Storytelling is integral to the Icelandic tradition. Peculiar accounts of the human experience are described as key to Iceland’s oral history, serving “as tools that taught its children how to live in an unforgiving wilderness.”
It might therefore be considered strange that cricket is not a mainstream sport, for the story goes that the Vikings enjoyed a form of cricket pronounced locally as ‘knattleikr’ as far back as 910 AD, long before the English claimed it in the 18th century.
Five detailed descriptions of knattleikr feature in the sagas, and it’s tough to argue against those who claim the game originated here. The sagas depict paired batting, a ball and a boundary. They portray tales of sledging and intimidation, violence and humiliation (think less Bodyline and Blackwash, more Game of Thrones). Those wishing to freshen up cricket’s laws could take inspiration from batsmen being legitimately tackled as they attempted to run.
For better or worse, Icelandic cricket is not filled with blood and violence, but its efforts to keep playing cricket and sustain despite a paucity of facilities, players and funding are surely in the tradition of the sagas that came before.
Throughout history the summer solstice has been a pagan event in honour of the strength of the sun and the powers that create life. It’s also a phenomenon that has inspired the Summer Solstice Sixes, played between four teams of six for the third consecutive year in June.
The festival is played at Víðistaðatún (‘The Meadow of the Willow’) in Hafnarfjörður long into the midnight sun on Iceland’s first and only purpose-built cricket ground. Adding to the mystique, this facility became the northernmost turf cricket field in the world after being inaugurated by Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir in May 2019.
This event is one of four marquee events in the Iceland domestic cricket calendar, alongside the new Íslensk Premier League (IPL) summer T20 competition, the ‘Sixty Ball Shootout’ and the indoor winter league which runs as the Volcanic Ashes.
This weekend saw a close to the outdoor season as the Puffins prevailed in the ‘Sixty Ball Shootout’ following their Sixes and IPL wins earlier in the summer. This event ran as a dummy run for 2021 when they hope this event will be played as part of the European Cricket Series. The ECN team had to postpone their visit this year owing to coronavirus.
Cricket is largely played through its three established clubs – the Reykjavík ‘Vikings,’ Kópavogur ‘Puffins’ and the Hafnarfjörður ‘Hammers’ – all based in and around the capital.
In truth, cricket participation remains modest in a country of 364,000 spread across a landmass roughly three quarters the size of England. Here football and handball dominate the sports pages.
The Krikketsamband Íslands (the Icelandic Cricket Association) report 36 regular male cricketers, and a further 15 ‘occasionals’. About 60% are expats, the rest locals. Most are under 30. While there is no formal female cricket, women and girls are welcome to participate with and against the current active playing group. Modest it may seem, but they’re happy to be where they are today.
If not quite exiled, Iceland felt cast adrift when changes to the ICC’s funding in the early 2010s meant boards were allocated support based on specific criterion, including total number of grounds, participation figures, performances at ICC tournaments, hired employees and trained umpires.
Critics of the changes at the time suggested that funding allocated based on raw numbers unfairly penalised smaller developing countries, like Iceland. At the time they had no established cricket grounds and failed to meet the threshold for to gain any ICC funding.
In the following years cricket here ticked along – confined mainly to indoor games or on AstroTurf intended for football – but barely grew.
It enjoyed a reboot in 2018 after the Krikketsamband Íslands – resolving to generate funds to cover a UK cricket tour – launched a crowdfunding campaign led by its secretary and BBC commentator, Kit Harris.
The campaign caught fire amongst the Reddit r/Cricket community who pulled together to raise over £2,500, and so the tour went ahead. Buoyed by the response, Iceland announced r/Cricket as shirt and domestic competition rights sponsor for the next two years.
After a range of suggestions were made between the r/Cricket community on what the shirt logo should be – including ‘ ‘ice Gary’ – ‘Grow The Game’ was agreed as an apt reflection of both Iceland and r/Cricket’s desire to grow the game outside of the established full member nations.
It was on the tour that they played their first international match against Switzerland, in Weybridge, where Dushan Bandara’s 105 ball 135 in a stomping 215-run victory wrote his name into Icelandic cricket folklore.
In 2019 Iceland played in the Valletta Cup against Czech Republic, Malta and a Hungary XI. Although they went winless, were by no means pushovers.
Challenges will naturally remain, but Iceland have a small community of cricket lovers who are determined to grow the game in a country where it’s not possible to play outdoors for nine months of the year.
In February, before cricket and the world went into lockdown, they held an indoor coaching festival in the town of Hveragerði, where 80 children aged 10-12 got their first opportunity to learn the game alongside trained coaches.
While the extent to which coronavirus will impact their growth plans is not clear, you can expect this hardly and humorous base of cricket lovers to take cricket to the length and breadth of the country to inspire others to play the game.
They will continue to look beyond formal funding frameworks to exist and with one of the most engaged online communities among less established nations, plenty of onlookers be eagerly following Iceland’s next cricketing sagas.
Feature Image: David Powell
Want extra Emerging Cricket content? Contribute to the Emerging Cricket Patreon cause from as little as $2 a month. Sign up here!