“Grass roots – the evolution of Estonian Cricket”
The task now is to find land within Tallinn that is suitable for a new cricket ground. However, without the support and recognition of the Government or sports ministry, it is going to be a hard task. Trying to convince anyone without the knowledge of cricket of its needs is a challenge, but the club hopes that it will gain the support of the Estonian Olympic committee to gain impetus in its mission for recognition.
There are many sights and sounds you associate with Estonia. Imagine quiet pine forests, calm lakes and bustling villages that look as though they have been separated from time. Picture cosmopolitan Tallinn’s steepled horizon, the trample of students rushing from lecture to class in Tartu. The waves of the Baltic lapping the beach in Pärnu. The sound of leather against willow at Tallinn’s Hippodrome. Yes, you did read that last sentence correctly. Cricket is in Estonia, and the team are doing are doing rather well.
Cricket, believe it or not, has been played in Tallinn, Estonia for approaching eight years. Since then it’s gone from a knock about on the local football pitch, to an ICC recognised team, competing in a division alongside teams from all over Europe.
The noble game first commenced in Estonia during the year 1998. An Estonian businessman returned from a trip to Australia obsessed with cricket and was determined to make a success of it in his native country. He approached a local Indian restaurateur based in Tallinn, and knowing his love for the game, arranged a match between some local bemused Estonians, versus the staff of Estonia’s premier Indian restaurant. The result may have been forgotten, but the outcome has gone down in history. This was the day Estonian cricket was formed.
At first, it was Indian restaurant employees, which consisted of Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians and the odd Indian, against Estonians or local ex-pats. As word grew, so did the team. The ground moved from a football pitch to a patch of ground in the middle of Tallinn’s race course, the Hippodrome. An artificial pitch was laid, and all of a sudden, the Estonian cricketers
had a home.
The Estonian players played amongst themselves, but as Tallinn became easier to get to for those travelling by plane, and as the jungle drums of the cricket world announced that cricket was played in the Baltics, they came. Teams from Holland, Finland and the United Kingdom all arrived with grey visions of Eastern Bloc outfall, but all left with happy faces of Estonian hospitality and glowing reports of cricket.
Cricket in Estonia became a regular fixture on the touring team’s end of season calendar. The MCC, Finland, Lords Taverners, Sir Tim Rice and his Heartaches all came to Estonia for a social game of cricket and the chance to make new friends. The more the Estonian team played against higher quality opposition, the more the team improved. Estonia was now in the position to meet these teams at their own ground and take Estonian cricket to other countries across Europe.
Estonia’s first ever away fixture was in the Helsinki 6’s competition against hosts Finland in 2003. Although the team came second to a vastly experienced Finnish side, the team took heart that they reached the final beating several Danish and Finnish league teams en route. This defeat would harden the team and help form a more serious structure for Estonian cricket.
In 2004 the Estonian Cricket Association was formed. A board of directors was voted and appointed and were tasked with developing the game in Estonia. Main focus points were improving the standard of play, encouraging more Estonian nationals to play, and to get more children and schools involved.
These goals were helped by a donation of cricket kit and junior training sets from the International Cricket Council. Although Estonia wasn’t officially recognised as a cricket playing nation by the ICC, it could be classified as “non affiliate” status, which meant that the team had aspirations to one day compete under ICC rules and regulations on a European basis. The new supply of cricket bats and balls – understandably hard to buy in Estonian sports shops – helped improve the standard of cricket immediately, and gave the Board and the team a real determination to succeed at a higher level. The junior kits were given to local schools, and a demonstration of the game was led by the Lords Taverners which provided great insight and fun for all involved.
Throughout 2005 and 2006, over forty touring teams came to play Estonia in Tallinn. The idea that these teams would come over and beat the “locals” by ten wickets had now long since gone. Estonia were able to compete on a level playing field, and those that know the Hippodrome know that this is not an easy task, and in many cases it was Estonia who were winning by ten wickets. Many touring teams arrived thinking that the Estonian team was made up of ringers and ex pats, but were surprised to see the names Kogerman, Burget, Kämbre andUueni in the starting eleven.
The end of the summer season in 2006 saw the introduction of winter training. By now, the cricket side had grown to some thirty plus members. These players were not happy at not being able to play their beloved sport during Estonia’s winter months. The nights were too dark, the air too cold, and the ice on Harku lake, quite frankly, too icy. Kalev Spoordihall was the perfect venue. An indoor tennis court was booked, and every Wednesday night the players met for training. Having such a small area to practice had its disadvantages, but it had its advantages too. Soft balls were used, which meant that the game was now much more accessible to beginners. Dads started bringing their sons to training, who in turn brought their schoolfriends. Spectators at Kalev sports hall watched in bewilderment as ball hit bat but, more often than not, these spectators brought their kit with them the following week and joined the cricket players in the middle for some catching practice. The importance of this was that not only were the team developing their own skills, but the team was growing with its own as well.
2007 saw the beginning of the domestic league game in Estonia. Such was the number of members, it was now possible to assign each player to one of four teams and play in a round robin league format. Reval C.C, Tallinn Old Boys, Kalev C.C and Tallin C.C, all took part over the season from May until September. Reval C.C captained by Andres Burget won the first ever domestic league, and a proud Burget will go down as the first Estonian to hold the cup aloft.
The domestic league did not stop the touring teams coming to Tallinn, and this meant that the Estonian cricket team was now able to field a first eleven and a development eleven, thus giving the less experienced players in the club a chance to prove themselves against serious touring opposition, and give the first eleven players a well earned break – the season was made up of approximately 60 games taking place every Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
The final match of the 2007 season saw Estonia take two sides to the Helsinki 6’s competition. Both teams did themselves proud by reaching the A and B finals, but they boarded the boat back to Estonia with heavy hearts after finishing runners-up in both their matches. Heavy hearts turned to light heads as talk of winning the competition the following year carried well into the night.
2008 proved to be a momentous year for the Estonian Cricket Association. In January, an ICC inspector responsible for the European division of the Council came over to Estonia to assess the quality of cricket in Estonia. He was pleasantly surprised at what he saw in terms of ability, ground condition, junior development and future ambition. The Estonian Cricket Association was advised that they should apply for ICC affiliate status and, if the outcome was successful, they would enter European division five alongside Sweden, Czech Republic, Greece and other affiliate hopefuls Bulgaria. The application, along with a mission statement and development plans, was submitted and Estonia would find out in August if they were about to be launched onto the international stage.
There is also the issue of the playing ground. Whilst the Tallinn Hippodrome isn’t a purpose built ground, it’s ideal because it is situated in the city centre, has a reasonably level outfield and has a friendly bar which acts as the clubhouse. The Estonian Cricket Association spent considerable sums of money in 2008 to install a new wicket, plus lengthening and widening the covers with the aid of concrete and new turf. Unfortunately, with property and land at a premium in the city centre, the club were saddened to hear that the Hippodrome is to be converted to a new housing site in 2011. The implications of this decision are very grave for Estonian cricket, as without somewhere to play, there can’t be any fixtures, and without fixtures then there will be no team.
Thoughts of becoming an ICC affiliate had to be put to the back of the players’ minds in preparation for a busy 2008 season. As well as the domestic league, thirty six fixtures were due to take place, including a trip to the UK to take part in a Euro 20/20 complete with teams from Russia, Croatia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland and Wales. There was also an international fixture against Latvia to play in Tallinn, twenty fixtures against touring teams from the UK and of course the one fixture that everyone was looking forward to – the Helsinki 6’s tournament. To say that it was a busy schedule was an understatement. However, the teams went into the season with great gusto and quickly chalked up wins against the UK touring teams as perfect preparation for the UK tournament.
Arriving in the UK and playing on a grass wicket was a new experience for many of the Estonian touring members in the side. What better way for the Estonians to announce themselves on the field than to play Russia in the opening game of the group? Estonia won convincingly and soon was top of their group and into the semi finals after great wins against the Czech side and Wales. The semi final saw the Estonians win the game with 5 overs to spare, and in a typical Estonian manner, the team had quietly and confidently reached the final without being asked too many questions. The opposition in the final was the Czech Republic who Estonia had already beaten in the group phases, but it took a last over four for the Estonians to repeat the feat and win the Euro 20/20 competition. It was a huge success for a club that was relatively unknown and unfancied before the start of the series, but for the players it was justification of all the hard work that had gone into developing the national team.
When Estonian cricket was first played on a football field eight years ago, none of those players would ever dream that one day they might be representing Estonia playing in Greece or Bulgaria. Estonian cricket, like its nation, is a true example of what can be achieved if one’s mind is set on something. Just like Estonia making its first steps into Europe in 2004, the Estonian Cricket Association will be looking to do the same on the playing field during the summer of 2009.
Recent Landmark Achievements
Over recent years, there have been many achievements and events that shown just how far Estonian cricket has come, in a relatively short period of time. Take, for example, the Baltic Cup – an annual tournament that features Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In each of the last three years, from 2009 to 2011, the Estonian cricket team has won the tournament, cementing their position as a leading Baltic cricketing nation. Winning the Best Promotion and Marketing Programme award at the ICC Development awards for a cricket documentary that was broadcast nationwide was another huge achievement for the Estonian Cricket Association. Soon after that documentary was broadcast, ECA membership grew significantly, and the number of registered local Estonian players outnumbered ex-pat players for the first time.
Following on from their international debut in 2009, when they took part in a Division 5 Europe tournament in Greece and won just one game, the national team took second place in a Division 3 Europe tournament, held in Slovenia in 2010. Another landmark soon followed, as the Tallin Cricket Club continued the touring with a trip to La Manga, Spain, to take part in Madrid Cricket Club’s T20 International Solidarity Tournament. This was the first time a touring side had an Estonian in a leadership role, with Marko Vaik as Vice Captain. The side included 7 players from the national team and a mixture of ex-pats and young native Estonians. After losing to Madrid in the opening game, the team went on to win the following two games and qualify for a semi-final before losing to Valencia Green.
An important step on the road to getting cricket recognised throughout Estonia was taken in September 2011 when the first ever cricket match in Estonia’s second largest city, Tartu, took place. 2012 has seen progress continue with women’s Estonian team taking place in the first ever FinEst Women’s Indoor Cricket Championships.
There has been further success in increasing the awareness of cricket at school level, with the sport being added to the curriculum at one the most prestigious schools in Estonia – The English College. Estonia was also been chosen to host the Pepsi ICC Europe Division 3 Championship in June, where the national team will be competing against Slovenia and Bulgaria. With Shane Warne expected to be in attendance, Estonian cricket is sure to benefit from this increased exposure.
There is a way to go before cricket can truly be considered a national sport in Estonia, but there are plenty of indications that it will happen. The game has been introduced to Tartu and there are further plans for Parnu and Narva. Estonian TV has picked up on the sport which can only help, and after they aired a feature on the national team during prime time, 40 new Estonian players joined the club, including 12 women.
There have been great strides taken to date, and the Estonian Cricket Association has a clear vision for the further development of cricket, including a specific focus on cricket in schools. The ECA recently submitted their plans to the ICC, successfully gaining a grant to assist with their endeavours. As part of the development plan, the ECA have highlighted some of the difficulties they face, such as the fact that climate in Estonia means outdoor cricket can only be played for four months of the year, and indoor cricket is substantially more expensive to run. There is also a cultural problem where cricket is widely perceived to be an ex-pat game that is played by foreigners – although this is starting to change. There are also language barriers to overcome, and a relatively small number of volunteers involved in the sport.
Nonetheless, the ECA remain fully committed to their aim of making cricket a national sport, and have plans in place to try and overcome the problems faced. There has been a huge amount of effort put in the schools program and it could have a major impact on the sport if, as expected, it proves to work on a large scale – the scheme has already been trialled with great success. Known as the 5 week In-School Program, it targets the 14-17 age group and involves a coaching course designed for continuity. All materials are provided in English, Estonian and Russian and schools also receive a free cricket set. In the final week of the program, the participating schools take part in a competitive round of matches, and Participation Diplomas are awarded to the schools for display purposes.
There can be little doubt that, with the continued work of the Estonian Cricket Association and related initiatives, there are solid foundations on which to build the future of Estonian cricket. When Estonian cricket was first played on a football field over a decade ago, none of those players could possibly have dreamt just how cricket would progress in the country. The fact that players from Estonia have gone on to represent their country playing in international tournaments is testament to just what can be achieved through determination and a desire to succeed. The enthusiasm and passion remain as strong as ever, and further progress is sure to follow.
James Ramsden: November 2008
Tim Heath & Dan Renwick: March 2012