Robin Williams once called cricket “baseball on valium.” Sure, for some, cricket appears to be a rather sedated sport, with the long form of the game taking up to five days - that’s five full days, with play from 11am to 6pm.
But it’s the relaxed rhythm of the sport, along with its particular code of behaviour, countless intangibles and relative air of mystery (people play for decades and never quite figure the game out) that so appeals to players and aficionados.
Those same factors are also what flabbergast people who see cricket for the first time.
And then you’ve got the jargon - the silly mid-offs and fine legs, the backward points and first slips, the yorkers, bouncers, googlies, flippers and cover drives.
It’s like learning a new language, or even trying to grasp a unique culture, one with a long and storied history. What kind of sport features a pause in play for afternoon tea? Why does the guy in the lab coat sometimes raise his finger when everyone shouts at him?
But this sport mainly played by current and former countries of the British Commonwealth also has a committed following in Germany. And its popularity is on the rise.
There are well-organised men’s, women’s and youth leagues, and the national team is ranked 37th in the world.
Cricket has a long history here, going back to the 19th century when the first club was founded in Berlin and the sport is currently experiencing rapid growth in participation and organization.
“The men’s game has become more competitive and has grown by about 65 percent in the last three years,” said Brian Mantle, General Manager of the Deutscher Cricket Bund (DCB) and at two metres tall, literally a towering figure in German cricket. “There are a lot more facilities and coaches and our infrastructure has improved, even if we still have a long way to go on this.”
In the post-war years, the game was kept alive by the British Forces stationed in Germany, with matches played at the various garrisons. “There have been many excellent cricketers that have come to Germany and have festered their talents away,” said Kev Roberts, a former member of Fallingbostel CC, the now defunct combined civilian and military cricket club. “Cricket in Germany has taken a real nose dive in the armed forces over the last 16 years.”
But the sport is booming amongst civilians. There are now some 80 clubs in Germany, organized into six cricketing regions. That might sound impressive, and the sport is certainly growing, especially with youth development, but facilities and playing space remain a concern.
Mind the molehill
Playing cricket at league level in Germany is still something of an adventure.
Travel is often required, and an away game is bit like heading into the unknown, as clubs have all manner of pitches and fields. Normally, a cricket pitch (the main point of play where the batting and bowling take place) is hard grass or Astroturf.
Germany boasts a variety of grass pitches, coconut fibre pitches, Astro mats and do-it-yourself decks which all offer unique playing conditions. With foundations like wooden planks, bumpy concrete, rolled grass or pressed clay, the ball may not bounce at all or it may go clear over your head.
The size and shape of the fields also vary. What should be a very large oval (say 150m in length) is often a smallish square or rectangle, or something like an oblique circle fashioned to include as much ground as possible.
Then there are the hazards. The field in Göttingen, for example, has a huge mound that’s a good two metres above the level of the pitch, while the grass at the Mümmelmannsberg field in Hamburg is often knee high. Other typical hazards of cricket fields in Germany include mole holes, mole mounds, barbecue coals and the gifts of local dogs.
But the players are not deterred. Playwright Harold Pinter called cricket “the greatest thing that God ever created on earth,” and it’s that kind of passion that drives cricket in Germany.
Leather, willow and Twitter
They come from all walks of life, from all over the world, and are united here by their shared love of the game. Improved communication and organisation have also helped to push the game forward.
“The growth of social media has made it easier for cricketers to find each other,” said Mark Richardson, the Sports Director of the Norddeutscher Cricket Verband and a doyen of cricket in north Germany. “Put that together with the high number of migrants from cricket-playing countries coming to work or study in Germany and cricket here has seen dynamic, positive developments. Clubs are changing from hobby clubs to being much better organised, with senior players coaching the youngsters.”
For several years now, the DCB has put the priority on youth participation, with the project “Cricket to German Schools” winning an ICC-Europe Development Award in 2007. “We now have national U19 and U15 competitions, as well as regional leagues in many parts of the country,” said Mantle. “We have 45 youth cricket teams playing in German competitions this summer. Three years ago, it was almost nothing.”
Winning over the Germans
It’s definitely a success story, and as is often the case with cricket, the success goes far beyond the play on the pitch.
Clubs have also being doing some highly commendable social work, promoting integration and cohesion in multicultural and sometimes testing environments. THCC in Hamburg, for example, received recognition for the club’s work with young refugees from Afghanistan.
“Cricket simply belongs in an open, multicultural Germany,” said national player André Leslie, who also does cricket commentary for Eurosport Germany. “The most rewarding thing is when I can excite Germans for the sport. Each won-over German puts a smile on my face.”
As the author of Batting for Berlin, about his time playing for the Berlin Cricket Club, Leslie was fascinated to learn about cricket’s long history in Germany. “I have read old sporting journals showing that Berlin had dozens of cricket pitches back in the 1890s,” he said. “The first German national football league, run from Leipzig, was even called the German Football and Cricket Federation. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if cricket had developed here unhindered. Germany could have been a cricket powerhouse by now.”
At this stage, that’s rather hard to imagine. But continued youth development, together with the growth of clubs, the expansion of the DCB’s Street20 project and cricket exhibitions at schools nationwide, is resulting in more and more children and teenagers taking up the sport. The DCB has worked hard to put the infrastructure in place to allow a pathway from the youth ranks to the national team.
“Women’s cricket has also expanded,” said Mantle. “We’ve got 10 teams this summer. A few years ago, there was nothing at all in terms of women’s cricket.” On top of that, the women’s national team has been very successful in European competitions.
All very good developments, but the sport still has a long way to go and the DCB is under no illusions about where cricket stands in the pecking order of sports in Germany.
“The key in the future is that we develop large cricket clubs, not just hundreds of small teams,” said Leslie, who also works for broadcaster Deutsche Welle and is a press officer for the DCB.
A decade or two more of such continued expansion and development, and Germany as a cricket powerhouse may well become a reality.
For more information about cricket in Germany, visit www.cricket.de. The German cricket team is competing in the Division 2 European Championship, June 23-26 in Essex.
By Campbell Jefferys