Mention the sport of cricket to most Europeans and their eyes glaze over with confusion.
The most English of games is little known in continental Europe.
But that could all be about to change amid the remarkable and unlikely rise of Germany's national team.
They made history recently by making it through to the final stage of qualifying for a major tournament – next year’s T20 World Cup, which is set to start in Australia next October. Heading into their final game against Italy, Germany knew that if they avoided a thrashing they were likely to progress. And even though they lost the match – by just one run – it was enough to take them through.
“It’s an absolutely amazing feeling. It’s historic for German cricket,” says Venkat Ganesan, the team’s captain.
“There were some amazing scenes. Everybody was pumped and jumping with joy when we knew that we had qualified. It was brilliant.”
The team will now join 15 other countries in the global qualifiers, to be held early next year, where they will compete for one of the final four spots in the 2022 tournament.
Despite the euphoria of making it through to the final stage of qualifiers for the first time, those involved with the team are staying grounded.
“We have to be realistic and say that we’ll be playing against some of the best teams in the world who have a budget that is probably 50 times bigger than ours,” said Brian Mantle, the CEO of the German Cricket Federation (DCB). “So we’re going into the tournament as a big underdog.”
Nevertheless, Mantle says the qualifiers will provide German cricket with the opportunity to win far more than just a spot in next year’s World Cup.
“Most people don’t know that Germany plays cricket. These games will be broadcast everywhere – on Sky Sports in England, on Star Sports in India – so people will see that there’s a German cricket team. They’ll be surprised, but it’s our job then to obviously make an impression. That doesn’t necessarily mean qualifying for the World Cup, but by performing well, playing well, winning a couple of games and maybe springing a surprise or two.”
From the basement to the brink
The achievement marks another step in the remarkable rise of German cricket, which in recent years has gone from the cricketing doldrums to the brink of world cup qualification.
And while it might shock many that Germany even has a national team, the array of talent within its ranks is perhaps more surprising.
In a sign of his cricketing credentials, Ganesan, who moved to Germany from Chennai in India to take up a job in an IT company in 2012, played both junior and senior representative cricket for his home state of Tamil Nadu, and along the way called Indian internationals Ravi Ashwin and Dinesh Kartik – absolute superstars of the game – his teammates.
The team also includes South African-born Dieter Klein, who plays professionally for English county cricket side Leicestershire, Michael Richardson, who enjoyed a decade-long career with English side Durham, and Talha Khan, who played junior representative cricket in his native Pakistan.
Adding to this, the team is led by coach Steven Knox, a former Scottish international cricketer, whose professionalism has been credited by players and administrators alike as key to the side’s rapid progress in recent years.
Although the team has a very international flavour, Mantle – himself an Englishman – says the players all have strong links to Germany.
“Some of them were born here, some of them learned their cricket here, and some of them have moved to Germany, made Germany their home and lived here for several years. So every single one of those players has a strong connection to Germany,” he says.
Germany's cricketing explosion
The rise of German cricket isn’t just restricted to the national team, however. In recent years the game has experienced a grassroots explosion to become the country’s fastest-growing team sport – even if a lot of people in Germany still wouldn’t know their silly mid-ons from their googlies!
There are around 6,000 registered players across 370 teams nationwide, up from just 70 teams five years ago. But even this doesn’t show the full picture: the DCB estimates that when unregistered players in unofficial competitions are taken into account, the true number of cricketers in the country stands at around 15,000-16,000.
Although the overwhelming majority are men, there has also been a boom in the women’s game, which now boasts around 200 players across 15 teams nationwide.
The main factor behind this has been the increase in people moving to Germany from the cricket-mad countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka over the past decade.
In particular, 2015 was a key moment for the sport, when an estimated 180,000 Afghans sought asylum in Germany. Given that the majority were men under the age of 30, many were keen to find somewhere to have a hit – and they certainly made their presence felt.
“The season started in April. I played my first game and then, unfortunately, got injured, so I was out for a month,” remembers Khan, who plays for the Karlsruhe Cougars. “But when I came back to training, all of a sudden we had like 16 or 17 players. Before we had almost none because a lot of players lived far away and rarely came to training. It just changed in a matter of months.”
The arrival of so many keen Afghan cricketers turned German cricket on its head: before, there often weren’t enough players to fill a team; but suddenly, many clubs were faced with the prospect of not having enough teams for all the players.
“It actually created a few small problems, because we only had one team and all of them wanted to play,” says Khan. “But it also gave us all a push, because a lot of these kids were good and young.”
The situation was a far cry from when Khan first arrived in Germany in 2012 to study for a Master’s degree – with his mind well and truly focused on the books rather than the bat and ball.
“I came to Germany not expecting to play cricket. I didn’t even bring my kit bag, I didn’t know people played cricket in Germany,” he says.
However, after coming across a Facebook group run by cricketers he jumped at the chance to have a hit.
“I still remember, it was February and there was snow everywhere. I couldn’t even see the pitch,” he laughs. “It didn’t feel very professional at the time. It was very small, and there weren’t many players.”
Breaking down barriers
The diverse nature of the German cricket fraternity has highlighted the role that the sport can play in helping new arrivals build a sense of community and maintain links with home.
“It helps build a connection to the culture where you’re from because most of the people are from Pakistan, India, Afghanistan. So when you come to cricket, it feels like you’re back home again,” says Khan.
He also notes that it’s been a great tool for overcoming some of the more common stereotypes and prejudices that people may develop in their home countries.
“There’s a lot of political tension between countries like Pakistan, India and Afghanistan and there’s a lot of negative propaganda, but people never hear about the positive stories. They never hear about the humans on the other side, who are pretty much the same as us,” he says.
“When you’re playing cricket, a lot of the time you forget that we’re all from different countries. That kind of gives us a nice sense of unity and breaks through barriers that wouldn’t have been broken if we had have stayed in our respective countries.”
And it is exactly this international Mischung that Mantle hopes will help one day establish cricket within mainstream German society.
“Think about how cricket has developed. The Indians and Pakistanis play cricket because the English taught them cricket. Then the Pakistanis taught cricket to the Afghans. And the Afghans have now migrated to Germany, and now they’re teaching cricket to the Germans.
That’s the only way that a sport can actually grow: by having people move around and teaching people. It’s like it’s come full circle: it’s gone from the UK to Asia and now it’s Asian people bringing it back to Europe.”
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