Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts book review

In its modern day guise cricket writing tends to fall into two distinct categories: that covering the professional pole of the structure (the international game and domestic variants) and the opposite end of the spectrum, the very amateur, social end of the sport that has forged its own niche in the market via a collection of tomes detailing various performers and their near hopeless attempts to play the game to a reasonable standard.

Despite a yawning chasm between the two standards there is little in between that has enjoyed coverage from the manuscript world. Hence, the appearance of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts on the bookshelves, virtual and literal, has provided a fascinating insight into the international game played by those nations below full member level. Of particular interest are the variety of struggles experienced by such countries to establish the sport of cricket in their homelands whilst also attempting to progress through the ICC’s affiliate and associate structures in order to reach the level of One-Day International status, the first step to the promised land of test cricket.

The book officially opens with the heavyweight associates Afghanistan and Ireland but the advent of a foreword written by Gideon Haigh proves a huge boon for the authors. Whatever the subject matter, being able to call upon the thoughts of arguably the game’s most eminent scribe certainly adds weight and gravitas to the text that is to follow. Haigh’s piece on cricket in Papua New Guinea, first written for the Nightwatchman magazine, is also included.

Opening the batting for the second XI are the well known stories behind Afghan and Irish cricket but it is the middle and lower order that provides arguably the more intriguing tales. Beginning the curiosities is the United Arab Emirates where cricket is viewed by the rich, ruling elite as the sport of the working classes and ex-patriate immigrants as opposed to converse views in a number of playing countries. Such an atmosphere has created a problem in that local players of Emirati birth are scarce and generally not breaking into the national side, leading to a lack of local interest and something of a vicious circle.

Partnering the Arab states are Scotland, a cricketing nation with parallels to Ireland although the chapter by Tim Wigmore highlights how, unlike their Celtic brethren across the Irish Sea, Scotland have been happy for its players to head south and succeed at county level in England. Progress has been made north of the border but the recent retirement of captain Preston Mommsen highlights how some things still haven’t changed.

Of similar intrigue is Scotland’s north European neighbours the Netherlands. The sport of cricket achieved a reasonable level of popularity in the lowland country courtesy of a large proportion of Dutch households having access to some British terrestrial channels, (in particular the BBC) an advent that allowed many locals to watch cricket or be introduced to the sport whilst channel hopping when the beeb and Channel Four broadcast live coverage. Similar to British cricket supporters such an avenue no longer exists now that all but brief highlights of English cricket are now exclusively televised by satellite television. Curious onlookers can no longer stumble across this bizarre sport (the chapter highlights how erstwhile Derbyshire and Denmark paceman Ole Mortensen serendipitously discovered the game after wandering past a match) and take an interest. Rather, anybody wishing to watch cricket now have to go searching for the sport. The Netherlands’ cause was further stymied when the Dutch were unceremoniously dropped from the English domestic limited overs competition once they became surplus to requirements despite topping their group for a large section of the 2012 campaign.

Peter Miller’s chapter on the lowland country also highlights another subtle nuance effecting associate cricket that isn’t immediately obvious: the social pressures faced by those wanting to play cricket in associate nations where the sport is not mainstream and can be considered gauche or un-cool.

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The Netherlands take on Kent during one of their last appearances in English domestic cricket.

The example of the Dutch highlights a number of underlying currents that run through most chapters, first of which is the fragility of associate cricket. Test members know they will not lose their status regardless of how they perform. With that luxury comes a steady stream of ICC income. Associates can have a bad tournament and drop off the radar, with obvious financial penalties. As Kenyan cricket experienced, a generation of cricketers can emerge that take the team to a higher playing level. It is one challenge to remain at such a level but an entirely different, and more fundamental, challenge to put an infrastructure in place to produce the next generation of players. The balance between keeping the established stars in the team as opposed to blooding new talent is one that undoubtedly stymied cricket in the East African nation during the decade post their brilliant performance at the 2003 World Cup.

Kenyan cricket also fell foul of another of associate cricket’s major problems and another underlying theme of the tome: the dearth of fixtures, a seemingly perpetual problem, particularly as the international game begins to contract.  All nations possessing associate status are chasing a place in the top 16 of the ODI rankings to gain, or keep, ODI status along with the finance and kudos that are part and parcel of such a position. Somewhat incredibly, Kenya played 18 ODI’s in the 18 months prior to the 2003 World Cup, including 2 tri-series. They would play just five more in the three years after the competition.

Akin to many associate countries, Kenya has struggled to generate popularity for cricket. As the chapter by Tim Brooks highlights though, there are no such problems in Nepal. Indeed, the Asian country is experiencing a strange scenario where the game is popular but the governing body cannot meet the inherent demand due to a combination of internal politics, the lack of domestic infrastructure and the natural vertiginous topography of the country with a consequence of potentially losing young players to other, more developed sports. Indeed, the popularity of cricket in Nepal can be no better illustrated than the crowd of 12,000 that attended a 2010 World Cricket League Division 5 match against the USA at the Tribhuvan University ground in Kiritpur)

Such a popularity enables Nepal to perform astonishingly well at age level cricket, including defeats of Pakistan, South Africa and New Zealand, but such success has not been translated into an equivalent for the full national team. Some point to the fact that Nepal doesn’t possess the same ex-patriate base of players as other associates, highlighting that such an occurrence puts the country at a disadvantage.

The book concludes with chapters on cricket in China and the United States but both feature an undercurrent of the potential financial impact on the sport as opposed to the sport’s impact in those countries. Cricket has struggled to gain a foothold in either; cultural issues in China and the inability of cricket to lay down roots beyond its expatriate communities in the United States the main factors. The anecdote of the zealous encouragement of the Chinese women’s team in a contest against an MCC XI on the Lord’s Nursery Ground does prove amusing though. Nevertheless, the references to how either could challenge current hegemonies were the sport to explode seems a little churlish bearing in mind the financial pressures suffered by other associates who have achieved onfield success.

Such thoughts are a mere grumble though and should not detract from what is an excellent and insightful tome that illustrates the passion, the zeal and the long suffering endured by those playing for the love of the game outside of the vast wealth and coverage generated at the highest echelons of the sport.

Bravo and kudos also to Pitch Publishing for taking a punt on the sort of book that probably isn’t of interest to larger, more established publishers. Pitch have a long history of publishing excellent, niche titles (including the updated edition of Outcasts, the lands that FIFA forgot, a sort of footballing parallel to Second XI) and this is another example of the interesting reads that they have had a hand in producing in recent times.

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