A view of the Vinor cricket ground

The cricket ground in Vinor, the Czech Republic's first

© Kriketova Akademie CR
6

Feature

When in Prague

How a bunch of expats are bringing kriket to central Europe

Nishant Joshi |

"Watch out for the mice when you're fielding. They scuttle everywhere."

I don't much think of the shallow holes that have transformed parts of the outfield into Swiss cheese, but I tread with caution. With my whites now hastily tucked into my socks, I soak it in. We are in Vinor, a sleepy district on Prague's northeastern edge, and the location of the Czech Republic's first and main cricket ground. The ground is a postcard patch of manicured grass interrupting acres of lush, green farms - Vinor is mostly farmland, best known for a medieval-era zamek, or small castle, of which there are hundreds scattered through the country.

Vinor does not attract visitors, or not until summertime. Indeed, cricket match days can swell the district's population by 30 people - 40 if it's a keenly awaited fixture - every weekend. This week I'm making up the numbers for Velvary Cricket Club, the country's tenth and newest cricket club.

It's a Sunday in early September, and we are due to play a T20. There is no pitch inspection, for the pitch is matted. There is no pavilion, but there is a shed in which we will take refuge from bouts of harsh drizzle in the late afternoon. Velvary CC is a few weeks old and is the brainchild of Scott Page, a burly, no-nonsense Australian expat. He hands me my brand new green cap, points his iPhone at me and flatly instructs: "Smile, this will go on our Facebook page."

We lose the toss and we are batting first. I volunteer to open. Prague CC are our opposition for the day, and they are the best in the country. They are a team replete with expats from the subcontinent who have previously played for the Czech Republic. Their best player is an Indian big-hitter with a fearsome reputation. During the week he is a chef. Most of his team-mates work for multinational corporations that have divisional offices in Prague. There is only one local Czech player for Prague CC today, and he is to spend his day enthusiastically moving from third man to third man. As I gingerly stretch off my EasyJet-induced neck strain and get acquainted with my new team, Prague CC perform sharp and determined fielding drills, full of yelps and pats on bums for spectacular diving catches.

A London-style double-decker bus that occasionally serves as transport during the cricket season - and more often as a makeshift pavilion

A London-style double-decker bus that occasionally serves as transport during the cricket season - and more often as a makeshift pavilion © Kriketova Akademie CR

Our team for the day includes a female student from the east of the country, and several subcontinent expats who are new to Prague. The umpires and scorers are league players on a day off, paid 300CZK (about US$10) per day.

I rummage through our club's kit bag. I decide against a helmet, and hope the abdominal guard is kosher. The club bat is but a stick of heavy plywood, but beggars cannot be choosers. We are all grateful to be here.

****

Hidden behind thick, tall crops, the Vinor ground would be impossible to spot from a distance were it not studded with a small crowd dressed in white. The ground is difficult to reach. From central Prague, it is a two-hour journey, taking in a tram, the metro, a bus and then a 15-minute walk along the side of a highway that leads to the dirt path to the ground.

Nobody moans about it. Most can remember when there was no cricket ground, no cricket team, no league, and no funding. For the expat looking for crumbs of home comfort, or for the curious newbie exploring a new sport, this cumbersome voyage is an unspoken part of Prague's match-day ritual. Indeed, the journey itself is a microcosm of what it's like to play cricket in an underdeveloped cricket nation. Particularly for expats it is not so much a journey to a ground as it is a pilgrimage to a mirage of home.

For six years, studying medicine, I lived in Hradec Králové, a quaint city in the eastern part of the Czech Republic. Cricket did not exist as a concept in Bohemia until my third year, when I contemplated dropping out of university. I was bored and unfulfilled. My cure for homesickness was to try and find a Czech girlfriend, and when that didn't work out, I started a cricket team.

The pitch for the Vinohrady CC derby

The pitch for the Vinohrady CC derby © Kriketova Akademie CR

There was support from expat students, many of whom were desperate to escape the monotony of a pretty but minuscule city. We tried to find purpose in cricket. At the same time, a new Indian restaurant in town brought in a handful of Indian chefs and cricket-mad owners, who promised us a 20% discount - excluding drinks - if we won even a single match through the season. This was more than enough motivation.

We procured a team's worth of cricket kit, thanks to extremely generous sponsorship from a cricket shop in London. During the summer we began training at the local athletics ground, where the discus nets handily doubled as makeshift cricket nets. Around us, promising local athletes would sprint on the track, or do long and high jumps, and stretch every sinew in preparation for competitions. Often they would idly drift towards our area and ask: "Co to je?" [What is this?]. Their coaches would scold them for getting distracted. We made the most of whatever facilities we had. Many afternoons were spent perfecting Jonty Rhodes-like dives on giant blue crash mats, until the high-jump coach would arrive and disdainfully shoo us away.

Cricket is difficult enough to explain to native English speakers; explaining it in a different language is nigh on impossible, and as a result we were a barely tolerated curiosity. Occasionally the local athletes would ask to hold a bat, or attempt to bowl. Regrettably, our own clunkiness meant that no matter how sincere we were, these balletic athletes would contort themselves into pretzels trying to play a forward defensive. Subsequently they chose to smile politely at us and observe from a distance.

Every year, our team - the HK Hurricanes - played a couple of matches against other student teams in Prague, but it was difficult to maintain. As cricket-inclined students throughout the northern hemisphere are all too aware, the season coincides with exam period and summer recess. A lack of numbers, wavering commitment, and annual changes in personnel is a killer for team continuity.

The snack stand at the Central Europe Cup, played in Vinor

The snack stand at the Central Europe Cup, played in Vinor © Kriketova Akademie CR

We did win our first match but never got that restaurant discount.

****

Chris Pearce is chairman of Czech Cricket as well as founder of Kriketová Akademie ČR, a non-profit organisation that promotes cricket in the country. Originally from England, he has been living in Prague for the last six years.

"I saw that there's a lot of potential here, so I wanted to do something about it," he says. "The Czechs are focused on the outdoors. In the UK there's a good social culture around the cricket, which makes it more than just a sport. This fits perfectly with the Czechs, and I think the sport will prosper greatly once we've broken down the barrier of lack of cricket knowledge."

That barrier, of course, is substantial. Though the ICC's website hints intriguingly at a cricket club in Prague in the 1870s, cricket barely existed until the start of this century. Czech Cricket was formed in 2000 and is an Affiliate ICC member.

Page, Velvary CC's founder, has been involved in Czech Cricket since its inception, and is a backbone of the cricket community. He played for the national team, once picking up 4 for 14 against Bulgaria. "I met a local girl in Prague when I was travelling through Europe in 1997, and I've mostly been here since," he says.

Going hell for leather in the Vinohrady CC derby

Going hell for leather in the Vinohrady CC derby © Kriketova Akademie CR

"The first organised game [here] was a six-a-side tournament played on a rugby pitch in August 1997. More organised cricket followed, and plenty of visiting teams came to Prague for beers and a social game. After games at our old ground, we used to go to the local pub, all dressed in white, and in our broken Czech we would ask for 50 beers - the waitress always looked at us like we were from outer space."

This year Page has developed a home ground for Velvary CC, and he hopes to host more games next season. "If you build it, they will come," he says with a glint in his eye.

But to date there are only a handful of cricket grounds and none fit for first-class cricket. The Czech Republic currently has no formal ranking, and last competed in an ICC event in 2011 - in the third division of the European T20 Championship - where they finished fourth out of six.

"After this they reduced the number of teams that were invited to ICC tournaments," says Pearce. "We were below the bar the ICC set when they removed the lower divisions, and as far as we're aware there is no pathway for those who were excluded at that point to be able to return."

Financial aid is sparse, with the entire cricketing infrastructure relying on an annual $10,000 ICC grant, and haphazard local sponsorship. The onus lies entirely on diehard volunteers.

Keeping score at the Vinohrady CC derby

Keeping score at the Vinohrady CC derby © Kriketova Akademie CR

"Last year I decided to quit my job and start a nonprofit, as a sister organisation to Czech Cricket, focused purely on growing cricket among native Czechs," explains Pearce. "It was a really tough struggle initially. When we contacted teachers they'd give the standard response of 'Croquet?' Some have told us that floorball (a sport similar to hockey) is too popular here and we don't stand a chance.

"From those that haven't closed the door immediately, we've had nothing but positive responses - the kids all love the sport, not just because it's something new but as it's a great way to bring some competitiveness into their PE lessons, where everyone gets to take part - not just the big strong kid who pushes everyone away in football!"

****

Viktor Hardy is 15 years old, and he's one of my team-mates for the day. His tall frame, piercing blue eyes and flowing locks suggest two possible futures: one, as a member of a new iteration of One Direction; or two, as a 150kph-bowling European cricket pin-up boy. Without having watched him touch a cricket ball, I fleetingly imagine he might be able to bowl like Mohammad Sami.

"I'm a batsman," says Viktor, much to my disappointment. "I like to model myself on AB de Villiers. He's the perfect cricketer."

A native Czech, Viktor is part of the target market Czech Cricket is trying to attract. He came across the game during the 2015 World Cup, when his father was watching a game on Eurosport. But it is a tough sell. Even for locals who are attracted to the game, such as Jab Bartosik, the love is difficult to sustain. Bartosik works in HR at a multinational in Prague and is also the official secretary of Czech Cricket.

Done in 20: children play a game of Street20

Done in 20: children play a game of Street20 © Kriketova Akademie CR

"I came across cricket at the age of 30, but as I have a young family, there is not much spare time I can dedicate to getting better. Plus, there are not that many opportunities for improvement: we have limited facilities, a long off-season and little coaching."

These challenges are similar to those faced in many other emerging cricket nations. Transient expat and student populations mean that numbers, enthusiasm and talent wax and wane. Sometimes clubs are over-subscribed, but it is rare. Affiliate cricket relies on the generosity of volunteers, whose dedication is often saintly.

"We have to adapt to what the Czechs want - and cricket in the traditional sense just isn't going to cut it," says Pearce.

"Even one-day games are just too damn long. We're pushing T20 cricket and indoor cricket for those interested in competing and backyard cricket as a fun activity. School PE lessons here are just 45 minutes, so we're doing a quick coaching piece followed by a game of Street20 to ensure that everyone gets a go.

"It remains to be seen whether these are going to really take off, or if we'll have to switch again slightly - I guess it's both the beauty and headache of our game. It is so adaptable and flexible in itself and yet there's always the traditionalists trying to keep the status quo."

Warming up for a Central Europe Cup game

Warming up for a Central Europe Cup game © Kriketova Akademie CR

The ground in Vinor has two pitches of modified AstroTurf. Unlike many other developed countries, the Czech Republic still has large, green spaces and so space for cricket grounds is less of an issue than elsewhere in Europe. There are, however, the perennial issues of maintenance and funding. The Vinor ground is painstakingly maintained by a British expat, but the job demands more manpower. Volunteers from the various Prague clubs often help mow the grass and prepare the ground, particularly around times of poor weather.

Throughout the day, cyclists pass through the dirt path. On catching a glimpse of >kriket, most usually stop and linger. To the uninitiated passer-by, a group of men all dressed in white in the middle of a farm, with two wearing riot-police levels of protection, must seem like stumbling upon some secret ceremony from The Wicker Man. Some stay for over an hour, resting up by the boundary. They are the only spectators in attendance, bar the odd cricket widow.

****

Viktor was involved in the day's most bizarre passage of play: with five overs to go, we were down to our last wicket. With the carefree arrogance of a young man fed a diet of IPL, Viktor middled a Kohli-esque flick off his first ball to a vacant cow corner. From the sidelines, we cheered and implored him to run hard. Instead Viktor held his pose, and admired his shot.

The ball came to a halt a few yards before the boundary, and Viktor was still admiring his shot. Even Inzamam-ul-Haq in his pomp would have ambled a couple of runs but Viktor stayed put. Perhaps he didn't fully trust our female student's abilities at the non-striker's end. ("This season I'm just trying to average more than Chris Martin," she had said.) Perhaps he wanted to set a total all in boundaries.

Chris Pearce, chairman of Czech Cricket, shows a youngster the ropes

Chris Pearce, chairman of Czech Cricket, shows a youngster the ropes © Kriketova Akademie CR

Obviously, Viktor was clean bowled next ball.

I sighed. Viktor looked back at his stumps, inspected the damage, and in a brief burst of anger, flayed his bat at thin air. It was oddly reassuring to witness.

Page's post-game talk included a no-nonsense breakdown of Viktor's two-ball duck, but there were plenty of causes for optimism: excellent ground fielding despite a bumpy outfield, and a disciplined effort with the pink ball. Velvary lost by six wickets but the players were glad to have been part of it.

This is no revolution but part of a vibrant grass-roots movement. For now, ambitions are modest, as Bartosik reflects: "Hopefully my son is going to enjoy a lot more cricket than I've been able to."

If you'd like to get involved in Czech Cricket, visit www.czechcricket.cz

Nishant Joshi is a medical doctor and founder of the Alt Cricket Foundation. @AltCricket

 

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  • POSTED BY M_Jones on | November 16, 2016, 23:57 GMT

    I have fond memories of playing for Dresden against Prague Vikings - the proximity of the border made it relatively easy to arrange an "international" fixture. Good to see the game is still flourishing in the region!

  • POSTED BY cricfan36845328 on | November 16, 2016, 11:21 GMT

    It's a pity the ICC does not prioritize the expansion of cricket globally. Hearing stories like this shows how much interest and love of the game there is all over the world. I believe that cricket is capable of challenging football's popularity on the world stage if handled correctly.

  • POSTED BY ForTeamIndia on | November 16, 2016, 9:24 GMT

    @C7KAL : The WC will be played in 2055 (-:

  • POSTED BY c7kal on | November 16, 2016, 8:43 GMT

    Well done you guys in the Czech Republic! Keep up the good work.... and remember in 2057 when Czech Rep wins the cricket world cup everyone will look back at this article! It has to start somewhere! :-)

  • POSTED BY RakeshDash on | November 16, 2016, 5:29 GMT

    Lovely read Nishant...great story and much sacrifice by people...more power to you guys :)

  • POSTED BY Narendra Kv on | November 16, 2016, 4:50 GMT

    After the sojourn to South America, ESPN has done well to cover cricket in interior Europe. Interesting how many people have to sacrifice so many things just to play a game we take for granted.