THE guide books all note that Corfu’s lovely old town bears the mark of lands to the north. But even so, it can still feel surreal to sit in a Parisian-style arcade or a Venetian-inspired mansion and look out at 22 white-clad players engaged in an English-born game.
Corfu is one of the few non-Commonwealth spots where cricket thrives. It offers enjoyable, knockabout games, as players from Australia, India and South Africa can attest after recent exhibition matches. And since 1978, when a gaggle of English comedians and sportsmen flew in to play, it has been loved in cricket’s homeland.
The island has two cricket grounds besides the pretty one in the old town, which adjoins UN-protected heritage and the azure sea. Less happily, a car park is gobbling up the turf, though only in jest do players suggest that smashing a windscreen merits extra runs.
All this is a legacy of the day in 1823 when islanders saw the Royal Navy play the British garrison (Britain had taken the island during the Napoleonic wars). Corfiots longed to participate, and produced a couple of teams which survived and multiplied after Britain’s exit in 1864.
Amid Greece’s turbulent history, Corfiot cricket could have died, but it remains popular among local men and, increasingly, women. Three female teams have just been formed.
Not all Greek cricket is Corfiot; 200 miles south-east a different scene exists. In grimy Athens, Asian migrants borrow a football ground three times a year for two-day contests. Last month’s attracted 12 teams. Mehdikhan Chaudry, the organiser, says he could get twice that number, given time and space. These worlds occasionally connect. One of Corfu’s top cricketers is Mohammad Aslam, an electrician who came from Karachi in 1995 and never left.
Ideally, keen Corfiots and proud Pakistanis should combine to give Greek cricket a boost. But Greece is sadly absent from the current European championship; Germany, with no historic background in the game, excels.
Why so? First, the International Cricket Council (ICC) says participating countries must have 10 organised men’s teams playing at least five matches a year. Corfu fell slightly short. The ICC has also slackened the rules for players, so a passport, a birth-place or three years’ residence entitle you to represent a country. That helps Germany, with many residents of Commonwealth origin. But Greek sporting rules foolishly make it hard for non-citizens to represent the country. Only if that problem is solved can Hellenic cricket hope to score another century.