In the year 2007, a group of people came together in Belgrade with an aim to lay a foundation for Cricket in a Football obsessed nation. Throughout the past decade, they have gone through extreme challenges which a game has to see especially in its initial stage. However, they are enthusiastic as they were eleven years ago as Cricket in Serbia seems to be catching the attention of both the people and the media.
On such an occasion Caught at Point brings an exclusive interview of one of the founding members of Serbian Cricket, Vladimir Ninković, who is also the captain and coach of the national team apart from being General Secretary of the Serbian Cricket Federation.
Vladimir recounts a journey of dreams, aspiration and, struggle to see Serbia play international cricket.
How is Cricket in Serbia at the moment? When did it begin?
Cricket in Serbia is picking up ever since September 2007. However, it would be unfair to say that we were the first ones who played cricket in our country. There were several efforts (by the British Embassy in 2001, and by a group of people in the town of Zrenjanin in 2005) before us, but due to various reasons, they did not manage to make it sustainable.
We started by pure chance. Three of us had been involved with Rugby League in Serbia and through rugby, we also learned about cricket but we never played it. Then in summer 2007, we met with an Indian guy (who was a boyfriend, and now the husband of a good friend of mine from the University) who wished to play cricket. We tried to find a club for him, but as there were none we suggested that he teaches us the basics so that we can have fun over weekends. We invited some of our friends were surprised that many of them wanted to give it a try. We did not even have a cricket bat or ball, but we used a baseball bat and tennis balls.
During the winter we ordered some basic equipment from the eBay and in spring 2008 we continued with our informal cricket gatherings at the ground near the Belgrade Fortress – Kalemegdan. The notice about a group of people playing cricket reached the British and the Indian embassy, who then informed a group of Indian and South African IT guys and Pakistani students. Suddenly we had over 30-40 people coming to play even during workdays. Only then we got the idea of making it more formal, to register clubs, become a part of the Serbian sports community etc. At the end of 2008, Stari Grad CC and Mirijevo CC were founded, and a few months afterwards Kablarski Soko CC was established by university students from the town of Čačak (pronounced chachak).
On June 5 2009, Belgrade Cricket Association played the first match (best players of the mentioned three clubs, with only 2 expats) against a Welsh side Carmel and District CC.
In August 2009 the first T20 and 40 over league was organized and played in a public park in Belgrade.
Is Cricket in Serbia that popular considering the youth are probably a huge fan of Football and Basketball?
Serbs are very fond of sports and very proud of our achievements in basketball, football, volleyball, handball, tennis, boxing, wrestling etc. However, the bat and ball sports do not have such tradition in Serbia. Baseball has been existing since the 80s but it has remained a minor sport.
Here it should be stated that cricket in Serbia was initiated, that it is governed, coached and play mostly by locals, which makes us an oddity in continental Europe. As the founders and administrators were/are locals there were no cultural, linguistic or any other barriers to promoting it amongst the majority population. Since 2010 we have worked on promoting cricket among local children and youth, and since 2015 focusing on more vulnerable groups, such as the kids from economically deprived parts of Belgrade and the ethnic Roma population.
Initially, we had a hard time in convincing the media and the sports community to take us seriously. The first couple of years the media coverage was rather small and slightly ironic, painting us as a bunch of eccentric enthusiasts who acted “English”, as one article put it. The sports media started following us in July 2010 when our national team had its debut at the so-called EuroT20 championship held in Skopje, Macedonia. Our membership in the Serbian Sports Federation in 2011 and the support from the Ministry of Youth and Sports since 2012 definitely made us look more serious in the eyes of the media and the sports community.
Currently, we are content both with the amount of coverage we receive and the way we are approached. Certainly, cricket is still far from being a big thing in Serbia, but I think we have done a good job in the previous 10 years.
You are the founding member, secretary of the board apart from being the captain of the national cricket team, what were the initial challenges that you faced, who were the other key members?
Given a small size of the country (Serbian population is just about 7 million), the popularity of many other sports and a relative economic poverty on the one hand, and the highly professional level that cricket is played on in countries as India or England on another, we were aware that there would be many challenges for achieving sustainability.
First of all, hardly anyone in Serbia knew about cricket. People would confuse it with polo or croquet. Consecutively, there were no raw models for kids to identify with. Second, we had no qualified coaches who could teach us how to play properly and help us achieve some good results on the international scene. That issue was partially overcome thanks to the Bob Woolmer videos on the YouTube. Third, there were no cricket grounds, so we were doomed to playing on football grounds and public parks. Fourth- expat community in Serbia is very small, and the business ties with India, UK, Australia not as strong as with some other countries, so we could not count on big donations and sponsorship deals.
Some of those initial challenges have been overcome in the meantime thanks to the crazy enthusiasm of the administrators, but some of them, especially financial ones, remain.
Another key figure of Serbian cricket has been Dr Haris Deutch, one of the founders and current Chairman of the Serbian Cricket Federation who never lost optimism and enthusiasm. Other cricket pioneers were Amberish Sarang from Mumbai, Nenad Dugić, Kate Lawrence from the British Embassy, Nandikesh Nayar, Nasir Chaudhry, Darko Ivić, Peter Cheeseman, Dragan Đokić, Slobodan Tošić, Nikola Pantelić etc.
How hard has it been to convince the players especially the parents that Cricket in Serbia can pick up and is a game which runs for 5 days and has a lucrative career?
It is a secret well kept between us and the youth players. Jokes aside, we do not see Serbia becoming a test nation anytime soon. We are focused on T20 and 40 over format, as well as on indoor cricket. For them, it is too early to think about professional career higher than club level. Even 40 over matches are too long for new players so we do not organize that format for U15s.
Which are the regions in Serbia where the game is getting popular?
Serbia is a centralized country, Belgrade is the capital, the biggest city, financial, cultural and sports centre, so most of our activities are held there. Also, the northern region of Vojvodina has been fertile ground for cricket so there we have two clubs made of local Roma – Bodrog Deers and Sonta Black Mustangs.
The Serbian Cricket Federation is now the member of both International Cricket Council and European Cricket Council. What is the Serbian government doing to help you?
Yes, in 2015 we became affiliate members of the ICC and in 2017 we are an associate member (there is no affiliate member category anymore). ICC is a centralized organization, there is no more European Cricket Council, just ICC-Europe, which is actually just an ICC office without any decision-making power. The membership in the ICC has been a great boost to us and a proof that we have done a good work here.
Our goal is to become a mainstream sport in Serbia and for that sake, we have become a part of the Serbian Sports Association, a body that coordinates non-Olympic sports. Since 2012 we have been the users of the state budget through the annual funding of the Ministry of Youth and Sports. When you’re a part of the sports community you need to observe all rules as other sports –e.g. all our players need to be fully registered, undergo medical examination twice a year, and once a year we have anti-doping control. For youth players, medical and other testing is even more rigorous. However, this gives us organizational stability and institutional backing – we have access to the state schools, we participate at sports festivals and sports fairs, state media and in particular daily sports gazette „Sportski Žurnal“ follow all our activities.
A few weeks ago the Belgrade Cricket Association became the part of the Belgrade Sports’ Association which will further help us in particular with promotional activities in Belgrade and organization of youth leagues and tournaments.
What is the domestic structure of Cricket in Serbia? Are there underage tournaments like U-15 or U-17 organised?
Since 2009 we have been organizing both T20 and 40 over championships. Since 2011 we have organized 6-a-side Cup competition, which since 2014 has been played indoors. Also, since 2015 we have started with the B Division of our T20 competition. U15 and U13 leagues have been played since 2016.
A curiosity of our competitions is that we have a cap on expat players – a team cannot field more than 5 expat players. In B division we are even more rigorous – only two expats are allowed and those who do not play the A division. This is simply as in the second division we want to involve youth players as well as those who like to play but are still not experienced enough to have fun in our “elite” competition.
Does the Serbian Cricket Federation (SCF) have their own grounds? What are the training facilities provided by the federation to encourage young talent?
We have one fully operational cricket ground in Belgrade which has been completely renovated for this season. It is an artificial-concrete wicket, as maintaining a turf wicket would be too expensive and too difficult for us at this moment. We also use two football grounds in the region of Vojvodina with plastic, “flicx” pitches. Since 2017 we have permanent outdoor nets (two lanes) at the Ada Ciganlija river island in Belgrade, one of the city’s touristic hot-spots. I must mention that the funds for the construction of the nets were donated to us by the Australian Embassy in Serbia. Also, there is a portable net at our cricket ground, and there are plans to make a permanent net in the village of Bački Monoštor, where Bodrog Deers CC come from.
In most of the European countries, there is a large number of foreign players, how do you plan to ensure that the local Serbian in majority starts playing the game.
In my humble opinion, cricket is a beautiful sport and children of all nations would be interested in it if only they were approached. We see that in Serbia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Mongolia, China… Frankly speaking, I do not understand some cricket administrators who say that they cannot reach the local population. It is a long and time and nerves consuming process, but it is far from impossible. All other sports did it.
One explanation may be that during a longer period ICC stressed the performance of its members as the key element for moving up the ICC ladder (which means larger funds), whilst the development and the work on sustainability were not given enough importance. That created the focus on short-term success through enrolling only those who already knew how to play cricket, without any outreach to majority populations. The things are changing now and it seems that the ICC moves in the right direction to genuinely establishing cricket as a global sport.
I am not saying that the expats or citizens of European countries of Asian, British, Australian origin should be discriminated against, but if cricket remains limited to tiny expat communities it will remain a minor sport.
What are the steps you are taking to make the game more popular among kids in schools? Are there any such school development programme in place?
Since 2016 we have been implementing a program called “Free school of cricket” through which we approach kids from the economically deprived areas of Belgrade and Vojvodina. The kids can practice cricket twice a week for free, play in the competitions, play for the national team etc. It is limited to four locations with eight elementary schools involved in total, due to the low number of qualified coaches in Serbia and, again, low funds, but we believe that our U15’s will soon – in a two-three years – be able to take over and work with the U11’s which is our next target age group and possibly enable us to spread to several more locations.
We are also looking at the possibility of working with the Faculties for physical education and sports academies who could in future produce national cricket coaches.
Another aspect of our work is work with the ethnic Roma kids who are underrepresented in sports. As some of us have a background in NGO work and project management for this aspect of our work we use the funds found elsewhere, for instance, we have implemented a project by the German Organization for International Development (GIZ) through which we integrated Roma kids in our existing teams.
Afghanistan’s journey from refugee camps to test nation has been a fairytale one. Considering Serbia has gone through a similar turmoil couple of decades back, how far it inspires you?
It is a fantastic story and we have all been amazed by the documentary “From the Ashes”. Our country and the wider region have also had their share of conflicts in the last three decades. However, for the difference of Afghanistan, our sports system is quite strong as it can be seen by the results of our athletes at international competitions. On the other hand, that makes it probably more difficult for us to promote cricket. It is difficult to compare, really.
You are an affiliate member of ICC do you get funds from ICC, to grow the game you need money how do SCF manages itself.
We do get money on annual basis from the ICC and the Ministry of Youth and Sports of the Republic of Serbia. Some clubs are also partially funded by the local authorities. Still, we’re talking about very low digits. For instance, this year we have invested in our cricket ground we cannot afford some other things – e.g. we had to cancel some international tours, the clubs have received less money from the Federation for the local development and so on. But now with the higher quality facilities, we can attract more guest teams – and that’s something that most European cricket associations live off, to be more marketable, so to say.
Can you name some few upcoming prominent players who can be the face of Cricket Serbia in future?
There are quite a few of them who will be far better cricketers than we are.
Among U17’s Jovan Reb first comes to mind, a mentally strong medium-fast bowler who is also quite useful with the bat.
U15’s – our best generation, so many to pick: Nemanja Zimonjić the national team captain, Rahman Ademi, Matija Šarenac and Daniel Petrović – potentially the best allrounders in Serbian cricket, Vukašin Zimonjić – pace bowler, Dehran Bekteši – panther wicketkeeper and powerful batsman… They will all be involved in the national team by 2020 or 2021.
Are you looking or expecting established cricket nations to help you by giving chance to have more exchange programme, providing good facility et cetera?
We have established connections with Danish Cricket Association in 2016, their instructor Ivan Kristensen once a year works with our coaches and monitors their progress. This year we have also signed a MoU with the Pakistan Cricket Board, thanks to the support of the Pakistani Embassy in Belgrade. Five of us were the guests of the National Cricket Academy in Lahore, which was an invaluable experience. We have discussed the long-term partnership with them mostly in the way of capacity building.
What is the SCF main goal and how far your dream to see Serbia playing it first international match on Serbian Soil?
The strategic goal is, as I said, making cricket a sustainable and mainstream sport in Serbia. It may take 5 years, it may take 10 or 20 years, I cannot predict that. It may never happen if we just go for short-term goals and forget the essence.
We have already played international matches against regional sides in Belgrade, against Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovenia. Now that we have improved the facilities, we will be a more attractive location for other European countries as well.
Considering you have been awarded T20I status the dream seems not far? Who are you planning to play your first game
It will probably be one of the regional sides we have good cooperation with – Hungary, Slovenia, Romania or Bulgaria.
What are the future plans of SCF? How do you seek popularizing game in the country and how do you seek to get coverage in Media
Short to medium term goals, say, in the next four years, are to develop at least three youth categories – U13, U15 and U17s with regular competitions, and which will play international matches. We are making good steps in establishing ladies’ team. Also, we are looking at doubling the current number of the certified cricket coaches which would enable us to set up new cricket centres in Serbia and thus increase the competition among young cricketers. Quantity and hard work must lead to quality and quality will lead to good performance and results, this order of things should not be reversed.
We are satisfied with the media coverage of our activities, and we try to convince local and regional sports TV stations to do some coverage of international cricket. That would certainly make a significant boost to cricket popularity in Serbia and the wider region.
Finally, how was a kid from a Football crazy country attracted tow a game which is mostly considered a commonwealth country sport?
Football and Basketball are the two most popular sports in Serbia. In Belgrade there are football clubs literally in every neighbourhood, I would say that there must be over one hundred football clubs and, more recently, football academies. So as a small kid I practised football, but I was not serious about it. Later on, I started playing rugby, which is not so popular here. That put me and my current cricket colleague, Haris Deutch – the chairman of Serbian cricket, in touch with the British culture and sports. We learned about cricket from our British coaches and we started exploring it on the Internet, as there was no cricket community in Belgrade. Very soon we were captivated by it, and the rest is a history J.
Cricket is not so popular in Eastern Europe and the fact that they don’t have and cricketing neighbours which certainly helped Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Ireland and Afghanistan, the challenge is enormous for Vladimir and his colleagues yet they are determined to put Serbia on Cricket map of the world.
Their enthusiasm clearly denotes Serbia might be scripting a tale of its own in cricket in years ahead.