The weird and wonderful places where cricket has been played.
The game of Cricket, unlike soccer, has not exactly spread its wings when it comes to having a global presence. Primarily, it is still considered a commonwealth sport, played and accepted only in the former British colonies. However there are instances when the sport has actually crossed traditional boundaries and reached faraway lands.
This piece is an attempt to pen down some of those rare instances when the game has broken geographical barriers.
Cricket in the land of Genghis Khan
The British had never ruled Mongolia, nor did the missionaries have a wide presence over there. There is no historical background of cricket in Genghis Khan’s homeland. Still, if you ever go to that part of the world, especially in the capital Ulaanbaatar, you might actually hear the sound of a bat hitting the ball.
It is the solo effort of Battulga Gombo, who brought cricket culture in Mongolia, almost single handedly.
Gombo is a Mongolian judo hero, who has represented his country in many international competitions. But at present he is more renowned as the father of Mongolian cricket.
In 2005, he was in Melbourne and went to MCG to watch a charity match for tsunami victims, when his infatuation with cricket began. Gombo was so impressed with the sport that immediately started making plans of how to take the game to Mongolia.
In 2007 he founded the Mongolian Amateur Cricket Association (MACA). But there was no funding, no grounds, no infrastructure and most importantly, not enough players.
So, in 2009, Gombo went back to Melbourne and attended the Cricket Coach Accreditation Course by Cricket Australia. After successfully completing it, he became Mongolia's first ever qualified cricket coach.
Coming back from Australia, Gombo started to visit schools and orphanages around Ulaanbaatar to generate interest amongst the children about the game. He found help from some of his British, Indian and Australian friends, who were residing in Ulaanbaatar during that time.
With time and effort, Gombo’s plan began to work. At present, thanks to his efforts, more than 400 [ed. 1,400] Mongolian children have played the game. During the Mongolian cricket season (the only time in the year when the weather is not extreme), which is between May and October, around 100 kids join his weekly training camp, in an artificial soccer pitch surrounded by a running track.
[ed. in 2016 Gombo built Mongolia's first cricket pitch and at the time of writing has over 300 kids from ten schools playing 12 months a year]
Currently, Gombo and his cricket enthusiast friends are busy arranging funds, to build a proper cricket stadium, on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar.
The bizarre form of cricket in Niue
Situated 2,400 km north-east of New Zealand, Niue is a picturesque island nation and there is existence of cricket, but not in its conventional form. The version of cricket played on the island is a blend of modern-day format of cricket and ‘kilikiti’, a tribal version of the game, which is very popular in the Oceania region. In fact, ‘kilikiti’ has its own world cup as well.
In Niue, a cricket ball is made of rubber. The bat is made of willow, but triangular in size, which is more like a baseball bat. And most importantly, according to the local tradition, a traditional match over here is a forty-a-side fixture. However, according to newly implemented rules, now each team can have 25 players, aged between 12 to 65.
The game was introduced to Niue by the British missionaries in the past century and they deliberately made changes in the playing conditions, in order to involve more and more locals.
Eventually, they were successful in their motive as the sport has become extremely popular amongst the natives. A match in this format is more of a village vs village affair and this sport is a part of their annual October festival as well.
According to a piece by cricket historian Abhishek Mukherjee, the local Niuean language has its own words for cricket jargons, like punipuni (to defend), uka (a draw), pamu (a full-toss), teka (to bowl), olo (wickets), mate olo (to get out bowled), faimoa (to score a duck), goi (to stump), tulipolo (to field), and so on.
Describing a traditional Niuean cricket match, Tony Munro wrote in Wisden, “The fielder, high in a coconut tree, throws the ball to one of his 39 teammates at ground level, desperate to prevent his opponent completing the maximum sixth run.”
Yes, this particular form of cricket is not exactly the sport we know. But, most importantly, the game of bat and ball does exist in such a distant part of the world.
An India-Pakistan match on dried lava
During the Second Congo War, the United Nations had to deploy a peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The contingent, which was formed in September 2003, was named the Ituri Brigade and it consisted of soldiers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Indonesia and Morocco.
A cricket match was played in Goma, the capital city of North Kivu province, which is situated on the Congolese border. In fact, Goma is almost adjacent to Gisenyi, Rwanda and about 15 miles from the town is the crater of the active Nyiragongo Volcano.
In 2004, the Ituri Brigade was based in Goma when some of the Indian and Pakistani soldiers managed to find a bat and a ball and decided to play a 20-over match amongst themselves. The blackish looking ground, which was used for this fixture did not have any grass whatsoever. In fact, on that field, the upper layer of the soil was mostly dried lava and volcanic ash, which came into the surface during the 2002 eruption.
The exact date of the match was not known, but according to Donald Turner’s piece in Wisden, eventually, India ended up beating Pakistan in a highly competitive fixture.
Cricket in the South Pole
There is hardly a place in the world more isolated than Antarctica. However, even there, cricket has its footprints. On January 11, 1985, a full fledged cricket match took place in that part of the world, about 400 miles from the South Pole.
The idea was the brainchild of Sir Arthur Watts, a British diplomat and cricket enthusiast, who was leading the British delegation of 60 scientists, environmentalists, administrators and lawyers of different nationalities, who were in Antarctica for an international workshop on mineral rights at the time.
Watts assembled two sides for this contest. The pitch was actually the ski-track of a C130 Hercules aircraft. A heavier ball would have sunk into the snow so a tennis ball was used for this fifteen-a-side contest.
Watts led the Beardmore Casuals XIV, which had mostly British players against the Gondwanaland Occasionals XIV, which consisted of players from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Batting first, the casuals made 102. Interestingly, five of their batsmen were "retired frozen". The Occasionals during their run-chase, made 129 to win the game and eight of the batsmen had to retire due to extreme cold.
Wisden says in a report, during that Antarctic summer evening, the light was good enough for the play to continue until close to midnight.
An annual cricket match in the middle of the sea
Traditional rivals Island Sailing Club and The Royal Southern Yacht Club annually feature in one of the most unique matches in the world — a contest of bat and ball in the middle of the English Channel.
The match takes place on the Bramble Bank in August, when enough of it appears during the spring tide. While for the most part of the year the sand-strip sits under water and it falls in the middle of a busy shipping route.
The first-ever match on that wetland was played in the 1960s, but it was not until 1986 that it became an annual affair. Interestingly, the result of the match is pre-decided as both teams, by arrangement, win in alternate years. The players and spectators arrive by boat and they are always right on their toes as the rising tide can suddenly stop play.
It is the sheer passion and love for the game which has taken cricket to these far-flung corners of the globe. Yes, unlike football, cricket might not have a mass appeal around the world, but it has a global reach, for sure.
Hence writing the foreword of Elk Stopped Play, Michael Palin has rightly mentioned, "there is barely a corner of God's earth where you can walk without at least some chance of being hit by a cricket ball".