By Charles Randall
16 October 2014
News that has been given less national prominence than the Kevin Pietersen debate was the announcement that Germany had pledged about £550,000 towards the building of a new cricket ground in Afghanistan.
An agency report said that Germany would be backing the construction of a 25-acre facility with a crowd capacity of 6,000 people in eastern Khost province. This decision followed a pledge by the government of India of more than £600,000 towards a ground in Kandahar.
Since Afghanistan's success in qualifying for the 2015 World Cup, cricket has become a strong unifying force. One presumes the German government were hoping to assist that uniting process when ticking through their funding. A love of cricket itself would not have been high on their agenda, and there is irony in that Germany's own cricket community desperately need a few bob for better dedicated facilities. The game is growing rapidly there. The German Cricket Association, based in Passau, report that there are now 70 member clubs and six regional associations – many more than the eight clubs struggling along in 1988.
Basildon & Pitsea CC would be familiar with German cricket because last June they played a couple of games against the national side as warm-ups for the ICC Europe Division Two T20 tournament in Essex involving Germany, Norway, Austria, Belgium, Isle of Man and Gibraltar. In 2013 Germany played European T20 matches in Sussex at Preston Nomads CC and Horsham CC.
In the past decade the German cricket authorities have focused on youth participation under the guidance of Brian Mantle, the Association's general manager. Their project Cricket to German Schools won an ICC-Europe development award in 2007 and there are now national under-19 and under-15 competitions in addition to regional leagues in many parts of the country. Mantle said: “We have 45 youth cricket teams playing in German competitions. Three years ago, it was almost nothing.”
There are about 2,000 active players in Germany, ranked way down at 37 by the ICC world list. Interest in cricket plunged after the departure of British servicemen in the 1990s, but the game took new life through immigration, and especially through subcontinent passion. As a snapshot, it was reported that in April 2013 a Pakistani husband and wife in Bremen placed an advert in a local paper to give publicity to a cricket training day and they were stunned when more than 70 people turned up. The couple dedicated themselves to forming a cricket club with a youth section, going from strength to strength. Jacobs University, an international institution, formed the 'other' cricket club in Bremen, though Berlin remains the powerhouse region.
Andre Leslie, 33, from Mosman CC in Sydney, went to Germany for journalistic experience and became a leading cricketer and coach, settling in Bonn on the staff of an English language radio station. He decided to stay because he was impressed by the social awareness of the average German, and his enthusiasm for cricket gave him another goal. “We need more cricket fields in Germany,” he said. “If I am still here in 10 years, I will have surely begun work on building one.”
Germany's best players are probably all-rounder and captain Rishi Pillai, spin bowler Shakeel Hassan and Leslie, a batsman and currently the only non-Asian face in the side. The German Cricket Association have no high hopes that cricket will take off as a national sport, and facilities are cripplingly variable, though interestingly the game has something to offer that might strike a chord with ethnic Germans – the chance to travel and experience new cultures.
The official estimate is that about half of the players in youth leagues are native Germans. According to a recent Daily Telegraph article a law student and cricketer in Cologne, Christian Hein, had been the only person in his school to take up the game after a cricket project visit, but he was convinced the game's rising popularity would eventually attract interest from Germans. “Cricket is a game for a globalised world,” he said and, indeed, he travelled to Italy to play in a European club tournament.
It has been said that German cricket has a long history but no tradition. Part of that fragile past is recalled in Dan Waddell's new book Field of Shadows about a visit by the Gentlemen of Worcestershire to Berlin in 1937. They played three games organised by members of the Nazi hierarchy, who had developed an interest in the sport. What happened makes fascinating reading.
That gave rise to a wonderful anecdote. At the time a small number of Germans, including the enthusiast Felix Menzel, kept the game alive and would continue to do so if they could survive the War. In 1945. Along with a few equally bedraggled friends, Menzel emerged from the rubble of Berlin to challenge a group of extremely surprised British troops to a game of cricket. According to the book they played and the British team won, narrowly.
This brings the subject of cricket back to Afghanistan. The grants for cricket grounds were welcomed in a country that regarded cricket as their main national sport, even broadly approved by the taliban. The chairman of the Afghanistan Cricket Board, Shahzada Masoud, said: “We are grateful to both India and Germany for their support, but what we want now is for teams like India to come and play on our grounds.”
The chairman's plea for fixtures to grace their grounds underlined the damage caused by national instability – to Pakistan in particular - and even the Cologne student Christian Hein would probably agree that some countries still fall outside the “globalised” world. It's very sad.