After losing last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Carthage Cricket Club – Tunisia’s only side – is preparing to get back into action.
General Montgomery’s Desert Rats during World War Two, the Pakistan Embassy in the 1960s and the Monty Python team while filming Life of Brian in the 1970s all tried to get cricket going but only Carthage CC has lasted.
‘We will start playing as soon as the local Covid count goes down after Ramadan,’ says organiser Sunil Nair, who has assembled a group of 20 players from places as diverse as the India Rocks restaurant and the Sadhguru travel agency.
Carthage CC was formed in 2012, when Briton Mark Oppe moved to Tunis with his wife Sue Wardell, who had a job at the African Development Bank.
Oppe had retired early and was at a loose end. His wife encouraged him to start a cricket club and he found a kindred soul in the AfDB’s head of communications John Phillips, and Carthage CC was born.
‘I wrote to all the nationalities that might play cricket, the main ones and others that might like Uganda and Kenya,’ says Phillips, who rounded up a dozen or so would-be players and a first net session was convened on July 2, 2013 at the British School courtesy of headteacher, David Wilson.
After scouring Tunis for a wicket, the club settled for an AstroTurf football pitch at La Marsa and a 12-over game was staged on July 13. The North African sun and school holidays intervened before games and nets resumed in September.
‘We were a mixed crowd of expats from almost all cricket playing nations and on occasion a few from the rest of the world,’ recalls James Waters, then working at the German embassy.
Football is Tunisia’s main sport and amateur players including immigrants from other parts of Africa would sometimes interrupt sessions in La Marsa. ‘The Tunisians would come and look at us in amazement,’ recalls Mark Oppe.
The cricketers persevered and a fillip arrived after Indian engineering company Joyti Structures opened an office in Tunis. Head of business AP Padmakumar was a keen cricketer and brought more players from Joyti’s ranks.
‘They had a lot of guys who were mustard keen and after that it became easier to get 22 people up,’ says Oppe.
As numbers swelled, in 2014 an overseas tour to Malta was proposed but visas proved a stumbling block as the Maltese considered the Asian players a flight risk. John Phillips adds: ‘The Indian guys were all respectable middle-class guys but we were refused visas twice – the second time just 24 hours before departure.’
The British embassy in Tunis provided reassurance and Carthage CC flew to Valletta, where in their first match at Marsa CC the hosts were restricted to 114/7 in a T20. In reply, Waters top-scored with 23 but the tourists fell agonisingly short at 111/8.
A second game played over 40 overs proved more successful. South African diplomat Graeme Bradley plundered 49 as Carthage ran up 189 before being bowled out in 38.2 overs. Marsa were no match for Carthage’s bowlers. Captain Hemnant Kurup took a hattrick, as did team-mates Panraj and Krishna as the hosts were skittled for 91 in 17.5 overs.
Graeme Bradley recalls: ‘Going to Malta and playing on a dedicated cricket field compared to our home base in La Marsa was an adjustment, especially in terms of fielding and batting on a true pitch. We equipped ourselves well and made a good showing.’
James Waters says the games were the ‘highlight of my career’. He adds: ‘There was a lot of single men, who were perhaps lonely and it became a lot of fun. I put so much into it, it was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done as it gave us all such a lift.’
In 2014, the first Tunisian played for Carthage CC but later that year Oppe and Waters moved to Cote D’Ivoire with the AfDB. The expat contingent ebbed further after the terrorist attacks that killed 38 tourists at Sousse in 2015.
‘The subsequent slowdown in expats stalled things a bit,’ says Graeme Bradley, who also left at the end of his posting in 2016. He adds: ‘APP did a great job after Mark left, however I think time to play became difficult. We also made efforts to try and get the locals to join in, but this was a completely foreign game to them as football and indoor sports were most popular.’
Inter-club games continued at La Marsa until September 2019 but coronavirus proved more disruptive than the Nigerian footballers. AP Padmakumar explains: ‘The players were from India and Pakistan and working on some projects and in 2019/20 a lot of them returned.’
Joyti returned to India and no cricket was played during the worst of the pandemic, but Nair inherited the kit bag and Carthage remains alive. The club still practices at Marsa but also plays south of Tunis at Borj El Amri. Most of the players are Indians, but Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and even a couple of locals have joined. Nair adds: ‘CCC is very much active and we are trying to encourage the locals to play.’
While The Desert Rats and the Pythons did not put down any roots, Carthage CC is keeping cricket alive in Tunisia.
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