailed into the Baltic Sea. But with the Russian navy sheltering in their base at Kronstadt, there wasn't much fighting to be done. So when the British sailors were not raiding Finnish coastal settlements (many seemed unable to grasp the fact that Finland was not the enemy but effectively an occupied nation), they contented themselves with playing cricket on the islands. Lurcock finds examples of cricket in the writings of William Gerard Don, a ship's doctor, and Rev Robert Edgar Hughes, both of whom were in the Baltic in 1854-55. "Picnic and cricket parties were frequent," writes Hughes, "and the lonely rocks were made to ring with the sound of French and English laughter."
There is one further cricket-related oddity. In August 1854, under public pressure to be seen to be doing something, the British fleet did destroy the fortress of Bomarsund on the Åland islands between Sweden and Finland. Lurcock notes that the bombardment gave its name, rather bizarrely, to a village in Northumberland. In 1974, Bomarsund won the UK's National Village Cricket Championship.
After unsuccessfully bombarding Suomenlinna (I'm tempted to draw a comparison with my own, ahem, explosive legbreaks) the British fleet returned home. Thereafter, incidences of cricket matches in Finland are sporadic. Lurcock tells of Edward Rae, "a wealthy London stockbroker", who organised a cricket match against an all-Lapland XI in 1873. They were all out for 0 in their second innings. But Rae was just over the border in Russia at the time.
It was not until the 1960s that cricket began to be played in Finland more frequently. Matches took place between the British Embassy and a team of Finnish admen calling themselves the Kingdom of Palmerston (it was Lord Palmerston, a cabinet member during the Crimean War, who advocated the return of Finland from Russia to Sweden). Most of the stories from this period focus more on boozy journeys to Stockholm than on the cricket itself.
In 1972, a group of cricketers decided to break away from the British Embassy and form the Helsinki Cricket Club, Finland's first. Their belief was that the sport would be better served in the hands of permanent residents than transient diplomats. They were right. One of their number - a Jamaican fast bowler by the name of Ira Ebanks - has become a legendary figure in Finnish cricket. He is still a regular presence at the boundary edge, groaning at yet another Empire batting collapse.
Empire itself was founded in 2003 following a period of rapid expansion for cricket in Finland. The Nokia boom years of the 1990s saw the influx of a new, tech-savvy workforce, many of whom came from India and Pakistan. They brought their love of cricket with them, and clubs formed in the cities of Turku, Tampere, and Vantaa. Although Nokia collapsed in 2013 and Finland's economy remains shaky, Helsinki's tech and start-up scenes continue to provide a major draw. So does the country's excellent education system and free university tuition (although fees for overseas students will be introduced from 2017).
So what does the future hold for cricket in Finland? While the earliest cricket matches here involved the English, today the sport feels untouched by colonial traces. It is not an expat game but, as Hadley has said, a reflection of a complex multicultural experience. The FCA's aim is to further integrate cricket into Finland's sporting structures. "Finns tend to like quirky things," says Maija Scamans, formerly captain of Finland's first women's cricket team, now the FCA's Operations Director. "Cricket is an individual game within a team context. I think that appeals to the Finnish psyche."
The FCA has been holding cricket summer camps and coaching in schools since 2004. This year, for the first time, cricket is to be a part of the curriculum for the whole school year across ten different schools in Kerava. "Our aim is to become an integral part of the Finnish sporting community," says Armitage, "not just a strange, marginal activity."

Tom Jeffreys is an art writer, curator and editor. He runs an online magazine called The Learned Pig and tweets here