What does a South African, an Australian, a couple of New Zealanders, a bunch of Englishmen, four Indians and a Canadian have in common?
Well, being from Commonwealth nations aside, they also congregate at the beginning of May every year for a rare sporting event: Cricket in Croatia. Yes. Cricket. In the Balkan republic of Croatia. On a picturesque island for good measure.
For this scribe, it all started during England’s triumphant tour of South Africa in the winter, with a casual invitation to ‘come and see us play’ from an Englishman now based in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.
Croatia, as discovered, is rich in enthusiasm for the game, but sadly lacking in infrastructure. Efforts to try and grow the game haven’t always been successful, but for one weekend in May at least, bat and ball take over a charming island not far from Italy for the annual Vis International Sixes.
The setting itself is spectacular, and it gets even more so as you wind your way up the hill towards Vis Cricket Club, whose ground is set amongst vineyards near an old airstrip. As you make the journey, the terracotta dwellings, the delightful cathedral and the shimmering ocean below remind you that this is not your regular cricket destination.
Croatia itself has a beguiling beauty, with new islands to discover each day of the year. But it is on this patch of land that many a visitor has been introduced to cricket in these parts.
History tells that that the first game of cricket was played in Vis over 200 years ago, by Captain Sir William Hoste, a protégé of Lord Nelson. Hoste and his troops were stationed on the island for a few years from 1811 and, while not jousting with Napoleon’s battleships, they established Vis Cricket Club. The home side is called The Hostes in homage to their rugged beginnings.
In terms of the standard of cricket, it’s closer to Sunday League fare than Premier League intensity, but the emphasis is on forging friendships and establishing a tradition. Not every team comes to win, but they are certainly there to have fun and collect memories in a completely different location.
Now in its sixth year, the Vis Sixes weekend has become a popular addition to the early season calendar for a couple of British clubs, with the short flight from Heathrow to Split ideal. The majority of the local players are expats. They come for work and a change of scenery, and find common ground on the cricket field.
The tournament and its participants love to welcome new teams, and there is an open invitation for social teams from around the world to come and experience a cracking week of island cricket. With enough connecting flights into Zagreb now on offer, it has brought the tournament within the grasp of a wider audience, and it is anticipated that a team with international flavour in it will make the trek next year.
Accommodation is all on the island, and is included in the tournament fee, as are the lunches and the final dinner. I was hosted on a boat, along with some friends, and clambering back on deck at 3am required some interesting calculations for some.
This year, the tournament had its first female participant as well, as 24-year-old Claudia Balogh turned out for the Hurricanes, another English team. Balogh, who plays for the Hungarian women’s team as well as for Munich Cricket Club, has previously trained with the England women’s team, and she was a welcome whiff of fresh air.
The most colourful of the teams, meanwhile, was the young clutch of locals who go by the name Slono Pogaca. Many of them support local football club Hajduk Split, fierce rivals to the well-heeled Dinamo Zagreb. Legend has it that the captain of Slono Pogaca, the long-locked Medic, once rowed a boat full of beer and flares from Vis to Split (33 nautical miles) to go and watch a football game, insisting that he didn’t need a ferry like everyone else.
Medic and his merry mob have a passion for Hajduk that matches Green Street Hooligans for fanaticism, but that raw passion is tempered when they get into their cricket whites. The drums and the chants are still there to add a unique atmosphere, but they stick to a usage – ‘Nice, boys!’ – stolen from the Australian expats, and they chuck it out whenever something, well, nice occurs on the field. For effect, they pronounce it as “Noiice!”
The biggest fixture on their calendar is against neighbouring Split, who are of a similar playing standard. Slono Pogaca triumphed this year, chasing 40 in a little more than three overs, much to the irritation of Medic, who was desperate for a proper contest, in the battle for seventh spot on the table. To be fair, though, the neighbours had to take a ferry on the Friday morning, and do the same on Sunday evening, in order to be back at work on Monday.
For their opening batsmen, the Sixes tournament also provides one last opportunity to relax before the crazy holiday season kicks in. They are flight controllers at Split’s airport, and from June until August, they have the unenviable task of ushering in the tourists that jet in for a summer on the islands.
Juggling work and play is the story of cricket in Croatia and its surrounds, just as it is a time-honoured compromise in club cricket around the world. In the Pogaca side, for example, the wicketkeeper also happens to be a sous chef at one of the island’s best eateries, Vila Kaliopa, set in an enchanting, tropical garden. Every day, by 5pm, he has to swap cricket whites for an apron, regardless of the state of play, because someone has to make that irresistible shrimp soup.
While you may come to Vis primarily for the cricket, the food and wine is just as memorable. There are numerous seafood havens dotted around the island, but most of the cricketers’ fare comes from the best spot in town, Roki’s, perched high on the hill. Of course, Roki himself plays too, offering shots as agricultural as the land surrounding the ground. Roki has a striking resemblance to Italian football manager Fabio Capello, wearing a similar brow of concern, but Roki’s readily join in when he breaks out into a hearty laugh, and he is always ready with a refreshing drink for players and spectators alike.
His famous restaurant is just 100 metres away from the action, and a daily lunch is on offer for all the players. These informal gatherings bring the tournament together, as rivalries are put aside to break bread and sip a cold one. The end of tournament dinner is also always at Roki’s on the Sunday night, and he produces his world-renowned ‘peka’ dishes, meat and fish main courses cooked in high-pressure metal buns over coals.
The taste – of the sumptuous octopus, especially – is sensational and a source of immense pride for the locals. The wine flows, and the bonfires dotted around the dinner tables crackle with the magic of another chapter added to the 200-year old legend of cricket in this unlikeliest of places.
As for the cricket itself, yours truly had to dust off the cobwebs and turn out for the Zagreb team, Sokol. After a slow start, Sokol found their rhythm, and defeated Springfield CC in the final, for their first title since the inaugural tournament.
That win was down mainly to the all-round efforts of Paul Musin, a New Zealander of few words but plenty of runs, and the Welsh silver fox behind the stumps, Mark Davies. Both turn out for Zagreb in league cricket and, like so many of the cricketers in Croatia, they live for the summer, when they can chase leather and recall home.
The Vis International Sixes tournament, played atop a picture postcard of an island, heralds the start of the season in earnest, and never fails to deliver on its primary objectives – cricket, cuisine and camaraderie. It has been that way for 200 years, and long may it continue.