Sreshth Shah,in ESPNcricinfo, December 2019, where the title runs “The day Czech Republic held four world records in cricket” …. https://www.espncricinfo.com/story/_/id/28367290/the-day-czech-republic-held-four-world-records-cricket
The scene was the Continental Cup, in the village of Moara Vlasiei, north-east of the Romanian capital of Bucharest. Batting first on a ground with no more than a dozen spectators, Czech Republic made 278 in 20 overs thanks to their star batsman’s 35-ball hundred and then bowled Turkey out for 21 to win by 257 runs. These achievements were world records.
But the Czech players didn’t know that during the match. They played and celebrated, and their dominance may even have distracted the scorekeepers, because although the official match scorecard had Turkey at 21 all out, the bowlers’ tally showed 23 runs conceded.
Czech Republic had been playing cricket for nearly two decades but this was their most significant achievement.
Dany Hudecek is a 52-year-old Australian with Czech heritage who moved back to the country in 2008. It wasn’t long before he discovered some expats playing cricket on weekends. He went on to become a player in and captain of the developmental team, and he is now the head coach of the Czech national side.
It was by chance that I encountered Hudecek at a bookstore in Prague last July. He said that the team was training for the Continental Cup, having overcome a difficult transitionary period during which they had tried four separate captains in 12 months, finally settling under Ed Knowles.
Hudecek said 2019 felt different because of the ICC’s decision last year to give “international status” to all T20s played between member countries. Associate teams have now begun to view the sport differently and it has motivated more European teams to play each other, fostering rivalry and competition. In fact, over 75% of all T20Is in 2019 have been between teams that don’t have Test status.
Cricket has not had a long history in the Czech Republic. In 2000, three years after the first recorded match in the country – between two six-a-side teams – took place on a rugby pitch, the sport was officially recognised when a group of expats registered the Českomoravský Kriketový Svaz (Czech Cricket Union). That earned the country ICC recognition as an Affiliate.
The team played two ICC events, in Corfu in 2009 and in Slovenia in 2011, but had little success. There were financial troubles, and a lack of matches when the governing body reduced the number of teams participating in the European division. But in 2017 things looked up when the ICC announced more teams would be included from each zone for qualification to the T20 World Cup.
Czech Republic took part in their maiden T20 World Cup regional qualifiers in 2018. They won one game out of five, but the experience of an ICC event helped the team get enough attention within the country and earn a substantial grant from the Czech government. Players didn’t need to fund their own travel anymore, and they enjoyed the benefits when the team flew to Romania for the Continental Cup.
With internationals between these teams so rare, the Continental Cup, organised by Cricket Romania, is an event every central European team looks forward to. This year’s tournament was hectic, with three games scheduled per day. The Czech players lost their opening game, against Austria, by eight wickets. Before their second game of the day, Czech Republic knew they had to boost their net run rate because Romania had already beaten Austria (by 31 runs), Turkey (by 173 runs – briefly the world record) and Luxembourg (by seven wickets). And the best way to improve their net run rate was to bat first, score big and bundle Turkey out cheaply.
And so the Czech openers, Honey Gori and Sumit Pokhriyal, walked out with a mission after winning the toss. Gori smashed 32 in 21 balls in the opening stand of 70, but the dismissal of Shaun Dalton, regarded by many as the team’s most technically correct batsman, for a duck soon after Gori’s fall rattled their progress.
When Sudesh Wickramasekara walked in at No. 5, the score was 107 for 3. For long, the 37-year-old, named Batsman of the Year in the domestic 40-over league three times, has been considered the Czech team’s most destructive batsman. Hopes of a high total rested on him and he didn’t disappoint. Against a young Turkey attack, Wickramasekara struck ten sixes and eight fours in the final nine overs of the innings to make 106 in 36 balls. He equalled the T20I record for the fastest hundred and helped Czech Republic make the joint-highest T20I total.
The first time the Czech team had any idea that they were close to setting international records was from discussion among fans watching the match on Facebook Live.
Czech Republic’s former captain and current manager, Vojta Hasa, was on commentary for the game. “We knew Turkey were affected by visa issues, so their best players weren’t around,” he recalled later. “And since Romania had beaten Turkey by a record margin, we knew we could emulate something similar.
“Wickramasekara has been our star for the last three or four years in the international stage. If we had to turn to anyone to do something like this, it was him. We played a tri-nation tournament last year, and even though we came last, he was adjudged the best batsman. He hits a very long ball. He’s very powerful, but he can wait for the bad ball.
“When the second innings started, we first learnt about the T20I total record. Everyone was a bit giddy entering the chase because Wickramasekara had also got the country’s first T20I hundred, but we didn’t know about his individual record yet.”
In the second innings, the ball began to snake around as the sun came down, and Czech Republic’s fast bowlers reduced Turkey to 7 for 5 inside three overs. Gori and Sameera Waththage got the ball to swing, and if it wasn’t for the No. 7, Mehmat Sert, who scored 12, Turkey could have been bowled out for a single-digit score. In all, eight Turkish batsmen recorded ducks and they were all out for 21 – the lowest T20I total.
“After the game, we shook hands with the Turkey players,” Hasa said. “When an official scorer told us about these records, only then did it dawn upon us that this actually counted towards the statistics. We went, ‘Holy moly, this is pretty crazy.’ The realisation that we were in the record books was quite surreal.
“We drove back to the hotel and grabbed dinner and drinks. The boys were on their phones as we learnt more about it. A bunch of us hit the swimming pool to celebrate. It was just a great atmosphere. The whole team was buzzing.”
For Wickramasekara it was a culmination of a dream fulfilled. A decade ago, the allrounder used to play tennis-ball cricket in the coastal town of Galle in Sri Lanka. Such was his success that he went on to briefly spend time alongside current stars Nuwan Pradeep, Suranga Lakmal and Lasith Malinga in the country’s fast-bowling academy.
But in 2012 when there came a chance to move westward for work, he took it. After the South Asian community in Prague directed him to the local cricket club, Prague CC, Wickramasekara’s rise up to the national team was rapid.
“I am a hitter, you know, so how I played against Turkey is how I always play. Even in club cricket,” says Wickramasekara, nicknamed the “Beast” by his team-mates. “My family in Sri Lanka and my wife, who I married here, were very happy after hearing about the achievement, but I feel I have more to show to the world.
“Although the level of cricket in Czech Republic is getting better, it’s still not so good. How great would it be to earn from cricket full time? That won’t happen here.
“If the opportunity comes, I want to leave my job and play in the T20 leagues or maybe T10. I am well suited for that. I hope that day comes soon.”
Most European cricket teams are made up of Australian, English and South Asian immigrants. To truly take the game into the heart of their countries, local participation is paramount.
Czech Cricket recognised that early and five years ago, Chris Pearce, a cricket coach, opened a non-profit organisation called KACR (Cricket Academy of Czech Republic), which introduced cricket classes in primary schools, developed clubs for after-school programmes, prepared learning materials for kids, and most importantly, developed a course for coaches. Since then, the academy has organised matches against neighbouring countries at levels as low as U-10s.
“Pearce’s work with his cricket academy project has helped the national team players see a bigger picture of cricket in this country,” Hudecek said. “It has become a huge sense of pride for the cricketers. His work has made players look at their actions on the field and develop their overall game plan in a different way. This has been brought into league games, improving the standard of the entire game in the country.
“When we won the Malta Cup this year, we took the trophy to the academy one day. You could just see the pride among the children there. Most of them were native Czech kids and they couldn’t stop posing with the trophy for a photo! That’s the future in 15-20 years.”
Despite their record-breaking win over Turkey, Czech Republic didn’t actually win the Continental Cup. They reached the final but lost it to Austria by 30 runs.
I asked Hasa a final question: “Would your team give up all those world records in exchange for a win in the final?”
“In a heartbeat,” he said.
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