Bat and Balkans: Taking cricket to Croatia

Celebrations Croatian-style at the end of a match
Celebrations Croatian-style at the end of a match
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They keep their pads in an old Vauxhall and the scoreboard was made out of a wine barrel. Richard Aspinall meets Craig Wear, the Yorkshireman taking cricket to Croatia.

Craig Wear has a hopeful look on his face: “You have at least held a cricket bat? We need a sixth man and you might be him.” “Well, yes,” I replied. “It was a fair bit of time ago, you understand.” Actually it was probably in the mid-1980s, but Craig seemed happy enough and besides, I didn’t want to let a fellow Yorkshireman down. It would appear that I was playing in my first international cricket match. On a small island, 30 miles off the Croatian coast.

Celebrations Croatian-style at the end of a match

Celebrations Croatian-style at the end of a match

Craig and his wife Xania fell in love with the green and sparsely populated outpost when they came to live on Vis about 10 years ago. Previously he had taught PE at an international school in Moscow. Desperate for “some greens and some blues” after the long Russian winters, they found Vis and from their converted farmhouse at Rukavac on the island’s southern coast, they now operate an activity holiday company, Wearactive. It’s also the headquarters of one of the most unusual cricket tournaments in the world.

It’s one which is also very much a family affair. Craig’s father Nigel, who played for Earby Cricket Club, acts as umpire and chief ball finder, while the day before the first match, his mum Lynne can be seen sat atop the somewhat rickety ride-on lawnmower that bumps and shakes its way across the outfield, spitting out the occasional stone as it goes. Headingley this is not; although a fine scent of oregano follows the mower as it deals with weeds and herbs that a UK groundskeeper has little concern for.

“Like all these things, however small, there is a lot of prep to do and as always it’s carried by the same few each year, but it’s well worth it,” said Craig, who also admitted that any ball hit over the boundary runs the risk of being lost forever in a tangle of vines. “The pitch is artificial and laid onto concrete, but it plays well. It’s basically what most players will spend winters practising on in the UK – indoor net sessions.”

The mower usually lives under a tarpaulin next to a battered old Vauxhall entirely covered with artificial grass, complete with painted crease and wicket on the back end. It was driven across Europe by a team from the south of England called the “Swinging Googlies” and now stands as testament to the joyous silliness of the whole business. It also serves as a handy place to keep pads and helmets.

“They set off from the UK in the car to explore Europe on a recce to find touring options for the future. When they got to Vis they made the decision that the car had done its work and they would fly back to the UK. They left the car here and it’s been our kit store ever since.”

The scoreboard has also been rolled out and given a fresh lick of paint. This is all made easier by the fact that it’s not a board but a barrel from the vineyard. It sits in the shade under an almond tree and teams have to occasionally ask for the scores to be refreshed as numbers are hung on nails driven into the barrel.

Over a glass of local red wine called Prosek the night before the tournament starts, Nigel and I chat about “back home” and he relates how Earby is now in Lancashire, though historically it was in the West Riding. I’m not sure if he’s teasing me but he tells me that the Welcome to Lancashire sign had been removed once or twice.

While the history of cricket in Croatia is not particularly rich, on Vis it stretches back more than two centuries. In 1809, a naval commander by the name of 
Captain William Hoste found himself and his men guarding the island and they often filled the quiet moments with a game of cricket.

The sport was rediscovered by local vineyard and restaurant owner Oliver Roki and he and Craig both now play in the 
local team, known appropriately as The Hoste’s. For the annual competition they are joined by teams from the UK and further afield.

Last time there was a team of ex-pat Canadian doctors working in Zagreb, a group of postal workers from Birmingham, a team from the MCC, a bunch of friends from St Johns Wood in north London, a side from the nearby town of Komiža and of course the local junior side who celebrated the end of the tournament in style with flares, high fives and a great deal of whooping.

Every year attracts a varied mix of cricket enthusiasts who fancy something just a little different. A series of pictures in Oliver’s bar celebrates a visit by the BBC for the show Three Men in a Boat who ended up playing against a team from Munich.

“It’s lots of fun with touring teams who always come with the right spirit, to enjoy the game and the island,”says Craig, 
before adding with a wry smile: “It’s always good when we beat Split CC, our nearest rivals.”

The tournament runs on the International Sixes format that allows players with a range of skills (barely any in my case) to take part alongside much more skilled practitioners. “Sixes” involves teams of six players and the game is six overs per innings. When a batsman scores 25 or over, they have to retire to give the rest a chance.

“The local teams do play normal 11-a-side matches,” says Craig. “But the sixes is a great way to kick start our season. Long may it last.”

In the end, I played for the “Pick-up 6” team, although if I were to be honest, I think we were only five and a half. We were thoroughly trounced, but I did take one wicket and scored a credible, but not impressive total of runs. Nigel, encouraging as ever, told me that I did well.

That evening as we sat under the stars and father and son led a chorus of our “national” anthem, On Ilkla Moor baht ’at. Celebrating Yorkshire with people from as far away as New Zealand and Canada, who had all been brought together by this most English of pursuits helped to take my 
mind off the pain in my shoulder. It also made me tempted to try and get a team together for next year; One thing I needed to know though: how did I do?

Craig put down his glass and thought for a while. “Thankfully you’re better at taking photos than you were at the cover drive,” he smiled, adding: “but that’s not what it’s all about. It’s about picking up the bat or ball giving it a go, and having fun – you certainly did that.” That’ll do for me.

• To find out more about the tournament go to www.wearactive.com