Cricket in France: that boring English game!

Courtesy of The Economist

STROLL through St Pons de Mauchiens, a medieval village set among the vineyards of the Hérault region in the south of France, and among the everyday sounds of locals going about their business, your ear will catch something incongruous: a thwack of leather on willow, an approving shout of “well bowled!”, and the odd cry of “‘owzat?”

Pic by Lyndsey Ridgers

The village is home to the Midi Cricket Club (ambitiously known as MCC), which plays in the Midi-Pyrénées Division of France’s national cricket league. The setting couldn’t be more picturesque, or more French. Behind the bowler’s arm, an ancient church looks down from atop the circulade. At the other end the vines stretch into the distance until the Montagnes Noires turn greyscale.

St Pons de Mauchiens is so named, legend has it, after an early lord of the village who was eaten by his own mad dogs. His rather understated dying words were “mauvais chiens”. Nowadays there are fewer mad dogs and it is mostly Englishmen who venture into the midday sun. The Midi side is made up, to a large extent, of the many English expatriates who have moved to the area. Six years ago, they persuaded St Pons’s mayor to lay a permanent wicket in the middle of the municipal football pitch. It was a bold step, but the truth was that, as the local youngsters abandoned the countryside for bigger towns, the pitch had laid unused and overgrown.

Some youngsters are returning. Wealthy French families are buying homes around the village, raising families and commuting to their jobs in nearby cities such as Montpellier. There is even a smattering of French players on MCC’s roster. One of the club’s senior players, Marc Dalling, has been trying to ignite interest, running coaching sessions for the local youth. Some have broken into the team. Yet cricket is a game that can be unintuitive for anyone not brought up playing it, and even coaching some of the basics—holding the bat in an upright position rather than á la baseball, bowling with a straight arm rather than throwing, and maintaining concentration during the long hours in the field—has proved a challenge. Another aspect that often surprises first-time players is the hardness of the ball (during the game witnessed by your correspondent, one player was rushed to hospital to have stitches put into his chin). Yet for all their technical shortcomings, courage has not been an issue, says Colin Tricket, the club president: “They are all prepared to get forward to the quicks.”

Indeed, France does have a cricketing history. Some cricket historians even claim that the game was invented in the country, and that French soldiers played before going into battle against the English at Agincourt. This is probably fantasy. Still, a French team did play against England in the 1900 Paris Olympics (although, truth be told, the English team was a touring county side and the French were predominantly English expats).

The sport now falls under the auspices of the Fédération Française de Baseball et de Softball (FFBS). There are 40 league clubs throughout the country and 1,300 registered cricketers, although the actual number of people playing regularly might be as high as 50,000, says Vincent Buisson, treasurer of FFBS. The most competitive clubs are in Paris, and are often made up of second-generation Pakistanis and Sri Lankans. The biggest problem the sport has, says Mr Buisson, is a lack of facilities; there are only three wickets in Paris—none of them grass—and most games are ad hoc tape-ball affairs in local parks.

But there are reasons to be hopeful. The French national team, which recently missed out on qualification for the World Cricket League (the second-tier of international competition), is hoping to establish a partnership with Kent, a professional team just across the channel, which plays in the second division of England’s County Championship. This would allow the French team access to winter training facilities and perhaps also give the best players a stint in the Kent League. Indeed, one promising leg-spinner was recently given the chance to train with the county and would have probably played for the second XI, had the British weather not intervened. They have also taken the first steps to introducing the game to the country’s primary schools.

And that’s déjeuner: Regardless of its history or future, what is certain is that today’s locals are often bemused by the spectacle. Although most games now use the fast-paced Twenty20 format, Mr Buisson says that he is constantly fighting the attitude that it is “this boring English game played over five days”. And there are more sinister problems. There has been some isolated resentment towards the Midi team, resulting in low-level sabotage. The wires on the team’s petrol mower were cut, for example, and the dressing room tampered with. The culprit is probably someone who resents the creeping Anglicisation of this part of France.

Midi’s opponents on the day are Toulouse. Its players are younger; many hail from India, South Africa and Australia, attracted to Europe’s aeronautical centre to work or study as engineers. Others are Bangladeshis working in the catering industry. The difference in both age and technique between the two sides becomes apparent as Toulouse rack up a daunting 312 runs in their 35 overs; many balls disappear, never to be recovered, into the surrounding vines. After lunch—an Anglo-French fusion of cheese and pickle sandwiches and rosé, tarte aux pommes and tea—their bowlers make short work of the Midi batsmen, and they win by 182 runs. Next for MCC are two away fixtures played over the course of a weekend. First up is Catus CC, a team formed by Australian expatriates in 2005, followed by an overnight stay and a long trip to play Armagnac. After their drubbing against Toulouse they will leave more in hope than expectation. But then if they need to drown their sorrows, Armagnac is a pretty good place to do it.

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