Students of the sport of cricket will be very cognisant that there is a direct correlation between the British Empire and the popularity of the sport in countries previously under direct rule of said imperial structure. Colonialism took the sport around the globe resulting in its popularity in a handful of diverse, yet scattered, countries that would form the sport’s highest echelon. Curiously, those countries a little closer to the hub of Empire have largely not taken the sport to their collective hearts with the same zeal and gusto. Despite residing, at the shortest juncture, little more than twenty miles from the southern shores of England it is as if the English Channel has acted as a Berlin Wall to the sport becoming popular in continental Europe. Nevertheless, Cricket has gained something of a foothold across continental Europe courtesy of a variety of influences; the story of its impact adeptly uncovered by Tim Brooks in his tome Cricket on the Continent.
Brooks begins by addressing two intriguing conundrums: how cricket survives in countries not previously part of the British empire and the issue of increased participation levels, due to rising numbers of emigrants from South Asia, amid declining participation from indigenous players, the latter scenario perhaps increasing the risk of cricket being viewed as simply an ex-pat sport as, say, Gaelic Football and Hurling might be in Britain. The first conundrum is partly answered during the opening third of the book courtesy of a section dealing with cricket on the continent prior to the new millennium, a combination of ex-pats returning home after initially settling in countries such as Portugal, France and Italy and a desire to largely keep clubs exclusive to the ex-pat brethren dictating that cricket failed to establish roots in many places due to locals being unable to access the sport.
In contrast, the chapter on the Netherlands highlights how affiliations with hockey and sports clubs allowed cricket equivalents to settle and attract potential new members. Brooks also highlights how access to cricket on the BBC channels provided a further boost for the sport in the country, an occurrence similarly highlighted in the book Second XI: Cricket in its outposts where Brooks penned the chapter on cricket in Nepal.
Nevertheless, the chapter entitled ‘Themes’ perhaps provides the best insights on how cricket has struggled to fully establish itself in continental Europe. As highlighted, even in Denmark and the Netherlands, where the sport has proved most popular amongst the European nations, the desire to replicate cricket’s links with the English class structure and social statuses proved a common theme during formative times, the notion of cricket being popular due to its inherent sense of fair play and following strict codes of etiquette appealing to the point where the culture of the sport appeared almost as important as the sport itself. Thus, cricket remained a niche pastime as the appeal of the sport was arguably lost amongst the pursuit of particular attitudes and an ethos. Further pursuits to maintain a level of exclusivity to those of certain classes further exacerbated the problem.
The ‘Themes’ chapter aptly provides a prelude to the last section of the book which focuses on the present day. Beginning with an extensive, overall review of the present state of play, that provides context regarding the position of many continental cricket teams within the ICC structure and the various financial shenanigans behind seemingly ever shifting sands that seem to perennially stunt opportunities for growth in many nations, the section then leads onto a more in-depth investigation to cricket in those European countries that where the sport has either developed strong roots or at least established a foothold. Arguably this is the most intriguing section of the book, providing insights and highlighting interesting occurrences which would otherwise be relatively unknown to the cricketing world at large.
Context provided, the book returns to the European countries where the sport is played, providing a mixture of intriguing vignettes and development of previously covered themes. The former is adeptly covered by the nugget of trivia involving the only cricket match to have taken place on Albanian soil was that to celebrate the centenary of Norman Wisdom’s birth, the day that a T20 match in Belgium preceded a re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo or the occurrence that Greek cricket is, for all intents and purposes, based on the island of Corfu.
Oddities and amusing anomalies only briefly mask over inherent struggles throughout the continent though. Further common themes develop as one progresses through the various countries, chief of which appears to be the struggle for decent facilities and places to play, a vital part of any cricketing set up. There is also the difficult conundrum faced by cash strapped boards of whether to venture down the short-term gain route of improving facilities or the long-term equivalent of developing a youth system whilst logistical issues in countries with vast territory, such as France or Spain, are also highlighted, nuances that are perhaps not immediately obvious.
Inevitably, the longest chapter focuses on cricket in the Netherlands, the continental country with arguably the richest history. The ebb and flow of the country’s cricketing fortunes are similar to many but perhaps the moment that really raises the reader’s eyebrows is that when Dutch cricket failed to progress from the 2015 World Cup Qualifier, a catastrophe that lost Dutch cricket its ODI status, its main sponsor and almost a million dollars of annual funding from the ICC. Such instances highlight the precarious, capricious existence of every national board bar those of the Full Members. The sections on the Netherlands also include a handful of player biographies, that of former Hampshire pace bowler Paul-Jan Bakker particularly enjoyable for a supporter who can vaguely remember the blond quick during the formative years of my time following my home county.
The inevitably precipitous nature of cricket in continental Europe is soon highlighted in the book’s sobering final chapter though as the author demonstrates how the slashing of funding previously paid to many countries has hamstrung the majority boards with a risk that the sport either stagnates or regresses across the continent. The quotation of the term ‘priority markets’ in relation to said markets being targeted for funding is arguably of little surprise in the modern era where the maxim of does cricket make money to exist or exist to make money has never seemed more apt. Europe’s relatively humble cricket scene is unlikely to be classed in such a category. Thus, many boards are forced to defend against potential breakaway leagues rather than promoting the sport in general.
Brooks offers a litany of multi-levelled solutions in his closing comments and, post a most pleasant journey across the continent’s cricketing landscape, one hopes that changes will be made in order for the game to progress and hopefully flourish in the most unlikely of places. As a tome itself, Cricket on the Continent proves insightful, revealing and eye-opening about how the sport operates just a short journey from England and, following on from Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts, is another excellent addition to the Pitch Publishing collection. One could do a lot worse than spend the long winters’ evenings reading about Europe’s dalliances with cricket and searching on google maps for those grounds mentioned in Tim Brooks’ tome!