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Cricket gains some ground(s) in Hungary

The development of cricket in Hungary got a kick-start four years ago when the Hungarian Cricket Association was formed. Now it is about to go to another level: the HCA wants to gain admission to the international cricket governing association. Membership will provide fresh sources as well as the opportunity to introduce an increasing number of Hungarians to the sport.

"People who know that I play some sort of field game often come up to me asking ’so you’re playing that thing with mallets and balls that you push through hoops on the grass, it's croquet, right?’ and I have to correct them, 'No, it is called cricket',” says an Englishman who has lived in Hungary for 20 years and has been involved in the sport since his childhood.

Such misconceptions are fairly common among Hungarians about cricket, a game with more than 150 years of tradition and which is, perhaps surprisingly, said to be the second most popular sport in global terms. But things are about to change. The Hungarian Cricket Association (HCA) is determined to promote the sport among Hungarians as well, and recent events might give the necessary push to achieve this.

The Hungarian cricket league aspires to become affiliate member of the International Cricket Council, the sport's world governing body. At the beginning of August, representatives of the ICC arrived in Hungary to conduct the necessary audit and the visit had a positive echo.

“The ICC has 105 members. With the encouraging enthusiasm we see here, Hungary could be the 106th,” the Emerging Europe blog of the Wall Street Journal cited ICC regional development manager Richard Holdsworth as saying after the visit.

Joining the ICC will bring numerous advantages for the Hungarian association, and is also seen as a token for the sport’s further development in Hungary. Documentation for accession needs to be submitted to the international body by the end of the year, and decision will be made at its HQ in Dubai next June.

Gaining admission to the international association requires meeting certain criteria, most of which have already been fulfilled, says HCA president Gábor Török.

Aspiring members need to sport two dedicated grounds, as well an adequate number of teams, and the process also involves some budgetary issues.

On dedicated grounds

Hungary's first dedicated cricket ground is already in use. Located only a 20-minute drive from Budapest, the Sződliget Oval was set up by two businessmen who dug deep into their own pockets for the more than €200,000 development.

Mike Glover, head of the tax department at KPMG in Hungary, and treasurer at HCA, who serves as the ICC affiliation director when not in his day job, and KPMG partner Mark Bownas are both enthusiastic cricket players.

The ground, covering 2.5 hectares of land, was developed from a site comprised of two football fields that were merged into one full-size grassed cricket surface, and is Central and Eastern Europe’s biggest cricket ground, the developers say.

And it has already been inaugurated: the 2011 Euro Twenty20 cup was held there on August 20-27. The tournament saw teams from seven countries in the region, five of which are not ICC members yet. Tournament host Hungary, fielding two teams, retained the title it won last year in Macedonia.

If everything falls into place, the ground could host ICC tournaments as soon as next season, HCA board members say.

Built on passion

Hungary is actually far ahead of many, already affiliated countries, Török says. In neighboring countries the sport become popular more than a decade ago and some of these became ICC members only recently.

"Of course, there were cricket enthusiasts before that as well, mostly members of the expat community, but games weren’t played in an organized way,” Török recalls. “In 2006, the groundwork for cooperation at a national level was laid down, and a year later, we founded the association.”

As a result, six teams with a pool of about 100 active players were created in the spring of 2007. Currently, there are two cricket leagues with 11 teams and about 200 club members.

In spite of the rapid development of the sport in Hungary, getting sponsorship remains a tough task. While large international companies already invest great amounts of money into the sport at a global level, companies in Hungary have so far been a bit tight-fisted.

But another advantage of ICC membership, once the Hungarian association is accepted, is that the flow of sponsors' money will hopefully be smoother.

“If we go to a company now in the hope of getting sponsorship money from them, we often find ourselves not being taken seriously,” Török says. “But if our proposal is backed by the ICC, we will have a much greater chance of fruitful cooperation.”

Once an ICC member, the international organization will provide sources to employ a part-time administrator (and later a full-time one) and set up a proper office, so that HCA can operate in a professional way. 

“We already have sponsors, but our budget is rather limited at the moment,” Glover says. “Although we have doubled it over the last two years and have some HUF 4.5 million in 2011, with the new cricket ground and ICC membership in the pipeline, we expect sponsors to be more interested in the sport,” Glover noted. Among companies already approached are Pepsi and LG (global sponsors of the sport), Invitel, Vodafone and KPMG (the latter was the main sponsor of the international tournament held at the Sződliget Oval at the end of August).

ICC’s goal is to promote and develop the sport in countries where it does not have great traditions, therefore the more success the HCA can achieve, the more funding it can count on from the international association.

A sport of diversity

Cricket is an integrating sport. Playing the game can be started as early as five or six, and one of the eldest players in Hungary is 72.

And it is not only a game for men. The Hungarian squad has two woman players, and – in line with the aims of ICC – board members at the Hungarian association hope that more women and young people will join the teams. HCA also aims to train coaches.

“Training has been on our agenda for years, and with support from ICC, we will be able to develop it,” Török says. The HCA has already introduced cricket in several schools, and it is dedicated to spreading it further.

Among its goals, the association wants to involve Hungary’s Roma youth in the sport. “We have experienced a very positive attitude in areas where Roma population is significant,” Török says.

Cricket indeed is a sport of diversity: in Hungary, only about 25-30% of the players are Hungarian. The rest are expats who have lived here for years and come from countries such as Australia, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan and the UK. There is even a team of Afghan refugees in Debrecen.

While cricket cannot – and does not want to – compete with football, the favorite sport of many Hungarians, it can become an acknowledged minority sport, Glover says. Besides being fun to play and the fact that, once tried, it can become addictive, its spirit is a very positive one.

“Cricket is not about winning. It is about winning in the right way,” Glover notes.