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The Very Balkan Sport Of Cricket

Who would think that French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte would have played a part in introducing the British game of cricket to Southeast Europe. Back in the early 1800’s Napoleon’s naval forces ruled the Mediterranean, prompting the English to send Captain William Hoste and his battle armada to the Croatian island of Vis to set up base. 

                                               Vis town

 A 1809 diary entry from cricket fanatic Hoste, revealed how his troops passed away time on the sleepy Adriatic island in between navy battles with Napoleon’s French ships.

“We have established a cricket pitch at this wretched place and when we do get anchored for a few hours, it passes away an hour very well.”

When Captain Hoste and his men set sail for England for the final time in 1814, they took the game of cricket with them. That was until it’s resurgence in the region some 160 years later.

The sport of cricket resurfaced again in the region in the mid 1970’s, this time in what is modern-day Slovenia, after a Slovenian teenager returned from an extended visit to his British pen pal with cricket equipment and a strong dose of enthusiasm to spread the game. Fast forward to the late 1990’s, and thanks to a group of passionate Croatian cricketers returning from Australia, the game of cricket began to flourish again in Croatia.

                                      Vis Cricket Oval

Croatia and Slovenia have led the way on the cricket front in the region, both gaining membership to cricket’s governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC), in 2001 and 2005 respectively, and having their national teams appear regularly at ICC International tournaments since the early 2000’s. Cricket eventually emerged as a sport in both Serbia and Macedonia in 2007, and in Bosnia and Herzegovina a bit after that.

                                    Croatian Cricket Team

The complexity of cricket’s rules, the popularity of sports such as football and basketball, the scarce availability of large flat oval-shaped fields, the lack of funding and media exposure, and the lack of interest in the sport from government and local bodies to promote and spread the game, are just some of the challenges cricket federations in the region face whilst trying to grow the game of cricket.

Despite the challenges, seeing cricket being played on fields in the summer months around Southeast Europe is becoming much more of a common site. Slovenia now boast 9 cricket clubs, Croatia and Serbia have 4 each, and there are 2 in Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Close to 1,000 people are now estimated to be playing the ‘gentlemen’s game’ at both junior and senior level in the region.

                      Slovenian Cricket Team

The emergence of cricket in exotic holiday spots in Southeast Europe, such as the idyllic island of Vis, has captured the interest from cricket clubs abroad, particularly from the cricket mad United Kingdom. Slovenia, Serbia and in particular Croatia host a large number of cricket touring sides from the UK and Europe through the summer season. Sir William Hoste Cricket Club on the island of Vis has even attracted the world cricket’s most famous club, the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), and Saumur Strays, a French club chaired at the time by Rolling Stone frontman, Sir Mick Jagger.

A large amount of work is being carried out at grassroots level in schools throughout the region by the respective federations to ensure the game has a long future. An example of this is the ‘Cricket for Change’ programme which was held in the Serbian capital Belgrade recently thanks to the UN, ICC – Europe and the British Embassy in Serbia, which saw 35 Albanian, Serbian and Roma children provided with a unique opportunity to learn the largely unknown sport of cricket through a simplified street form designed to be played in urban environments.

      Cricket for Change in Serbia    

With more and more kids being introduced to the game of cricket in the region through comprehensive school programmes, with junior and senior participation numbers on the rise, and national team success in Europe, it looks like cricket is here to stay. If he was alive today, Captain William Hoste would certainly be impressed how far the game has come since those humble beginnings back in 1809.

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