MEZICA, Slovenia, summer 2013—The distinctive thwack of leather on willow is not the first thing you might expect to hear in a remote alpine valley in the former-Yugoslav republic of Slovenia. But it is almost 40 years since cricket was first played in Mezica, in the far north of the country, making it the cradle of a growing regional cricket scene and enthusiastic host of international touring sides.
Visitors to the Mezica ground talk of it—only half joking—as the “Balkan Lord’s”, a spiritual centre for the region’s cricketers mirroring Lord’s in Marylebone, London, known as the home of cricket. Its core is the pavilion, a spacious shed with terrace, from which a local supporter in a Sri Lankan cricket shirt serves goulash and Slovenia’s Lasko beer. The conversation flows in Slovenian, Serbian, English, Hindi and Urdu.
This is all a long way from 1974. “I was 13-years-old and taking an English course in Birchington-on-Sea,” says Borut Cegovnik. On top of his improved English he returned home with a bat, a ball, set of stumps, and the evangelistic zeal of a convert. “I gathered my friends and we started to play,” Cegovnik says, pointing to what was a meadow now occupied by a supermarket, the 2,000m Peca mountain on Mezica’s club badge soaring above.
The man responsible for inspiring the young Cegovnik and his band of cricketing pioneers was coal salesman Charles Nest, his host in England and the reigning single-wicket champion of Birchington-on-Sea, a club now, ironically, defunct. Mezica’s greenhorn players had grand ideas from the beginning. “We knew we were the only cricketers in the whole of Yugoslavia, so we said we are playing the National Championships of Yugoslavia. We even presented ourselves a cup,” says Cegovnik.
“Whenever somebody had won the single wicket tournament, I told him that he was a Yugoslav champion and that our story would be one day be written in books. They would laugh and told me I was exaggerating.” Appropriately, given its importance and Cegovnik’s aptitude for maths, scoring was taken seriously. “I wanted every ball recorded.” As testament to this exemplary record-keeping Cegovnik recalls, “We played 17 single wicket tournaments and one team event.”
“When we didn’t know what to do in a certain situation, we sat down on the meadow and looked it up in an MCC [Marylebone Cricket Club] booklet of the Laws of Cricket.” These laws being confusing even for native English-speakers, “Some friends accused me of making them up.” The salad days of Balkan cricket lasted nine seasons, at which point the friends went their separate ways, many leaving what was still a working mining town.
“From 1982 to 2004 we didn’t play,” says Cegovnik, who moved to Ljubljana to become a doctor. But in 2004 the old Mezica team was goaded back into action after reading reports about some Slovenians showing promise at what is to most Slovenians a strange and exotic game. In the intervening years teams had formed in Skofja Loka and Ljubljana, mainly to serve the needs of expats from established cricketing nations, particularly India and Pakistan. “This somehow this stimulated us to meet and form a club again,” Cegovnik says.
The reunion of the pioneers was also enough to allow Slovenian cricket to take an important step forward. Slovenia reached a tally of three clubs, enough to qualify it for entry to the European Cricket Council, the sport’ s governing body in Europe. Since then Mezica’s magnetism and hospitality has attracted from across the region, as well as visiting sides from the England.
A team from Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, a seven-hour drive away, weathered a cold, rainy night in their cars to compete in this year’s 7th yearly International Cricket Tournament (ICT). The team is a “coalition of the willing”, explains 31-year-old Vladimir Ninkovic who started to get Serbian cricket off the ground in 2007.
Most Serbian cricketers are in their 20s and nearly all Serbian, as are those Slovakia’s nascent cricket scene. Elsewhere in central and eastern Europe it is dominated by expats from established cricketing nations. “ We have a cap on expats: five per team in 40-over games and four per team in Twenty20,” explains Ninkovic, who previously helped establish rugby league in Serbia, before hankering after a new sporting challenge. Enforcing a cap on expats is a simple job in Serbia because there are still very few. “I didn’t have the idea of starting cricket in Serbia,” Ninkovic says.
“I had the idea of playing cricket. I just found it on the internet.” A bit of coaching from the Indian boyfriend of a Serbian friend and some donations from the British Embassy helped make his web aspiration a reality. “Cricket is a very difficult sport to develop, it’s not like zumba. You need a big field. You need expensive equipment and the game itself is not very appealing at first glance.” Bexley Cricket Club, again in Kent, England has provided regular support to Ninkovic’ s effort. There is a dilemma at the heart of establishing the game somewhere from scratch.
New players, Ninkovic says, are turned off by the length of the 40-over game, but also do not have the skills to be competitive in Twenty20. “ Our bowling and fielding is decent, but batting is a skill that take a long time to learn with proper coaches and proper infrastructure.” But Ninkovic will stick with the International Cricket Council’ s policy of promoting the shorter format.
“We’ll just have to learn to whack the ball.” And how have 40 years of play improved Cegovnik’ s skillset? “I can survive,” he says of his batting, adding that he toppled a Belgrade wicket. “Since we had the first international in 2007 the level has gone up and up. But still we are quite a few centuries behind the Test nations.” But he notes that Slovenia was not always the force it is in ski jumping. “Our aim is that we will at least host the best teams here in Mezica.” And, in this, there is good reason for hope, with recent enquiries from Afghanistan about a Twenty20 series against Zimbabwe.
If that does not come off Mezica still has a busy schedule ahead. Alongside its regular fixtures it is planning to host a new “Slavic” club tournament. With every passing year the idea of Mezica being a “Balkan Lord’s” becomes less laughable. “You can imagine,” says Cegovnik, “what the little boys of 1974 now think, seeing their dreams coming true.” ■