Just a few weeks ahead of their season's start, members of the BCK Berlin cricket committee were surprised and outraged to receive a letter from city sports administrators on April 1 saying their traditional pitch at Körnerplatz would be removed to protect passersby from errant balls. The cricketers deny this danger, and are fighting to get their pitch back.
“I've never heard of anyone getting hit with a ball,” said Martin Haynes, chairman of the Berlin Cricket Club, last year's national champions. “Though a few cars have been damaged, the likelihood of injury to a pedestrian is slim.”
British soldiers began playing cricket at the city-owned Körnerplatz just outside the famous Olympia Stadium shortly after the Second World War. Since then a thriving community of cricketers from across the globe has developed into two divisions, nine clubs and more than 100 players. English, Irish, Indians, Pakistanis, New Zealanders, Australians, Germans and other nationalities - all of them play together at Körnerplatz.
“As Germany is wrestling with its multiculturalism debate, we're being deprived of a place to develop a sport enjoyed by Berliners from around the world,” Haynes said.
Of the few cricket pitches in Germany, Körnerplatz is one of the best – though it barely meets official standards. But the alternative pitch recently finished by the city at the nearby Maifeld - also outside Olympia Stadium - is unsuitable for proper games and could be dangerous, Haynes said.
“We're reviewing that,” said Andreas Tosberg, head of the city's central sports division. “Optimal conditions are important, it's just a matter of where, and how much it costs.”
Though the BCK plans to present an option to have the pitch insured against potential damage suits, Tosberg said two insurers had already rejected coverage.
“Thank God only vehicles have been damaged in the past, but in one case a ball went through a windshield, and we worry what could have happened if a person were standing there.”
Without proper insurance, the city is liable for damages, a situation that is “not good,” he said.
One option could be erecting a tall fence around the facility, but Tosberg estimated this could cost up to €80,000 – a sum neither side is likely willing to pay. The Maifeld solution has so far cost €6,000, he said.
Tourism before cricket?
Meanwhile the BCK suspects that the city may be more concerned about tourism than safety at Körnerplatz. Haynes claims there are plans to begin charging admission at Olympia Stadium, but games at Körnerplatz would cause problems at a nearby entrance.
“It has nothing to do with that. Those are two different things,” Tosberg countered.
The stadium, which is privately owned, is working together with the city to charge admission for tours and events, but a different entrance would be used, he explained.
The conflict is symptomatic of long-running problems between the cricketers and city sports officials.
“They don't understand cricket and never had a sympathetic ear, so communication has been difficult,” Haynes said, citing several incidents where cricketers felt steamrolled by official decisions.
“We've been tolerated but not taken seriously as a sport,” he added.
In March, there were two meetings with the BCK when the Maifeld move was mentioned, but both sides walked away with different impressions. BCK members thought it was a possibility, while the city viewed it as a plan of action.
Though the cricketers have no legal claim to Körnerplatz, they hope city officials will respect their long tradition and find a way to keep games going there.
The two sides plan to meet on Friday, and both say they are open to finding a compromise.
While the Maifeld could be improved to meet the BCK's explicit standards, Tosberg and his colleagues have not ruled out a return to Körnerplatz, though some parts of the pitch have already been unearthed.
“I have nothing against cricket,” Tosberg said. “If we can overcome the challenges to make it possible, then there will be cricket at Körnerplatz. It's a beautiful facility, there's no question about that.”