Three years ago, the Croatian national football team made sporting history by becoming the smallest country in the world (since Uruguay in 1950) to reach the FIFA World Cup Final. Captained by the peerless Luka Modrić, the Balkan nation of four million people has achieved remarkable success in the world game.
What is less known however, is that Croatia also has a cricket team, and it has been competing at a European level for the better part of the last two decades.
Emerging Cricket caught up with Croatian Cricket Federation (CCF) board member Jeff Grzinic to discuss the return of Croatia from ICC suspension and his cricketing journey from Australia to South-Eastern Europe.
Incredibly, the start of cricket in Croatia dates back to the early 19th century. Grzinic chuckles as he contemplates the irony of Croatian cricket being older than that of Full Member Australia, his country of birth.
“Yeah, strangely enough, the game is over 200 years old in Croatia. During the early 1800s, British officer William Hoste and his troops had set up a naval base on the island of Vis. Here, they played cricket to relax in between fights with Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces,” he states.
Complex and intricate, the game didn’t capture the imagination of the locals and died when the British troops departed Vis. Astonishingly, it was the Croatian war of independence in the 1990s that served as a flashpoint for its unlikely revival. Displaced by the bloodshed, thousands of Croatians had sought refuge in Commonwealth countries such as United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. When they eventually returned, they brought the game of cricket back home with them. Facilities and equipment were non-existent, but it did not deter this plucky group of enthusiasts. Their efforts culminated in the formation of the Croatian Cricket Federation (CCF) in 2000.
From Australia to the Balkans
Grzinic was not a part of this group of pioneers. His parents had come over to Australia in the 1960s during a wave of mass migration from Europe. Born and brought up in sunny Perth, he paid little attention to his heritage despite speaking the language and visiting his ancestral homeland every year. He adored cricket and all he wanted to do was play for the Australian national team.
As a Western Australian first grade cricketer, Grzninc possessed lots of potential but had become increasingly disillusioned with the game. The competition was fierce, and his performances had stagnated, extinguishing almost all hopes of state selection. Then out of the blue, he received a call from the Croatian Cricket Federation (CCF), which according to Grzinic changed his life in “multiple unexpected ways.”
“In 2001, I was approached by CCF. They wanted to assess whether I was interested in getting a passport and spending some time in Croatia developing cricket. I was initially hesitant, but thought why the hell not? I went through all the steps to ensure that I met the criteria required to qualify for the national team. In 2002, I played my first tournament for Croatia and really loved it.”
For someone who did not know much about the Associate game before, playing for Croatia opened Grzinic’s eyes to the structural and financial inequalities present in the wider cricket world.
“In a big cricketing country, you take a lot of things for granted. You don’t really appreciate the privilege, until you go to a real grassroots level in Associate nations. I was just amazed to see how passionate the people running Croatian cricket were, despite the poor facilities and absence of any financial rewards. If anything, my association with Croatian cricket has cost me a lot of money; airfares, all the holidays I’ve had to take from work,” he says.
Connecting with Heritage
Despite the financial setbacks, representing Croatia has been an emotional experience for Grzinic. It has allowed him to reconnect with his heritage and give something back.
“As much as I have loved playing cricket in Australia, it’s donning the ‘baggy red’ for Croatia that has provided me with the most defining moments of my career. It was great to tour all around Europe and play against all the European nations. I had a great bunch of guys around me who all wanted to help develop the game in the face of adversity. You know the lack of acknowledgement or funds,” he states.
In a career stretching from 2002 to 2012, the bowling all-rounder turned out for the Balkan nation on more than 40 occasions. He has written a book about his European cricket adventures entitled ‘Machine Guns and Cricket Bats’ which was published in 2012. It notably contains a foreword from former Australian Test cricketer Simon Katich, who is also of Croatian descent.
While European cricket has boomed over the last few years, the harsh reality is that the often touted ‘growth’ is largely driven by recent South Asian migrants, rather than any giant awakening of indigenous interest, at least on the men’s side. Grzinic understands this reality very well but nevertheless finds value in getting the migrant community involved and harnessing their passion for cricket.
“We have made it a priority to tap into people of sub-continent heritage. A lot of the players in our domestic leagues are now South Asians. We have 3 major centres for cricket; Vis, Zagreb and Split. Also, the international school in Zagreb has been a key driver for us in terms of youth recruitment. They have a lot of students from English speaking and cricket backgrounds. To get these kids involved playing cricket, rather than football, basketball or tennis is fantastic.”
He describes the cricket scene in sports-mad Croatia as quite niche, albeit with a dedicated group of volunteers and participants. There are eight domestic teams and competitions are organised in both T20 and 40 over formats.
As a CCF board member, Grzinic looks after the national team and high-performance portfolio. What really exasperates him is ICC’s inflexible criteria which he says does not distinguish between smaller and higher population countries.
“Croatia only has a population of 4 million, so it is always tough to meet all the ICC criteria. It doesn’t make sense to me how the criteria can be the same for a country of 60 million people and a small country like us. To me, it must be done on a per capita basis. I see ICC’s role as developing and promoting cricket; not trying to make it so hard that it is tough for those lower nations to play,” he opines.
In 2017, CCF’s status got frozen by the ICC due to their failure to submit regular paperwork. After being in the cricketing wilderness for 4 years, the board finally received good news after the ICC Annual General Meeting last month.
“It’s fantastic to have our Associate status reinstated by the ICC. Early last year, we had formed a new board with me as a board member and Mate Jukic as the President. We have worked really hard to get the paperwork done, so it’s a just reward for all our efforts. We will be involved in future ICC tournaments and everyone is thrilled with that,” Grzinic exclaims cheerfully.
“For cricket to prosper in Croatia, you need a national team and you need international tournaments. You need to provide a pathway to people. So, we are targeting 2022 as the year when we can start playing cricket again on the international stage,” he adds further.
Mediterranean Cricket League and ECL
The discussion then turns to the subject of Mediterranean Cricket League (MCL). This is Grzinic’s ‘baby’; a tournament concept he devised in 2016, when Croatia was in grave danger of disappearing from the international cricket scene. The ICC Europe office had trimmed down its events calendar significantly, putting lower-level European nations like Croatia on the ouster.
“It was shattering to hear from ICC that we were not going to have an annual European event. I figured that we need something here, some sort of tournament to keep Croatian cricket going. A tournament where our strongest local players could aspire to play every year,” he says.
Since its inception five years ago, MCL has quickly built up a solid reputation of being a well organised event. It has attracted an eclectic roster of participants, with teams hailing from England, Montenegro, Romania, Ukraine, India, Qatar and Thailand. Even former Test cricketers such as Abbey Kuruvilla and Brad Hogg have taken part, while Simon Katich remains MCL’s ambassador.
Grzinic is extremely proud of what MCL has achieved so far.
“At this stage, I don’t think that there is another continental European T20 tournament that is run as professionally as ours. Our goal is to be the best T20 tournament in Europe.”
Most of the funding for the tournament comes from teams paying participation fees. Recently, in a big coup for MCL, its board signed a deal with cricketing entrepreneur Dan Weston to televise the tournament next year, through the European Cricket Network (ECN).
“It is fantastic to sign a deal with Dan; we have a lot of mutual friends and have even played against each other in Perth. Televising MCL will grow its viewership and audience. Combining Dan’s ECN production with my professionalism will make for a great overall package. And hopefully it leads to some substantial sponsorships,” he says.
Furthermore, with CCF signing a partnership deal with Weston’s European Cricket League (ECL); clubs from Croatia will have a pathway to play in ECL from 2022 onwards.
Community Cricket World Cup 2021
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s MCL was postponed. Not one to be resting on his laurels, Grzinic has come up with another tournament concept to fill the void. After receiving encouragement from the MCL committee, he finalised the format in consultation with WACA and Belmont City council. The final product is a T10 festival entitled the ‘Community Cricket World Cup’.
“We have received a lot of interest about the tournament already. Basically, the idea is to have 6-8 teams of 12 individuals who are representing their heritage; such as a WA India, WA South Africa or a WA Croatia team, which I will be part of myself. It’s going to be a real community event for people to embrace the different cultures that over the years have shaped the Australian way of life,” he says.
The tournament will be held from 17th to 19th September at Peet Park, Perth. Additional information about the tournament can be obtained by contacting Medcricket@mail.com
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