The gentleman’s game of cricket has found an unlikely foothold in the vast, cold expanse of Russia. Russian cricket prospects looked grim when in July 2019, just after the conclusion of the electrifying World Cup Final, the Ministry of Sport refused to recognise cricket as a sport.
Contrary to popular speculation online, the refusal was actually due to the lack of sufficient documentation. The refusal motivated the Russian cricket board to work harder to put things in order.
Their hard work paid off, with Russian Sports officials reversing their position on the sport’s recognition in November last year. This is a historic moment for cricket in a country, where the overwhelming majority of its 146 million citizens have little to no awareness of the game.
However, as per Cricket Russia President, Ashwani Chopra, cricket can do better, as it’s not realising its true potential. Speaking with Emerging Cricket, Chopra stated that further growth of Russian cricket is being stifled by the sport’s continuing absence from the Olympics.
“Without cricket in the Olympics – don’t expect the Russian government to jump into the cricket bandwagon overnight. Their priority is Olympics sports, and who can blame them?”
“The Russian Olympic Committee provides good monetary and infrastructure support to Olympic sports. Funding-wise, we could expect around five to six million Roubles per year. And more than anything, Olympics would mean cricket getting into the school curriculum and mainstream Russian media starting to cover the game.”
History of Cricket in Russia
Surprisingly, the first game of cricket in Russia was actually played as early as the 1870s in St. Petersburg. The city soon developed a burgeoning cricket scene, with an annual game played between British ex-pats; which included diplomats, and managers and foremen from the local textile mills. By 1895, St. Petersburg had 4 cricket clubs playing games regularly against each other. However, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 effectively removed all traces of the sport for the better part of a century. The Bolsheviks found the game to be too elitist and therefore not a suitable sport for the traditional, hardworking Russian. They were repelled by the pomposity and ceremonial aspects of cricket and did their best to kill off the game for good, by closing cricket clubs wherever they could.
Chopra is perfectly aware of the challenges of re-igniting a sport that basically vanished from the public consciousness a century ago. Born and brought up in India, Chopra first moved to Russia in 1990, as an exchange student studying engineering. He fell in love with the place and ended up settling there. But there was one thing that he missed more than anything: cricket.
“I recall, going to the local carpenter and paying him to mold a block of wood into something resembling a cricket bat. All the Indian students would gather on the weekends to play cricket with that bat, some tennis balls and a couple of broken chairs as stumps.”
Chopra and Mohanjeet Arora were responsible for the formation of the United cricket league, known as “Cricket Russia” as an entity in 2004.
“I wanted to create a formal structure to bring all expat cricket under one umbrella and to introduce the game to native Russians. Ambitions of ICC membership developed a few years later. After getting the affiliation in 2012, I co-founded Russian Cricket federation; keeping in mind that if and when Cricket becomes an Olympics sport, we have a structure in place as per local laws”, Chopra remarked.
These days, there is an eight team structure in place for hard ball league cricket, with all the clubs based in Moscow. Most of the players are Russian residents of South Asian heritage. Additionally, students from India have formed around 10-12 teams per city; playing casual tennis ball cricket in cities spread far and wide throughout Russia, such as Tver, Volgograd, Samara, Kazan, Altai, Arkhengelsk and Kursk.
Elena Barman, the education department head of the Russian Centre of Science and Culture (RCSC), has seen a boom in Indian students studying in the country.
“Russia witnesses the influx of nearly 6,000 Indian students every year, with around 70% of them opting to study medicine.”
Apart from the experience of exploring a new culture in a foreign country which has good diplomatic relations with India, these students are attracted by the easier admission processes and reasonable fee structures in Russian universities.
However, from a cricketing perspective this is not ideal as most of these students move back to the sub-continent after finishing their degrees, which means that playing numbers could fluctuate dramatically through the season. Cricket Russia are acutely aware of the pitfalls of relying too much on expats and students from South Asia. Chopra is refreshingly blunt in his assessment of the situation.
“Unless we popularize cricket among native Russians and no longer remain as an expatriate-based cricketing community, Russian cricket will go nowhere. The Russian cricket team does not want to be taunted as an Indian or Pakistani Second XI and be the butt of jokes on social media.”
Fighting Against the Odds
Special efforts have been made to introduce the game among locals with the setting up of a Moscow Cricket Academy, which upon its inauguration in 2012 had 56 girls and 48 boys participating. Although numbers have since declined, Chopra is hopeful that cricket’s official recognition by the Ministry of Sport will reverse this trend.
There is also a struggle going on to obtain cricket grounds and facilities. Equipment has to be imported from overseas, which adds to the costs. Grounds that Chopra personally pumped money into developing were taken away by the local government for their own projects. This meant that Russian cricketers had to resort to practicing their skills on a couple of makeshift arrangements in Moscow. However, plans are underway to procure new facilities.
“We are about to procure land in the suburbs of Moscow, where 3 grounds along with nets and other practice facilities will be developed”, Chopra states.
Despite all the struggles, General Manager Nic Britz is proud that they have managed to integrate quite a few native Russians into the national team setup. These recruits include talented baseball prospects Sasha Vasiliev and Andrey Borgatyrev.
“Some of the leading native players we have are Sasha Vasiliev who was once a top prospect for baseball. He is an opening left hand batsman and I would say that he’s in a similar mold to Adam Gilchrist.”
On Borgatyrev, Britz praises him as “our tall fast bowler” and his brother Alexander as a “hard hitting all-rounder and acrobatic fielder.”
The native Russian cricket contingent is rounded out by left handed middle order batsmen Alex Strakhov and Alexander Yesin; as well as Victor Sukhotin who intriguingly learnt the game growing up in China. Sukhotin has previously appeared on shows such as BBC Stumped, to talk about Russian Cricket. Britz describes the St Petersburg resident as “the most knowledgeable Russian Cricket historian who bowls with a golden arm.”
ECL and Commercialisation of Associate Cricket
Signing a long-term participation agreement with European Cricket League (ECL) has given Cricket Russia a shot in the arm. Qualification to ECL ensures that the Russian champions will be exposed to a global TV audience, giving the teams in the domestic league something extra to play for. Chopra is hopeful that Daniel Weston’s idea of a cricketing equivalent to the UEFA Champions League will increase the footprint of the game in Europe, and increase awareness and enthusiasm for cricket among native Europeans. Highlighting that visibility is important, Chopra points to ECL’s streaming success to state that the ICC could adopt a similar strategy to harness the true commercial potential of Associate cricket.
“Having an Associate cricket live stream channel is something that the ICC should seriously consider. At first, it may not generate revenue, but there is a good chance that commercial sponsors will see the value of international exposure and sponsor these live streams.”
There are many challenges ahead for Russian Cricket but having shouldered the burden of cricket development for the better part of the last 25 years, Chopra is unfazed. His burning ambition is to see more and more native Russians take up the game. And the best way to do this is to keep things simple.
“People complicate cricket. Strangers and newcomers to the game then get the impression that cricket is a difficult game to master unlike say football, which is just kicking a ball. I go back to the basics. Setting up a practice to demonstrate how to hit, bowl and throw. Get them to realise how fun it is to play cricket. Give them the feeling of hitting the ball with the middle of the bat, of taking a wicket and catching a ball.”
Britz shares Chopra’s ambition. He wants to develop local heroes to grow Russian cricket.
“One of my proudest moments is seeing us as the first International board to be in the video game ‘Don Bradman Cricket 14’. My next project is to get us on Stick Cricket. So, when we go around and see schools they can see Russia has its own cricketing heroes to aspire to.”
There are also plans underway to merge the Russian Cricket League and Federation, to consolidate it as the sole legal entity in charge of all things cricket in Russia. And once COVID-19 is over, one of Cricket Russia’s priorities is to start playing ‘official’ T20Is regionally, so that it can finally crack the ICC T20I rankings.
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