Estonia favorites in cricket’s Baltic Cup

  • 2011-06-08
  • By Jared Grellet

TUKUMS - Of late the Latvian town of Tukums has been enjoying more than its fair share of media attention thanks to the plans of Irish budget airline Ryanair to begin flying out of the township. But this weekend, international guests to Latvia will be embarking on Tukums for an entirely different reason.
That is because Tukums, located 45 minutes west of Riga with a population of just under 20,000, is also the home of Latvian cricket – a fact lost on the majority of the residents – and will this weekend host Lithuania and Estonia for the annual Baltic Cup.

To say that cricket is something of a minority sport in the Baltics is a major understatement, but as anybody with a remote knowledge of cricket knows, where there are Indians, there is cricket and these sentiments also ring true for here.
Cricket, particularly in Lithuania and Latvia, has failed to take off with the locals and remains dominated by ex-patriots – particularly from the sub-continent – and medical students from India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan who are studying in Kaunas and Riga. Last year when Lithuania and Latvia met in Tukums for a friendly match Lithuania laid claim to being closer to a national team in the true sense of the word, by boasting one born and bred Lithuanian.

The main struggle for attracting locals to the sport is giving them exposure to the game, with only a handful of matches shown each year on pay-television channel Eurosport 2 and no games appearing on local free-to-air channels. Earlier this year the Cricket World Cup took place in India, but the ICC (International Cricket Council) – the sport’s governing body – failed to cash in on the opportunity to spread the sport to a wider audience, instead only selling the television rights to traditional markets.
Without having seen the game, would-be participants are only going on stereotypes of the game as being time consuming and boring. Instead, they are far more attracted to baseball, which has enjoyed rapid growth in the Baltics thanks to the daily games shown on ESPN America throughout the summer.

It is, however, promising to see Estonia bucking the trend by placing a big emphasis on actively involving locals. As Mart Tammoja of the Estonian Cricket Association told TBT, “ex-pats do make up a good proportion of cricket players in Estonia, but it would be very shortsighted to expect the game to develop only from the traffic of working expats. Estonians must be exposed to cricket, given the opportunity and actively encouraged to try the game out and get involved.”

A successful program has been implemented, which sees players going into schools to teach the game to the next generation. A summer camp last year saw 260 children learn the art of cricket and approximately 100 of these children are now playing the sport, alongside 60 adults – 75 percent of which are local. A scholarship program has also been introduced in which young players are given the opportunity to work, live and play in either England or Australia for up to six months.
Estonia officially became an ICC member in 2007 – a feat yet to be achieved by its southern Baltic neighbors – and in the same year won the ICC award for best development program in Europe. Since then they have also competed in the ICC Division 3 championships, proudly noting that in the most recent tournament in Slovenia, five of the 13 players were Estonian. These figures may seem paltry, but Tammoja is remaining realistic in his approach at expanding the game. “We can only start with small steps and see what happens, but if all the previous steps are successful, then hopefully we will see a full team of Estonian-born nationals representing Estonia at an ICC tournament in the not too distant future.”

Given this development and the fact that their players are playing weekly in domestic action, Estonia heads into this weekend’s action as clear favorites, but the latest intake of students at the Kaunas and Riga medical schools may provide a hidden talent to give the Lithuanians and Latvians the competitive edge they are looking for.

Latvia and Estonia will begin the action on Saturday with play starting at 10 a.m. The Estonians then take the afternoon off, with Latvia taking on Lithuania at 2 p.m. On Sunday, Estonia and Lithuania play at 10 a.m. in the final pool match before the two top teams wrap up the weekend’s action, with the final beginning at 2 p.m.