The Game of Empire
With its Baffling Terminology, Most Austrians Consider Cricket Complicated to the Point of Incomprehensibilty
"I tend to think that cricket is the greatest thing that God ever created on earth - certainly greater than sex," wrote playwright and Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter. "Although sex isn’t too bad either."
Alas, some gifts of God are enjoyed unequally. And while the joys of sex seem to be at least cherished universally (if not enjoyed), appreciation of the joys of cricket faces severe regional barriers. The true sport of bat and ball is a sort of second religion to millions in South Asia and the Caribbean and is fanatically followed in England and Australia, in mainland Europe, as in the Americas, cricket is more likely to elicit a yawn.
With its baffling terminology, such as wickets, runs or lbw, cricket is considered by many of my Austrian friends to be complicated to the extent of incomprehensibility.
It’s not, of course. If I can understand it, anyone can. Listen up: One team has a chance to score points, or runs, by hitting the ball around the field with the bat, while the other ‘fielding’ team tries to prevent them scoring too many by stopping the ball, or by catching it and getting the batsman out – the equivalent of a goal in football. Then the two teams swap roles. Everyone dresses in white because it keeps you cool and you look good. The rest you can pick up by watching.
Which is why, on a sunny spring evening in May, I was headed out in the concrete suburbs of Vienna to see what was up. A little birdie had told me that cricket was actually being played here in Austria and, what’s more, none too unsuccessfully. I was off to watch the Austrian Cricket Club playing in an international youth tournament.
As I settled down in a deck-chair on the boundary, gracefully and gratefully receiving a beer in one hand and a chickpea curry with Sampol in the other, I was glad to see that the Austrian team was not only beating a visiting horde of Germans from the Tegernsee, but was doing it in an aggressive, fearless way that was, I felt, sure to foreshadow the clash of the two nations in the European Championships in June.
I put this theory to the German batsmen sitting next to me, some of them nervously preparing to go ‘in’ and others dejectedly ruing the fact they were ‘out’ (oh just google it!). They responded with some jeeringly condescending comments about the quality of the Austrian football team, but amidst the scorn I did manage to find out, from a long-haired, broad shouldered player called Robert, why the cream of Bavaria’s youth were so into cricket that they’d travelled 500 kilometres for this tournament when they could have been at home drinking Weißbier:
"Cricket is such an exotic," he said, "and you meet players from all over the world here."
He was right. The Austria Cricket Club is about as typically Austrian as the curry of which I was now consuming a third portion. Club Chairman Siva Nadarajah, father of Austria’s top Swimmer Fabienne, told me he had players from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Africa; Jamaica, New Zealand, Australia and England on his books, although 63% of the club are Austrian. Which does however make the club more authentically Austrian, than Champion’s League winner’s Manchester United are English.
Izuru, one of the Asia players likes the game because of the dramatic swings, so that one side that seems certain to lose can end up winning. He also thinks that there is a spirit that sets the game apart from other sports like football:
"There is no dishonesty in this game. Everyone is just doing their best and respecting their opponent," he said. "It’s a good feeling when you play!" (Bah, he should have played for the team I captained, Elton Village Cricket Club Under 14’s – the most punk rock reprobate XI to ever hit the eastern half of Huntingdonshire).
What was so refreshing at the youth tournament I was watching in Floridsdorf, was that girls were playing alongside boys. And one of the starts of the German team was Stephanie, who has been playing cricket for 8 years. It’s the risk taking she finds so addictive. For although the team game can certainly swing dramatically, an individual mistake can be "Out" and lead to a long wait on the sidelines.
But to score you certainly have to take risks, which gives the brave players that delicious thrill of the gambler and reduces lesser men, like me, to nervous wrecks.
If none of my new cricket friends, Robert, Siva Izuru, or Stephanie has managed to convince you to get involved in cricket, Hungary’s coach Andy Greeve had what I think is a winning argument for the game of cricket:
"Because the games last longer than in sports like football, you spend much more time relaxing off the pitch with your friends. In football everything is so rushed. In cricket it is easier to develop friendships."
And, did I mention, you get served curry?