How an Indian guy sparked fire for the gentleman’s game in Serbia

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Belgrade:  If you ever come across Serbia in sports, you would probably think of a country having an excellent football team with the likes of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Aleksander Kolarov being the household names. And to some extent, tennis with a certain Novak Djokovic lighting up the Grand Slams.

However, cricket a relatively new sport to a football and basketball-crazy nation, which is making its waves throughout the last decade. Cricket didn’t start in Serbia until 2007 when a few enthusiasts took it as a thing for fun during weekends.

Vladimir Ninković, Serbia’s current captain as well as one of the founding members of the sport, along with Haris Dajč, Darko Ivić and Nenad Dugić started organising cricket training with help from others in October 2007.

With new members and enthusiasts adding to the cause, their ambitions began to grow after setting up a couple of cricket clubs Stari Grad and Mirijevo before another named Kablarski Soko was founded in order to develop the popularity of the sport.

”Cricket in Serbia is picking up ever since September 2007. However, it would be unfair to say that we were the first ones who played cricket in our country. There were several efforts before us, but due to various reasons, they did not manage to make it sustainable,”  Ninkovic, who also happens to be the General Secretary of the Serbian Cricket Federation told Caught on Point.  

”We started by pure chance. Three of us had been involved with Rugby League in Serbia and through rugby, we also learned about cricket but we never played it. Then in summer 2007, we met with an Indian guy (who was a boyfriend, and now the husband of a good friend of mine from the University) who wished to play cricket.

“We tried to find a club for him, but as there were none we suggested that he teaches us the basics so that we can have fun over weekends. We invited some of our friends were surprised that many of them wanted to give it a try. We did not even have a cricket bat or ball, but we used a baseball bat and tennis balls.”

Ninkovic further explained how they used to train in the initial phase of their journey. “During the winter we ordered some basic equipment from eBay and in spring 2008 we continued with our informal cricket gatherings at the ground near the Belgrade Fortress – Kalemegdan. The notice about a group of people playing cricket reached the British and the Indian embassy, who then informed a group of Indian and South African IT guys and Pakistani students,” he continued.

“Suddenly we had over 30-40 people coming to play even during workdays. Only then we got the idea of making it more formal, registering clubs, become a part of the Serbian sports community, etc. At the end of 2008, Stari Grad CC and Mirijevo CC were founded, and a few months afterward Kablarski Soko CC was established by university students from the town of Čačak.”

In 2009, Belgrade Cricket Association played the first match against Welsh side Carmel and District CC. A few months later, the first T20 and 40-over league was organised and played in a public park in Belgrade.

Having accepted as the 58th Affiliate Member of the International Cricket Council back in 2015, Serbia have managed to go through a lot of difficulties to make their presence felt. They currently have 150 active playing members and only played two T20I matches losing both of them.

Despite results, their head coach Richard Black is quite optimistic about his side’s chances in the upcoming 2023 T20 World Cup qualifier. “If we won a game this summer I’d be absolutely delighted. I think the main aim for us is to try and compete. The biggest hurdle for us at the moment is that there’s only one level two coach in Serbia, it can be tough running sessions,” Black told Sports Gazette.

Black is also concerned about the training schedule hampered by the COVID-19 situation. “The plan would have been for me to travel over to Serbia for various camps, but clearly the pandemic has prevented that. Currently, I and six level-three consultants based in the UK, Australia and South Africa are in contact with the level two coach every week and we help plan the sessions for the rest of the week,” he said.

Whatever the situation may be, Black believes in improvising things to maximize with whatever they have in their ranks. He is currently running his coaching sessions online for making things happen.

“With some of the players when I got sent over the videos in week one, from a coaching perspective, I was having a bit of a heart attack. But now with a couple of adjustments over the past five weeks, they’ve already become a hundred times better,” he added.

The lack of financial support is evident in their process with most of the time the team is having a hard time collecting adequate training gear. “The biggest hurdle for us at the moment is that there’s only one level-two coach in Serbia, it can be tough running sessions.

“The plan would have been for me to travel over to Serbia for various camps, but clearly the pandemic has prevented that. Currently, I and six level-three consultants based in the UK, Australia and South Africa are in contact with the level-two coach every week and we help plan the sessions for the rest of the week,” he said.

Black also rued on the problem of seeking good coaching staff for preparing themselves for the upcoming tournaments before also mentioning the differences in fundings affect their journey compared to other international sides.

“From the ICC we get US $18,000 per year, while some of the teams we’ll be playing this summer receive at least US $150,000. As you can imagine the money we get from the ICC goes absolutely nowhere when you factor in coaching fees, kit, equipment etc. Then in terms of the funding we get from the government, we get so little that I wouldn’t even call cricket a minority sport in Serbia. Lawn bowls, darts and luge all get more funding than we do,” he said.

“But we’ve been really lucky running into this tournament as we’ve got guys buying all our kit, trainers, baggy hats etc. for us. Ludimous [the online coaching platform] has decided to sponsor us and people have been really generous. I think they almost see us as the Cool Runnings of cricket.”

On the other hand, skipper Ninkovic mentioned how a well-organized structure and facilities are giving the opportunity to the younger enthusiasts. There is one fully operational cricket ground in Belgrade that has been completely renovated for this season. It has an artificial concrete wicket, as maintaining a turf wicket would be too expensive and too difficult for them at this moment. They also use two football grounds in the region of Vojvodina with plastic flicx pitches.

“Since 2017 we have permanent outdoor nets (two lanes) at the Ada Ciganlija river island in Belgrade, one of the city’s touristic hot-spots. I must mention that the funds for the construction of the nets were donated to us by the Australian Embassy in Serbia. Also, there is a portable net at our cricket ground, and there are plans to make a permanent net in the village of Bački Monoštor, where Bodrog Deers CC come from,” the skipper said.

Ninković, who has faith in his sides’ potential feels despite the nation’s craze towards other sports, the constant increase in the number of people involving around the sport will surely help in the longer run.

Cricket is not so popular in Eastern Europe and the fact that they don’t have cricketing neighbours, the challenge is enormous for Ninković and his colleagues. Yet they are determined to put Serbia Cricket on the map of the world. Their enthusiasm clearly denotes Serbia might be scripting a tale of its own in cricket in years ahead.

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