Friday 23 November 2018

How I fell out of love with cricket (Part 2)

In the early 1980s, after several years of study and the first skirmishes with the world of employment, my life moved on and was no longer dominated by the idle preoccupations of youth. After university in the North East of England, I spent my mid-20s in assorted places south of Manchester, in Stoke, Bristol and Salisbury.

In 1984 however, I swapped life in Britain for one in the south of the Netherlands. As a Geographer and student of languages, I took to it like a duck to water. But if following the fortunes of Northern cricket had been difficult enough Down South, before the age of internet, keeping in touch from the heart of Europe was going to be a tough ask. Thankfully, Test Match Special (previously on BBC Radio 3), providing ball-by-ball commentary of every test match involving England, transferred to Radio 4 on Long Wave, whose signal could be picked up to adequate effect in Limburg, the southernmost province of the Netherlands. Unlike the UK, at the time cable television was widespread in the Netherlands and with large numbers of British servicemen living in the south of Limburg (on account of NATO military bases nearby), the local network offered a British Forces Broadcasting Service channel in its package. During the summer months, it would show Test Match highlights every day. And when BBC 1 and 2 were included on the cable network in the 1990s, it was possible to watch cricket all day. Life was beginning to normalise again. Nevertheless, experiencing cricket in the flesh again was proving a tad more difficult.

When my son was growing up in the 1990s, he joined HCC Heerlen, the local hockey club. I’d never played the sport myself before, but enthusiastically enrolled for the mixed recreational sessions for adult beginners held every Monday evening to keep fit. It soon transpired that the abbreviation HCC stood for Hockey & Cricket Club. Before I moved to the continent, I had little idea that cricket – amongst certain circles - enjoyed widespread popularity in the Netherlands. As such it was one of the few countries on the European continent that practiced the sport (it’s claimed that Dutch colonists brought it back from the Cape). 90 percent of clubs today are based 200 kilometres away from Limburg in the heavily populated west of the country. More often than not these clubs were founded early in the last century as mixed cricket and hockey associations which catered to the middle classes as a way of singling them out from the hoi-polloi. 1930s Heerlen, then a boomtown as a result of the rich reserves of coal that had been found underground, attracted senior personnel to the mines and when the hockey club was founded the intention had been to establish cricket as a summer sport. It never materialised, though short-lived efforts were made in the 1960s to get one off the ground.
On Monday evenings, when we retired to the clubhouse after a strenuous runaround, I would sometimes reminisce about cricket with a South African hockey-playing friend, but otherwise it was a sport very much off-the-radar in this part of the world.

One evening in March 2003, I had an unexpected call from a local GP in my adopted home town of Heerlen. He had been smitten by cricket whilst studying Medicine at Nijmegen and explained his crazy idea of setting up a cricket team in Heerlen and how he had me lined up as a potential volunteer. I’d learnt by now to be sceptical of such calls – no sooner did someone throw an idea up in the air, than it fell back down to earth with a whimper was my experience in such matters. But he sounded genuine and I was soon helping him on his - now our - recruitment drive. Once we had enough interested people, we arranged a knockabout on the hockey field, albeit with a tennis ball and a handful of would-be exponents of the sport, whose understanding of the game ranged from intimate to non-existent.

But we pressed on regardless. My doctor friend took the bold step of entering us in the Dutch league that season starting in May, with all that entailed: playing facilities, equipment and, most importantly, manpower. In the next month or so, we cobbled together a few more willing hands who were conversant with the game: my hockey-playing friend put forward his son who had grown up watching BBC cricket broadcasts; amongst the local immigrant community we found a Pakistani, a Sri Lankan and another Brit; the university in Aachen furnished us with a couple of Indians, a South African and a stray Kiwi. With a few other stragglers we managed to string together a full complement of 11 players. The local council gave us a field to play on and with a litlle bit of help from a British army team in Brunssum a few miles away, we had the gear we needed to get started. By late May we were up and running and ready to take on the rest of the Netherlands at cricket.

It was then my world turned upside down.

[to be continued]

See also Part 1 of How I fell out of love with cricket