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Friday, 1 February, 2002, 15:31 GMT
From Iceland to Azerbaijan
Portugal win the European Indoor Cricket Championship
Portugal win the European Indoor Cricket Championship
BBC Sport Online's Steve Beauchampe reports on the growth of cricket in some unlikely corners of Europe.

It's a fair assumption that the next generation of Test playing nations to emerge will hail from Asia, Africa and Arabia.

England aside - and to a small extent Scotland, Wales and Ireland - cricket has never taken hold in Europe.

Sure the Dutch and the Danes have shown some enthusiasm, but to most Europeans, the aural pleasure of leather on willow is something of which they are blissfully ignorant.

But since 1997, a small team of missionaries has been working from an office at Lords to convert these Euro-Heathens.

Greek skipper George Stogianos takes strike
Greek skipper George Stogianos takes strike

Officers of the European Cricket Council, whose members comprise nine ICC Associates and fourteen ICC Affiliates, oversee the development and expansion of cricket throughout the continent.

From Iceland to Gibraltar, Ireland to Azerbaijan, the ECC is providing facilities and equipment, coaching and administrative expertise, to groups striving to establish the game in environments where its cultures and traditions have no root.

In reality, their work isn't that evangelical, as Alison Smith, ECC Communications Officer explains: "We don't go out selling the game, rather we tend to work with people who already play - or wish to play - cricket."

Whilst initial interest often comes from British or Asian ex-pats (for instance it's been played in Corfu for over a century), demographic fluidity isn't always the initiating factor.

Fun in Iceland

"In Iceland, interest was generated by locals seeing it on satellite television and thinking it looked fun", says Smith, "now there's five teams."

While the enthusiasm of migrant populations is welcome, ECC assistance is unlikely to be forthcoming unless there's strong involvement from the indigenous population, particularly where the emphasis is on developing youth cricket.

The ECC's £700,000 annual budget comes principally from the ICC Development Fund, though the MCC and ECB each contribute 5%. The money buys equipment and pays for facilities, not least artificial pitches.

"Dedicated grounds are rare, says Alison Smith, "so we often rely on synthetic surfaces, especially in northern Europe where the weather can be very limiting.

A Portuguese player with the spoils of victory
A Portuguese player with the spoils of victory

We also fund coaching and umpiring programmes [to Level 3 and ACU&S standards respectively] with the aim of moving our member countries towards a high degree of self-sufficiency."

The bi-annual European Championship trophy, where two Affiliate members join the nine Associates, is the pinnacle of senior ECC Competition.

And the European Under 19 World Cup Qualifier (won last year by Scotland), is the leading junior tournament, providing the winners with exactly what it says.

Highlight of the winter season however is the Indoor Championships, held this year in Mechelen, Belgium.

Cricket in Belgium dates back over 100 years, via clubs in Antwerp and Brussels, and today there are almost 1,000 registered players.

Kent invitation

Ken Farmiloe, Chairman of the Belgian Cricket Federation, says: "The British community pioneered the game, but in Mechelen and Brussels more Belgians are now participating, particularly youngsters.

"We have junior competitions from Under 13s upwards and have been invited to send a team to Kent for September's Folkestone European Cricket Challenge, while the County also want to bring a coach over to assess our youngsters."

Cricket in Belgium is a principally Flemish game, with only two teams in the largely French speaking south: "Traditionally", says Ken Farmiloe, "little sport is played in Belgian schools and we'd certainly like to fill that void.

However, gaining official sporting status is difficult, as legally we must have both a French and Flemish part to our Federation, and with so little French involvement, the costs and administration involved makes it impractical."

The Dutch congratulate the victorious Portuguese
The Dutch congratulate the victorious Portuguese

But with national leagues at both senior and junior level, Belgium cricket is more advanced than in many other parts of Europe (in addition to the ICC Affiliates and Associates, the ECC has received interest from a further twenty territories).

The game looks set to expand, but finding venues to play it on remains a problem.

Clash with football

Farmiloe says: "We've currently got 10 grounds; we need more, yet we've encountered local authorities who worry that we'll damage the pitches, making them unusable for football!"

Back at Lords, Alison Smith looks forward to the imminent establishment of a European Cricket Academy:

"Initially, we're using a base in Jįvea, near Alicante, and will shortly select a squad of fifteen youngsters from among those nominated by our members."

As with all ECC activities, emphasis will be on the participants helping and learning from each other. The overall development of European cricket demands nothing less.

See also:

11 Jul 01 |  Scotland
Winning ways continue for Scots
06 Feb 02 |  Cricket
Say bonjour to cricket
17 May 01 |  Sussex
From Holland to Hove
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