“What is this game?” – The steady rise of Czech cricket
Although still a largely unknown sport among the majority of Czechs, cricket has been played in Czechia since at least the 1990s. Today the country boasts several leagues as well as a national team that has even set some records. The sport is especially popular among expats from Commonwealth countries, but there are also promising signs that the next generation of players may be home-grown.
Strolling through the fields of Vinoř near Prague on a summer weekend, you may find yourself wondering whether Czechia is not in fact part of the Commonwealth of Nations. Cricket, England’s iconic sport, has recently been experiencing a significant boom in the land more commonly known for its ice hockey legends.
“Every year you see a lot of people joining us, the count increases drastically. That kind of shows that it is getting popular in Czechia,” says Satyajit Sengupta, the captain of Spartans Cricket Club, one of Prague’s many teams that have sprung up in recent years.
Taking a look at the team you may be excused for thinking that Czech cricket is the domain of Indian expats. Indeed, the majority of players on the pitch are from South Asian countries, with some Britons, Australians and New Zealanders getting ready to play too, but Satyajit says that the locals have also expressed willingness to learn how to use a bat.
“There are a lot of Czechs playing cricket.”
“They are finding out about this sport and the fact that they can play. We have all the cricket gear here. They are very curious. When we play in the nets on Olšanská street [in Prague], there are many people who stand around and ask us: ‘What is this game?’ They are quite curious every time to understand what we are doing.”
Proof that cricket has spread substantially since the late 1990s, when occasional friendlies would be played on a Prague field near the site of the Battle of White Mountain, can be seen in the name of the opposing team that the Spartans have gathered to play today – Brno Cricket Club – one of three clubs that now represent the Moravian region in the Czech league.
"It has grown in popularity and the top level of standards of play has definitely improved from year to year."
The president of the Czech Association of Cricket Officials, Peter Vincent, who is getting ready to umpire over the game, says that the sport has also been spreading east and west of the Czech capital.
“We’ve got a team from Plzeň and team from České Budějovice. They are playing in Brno today. So yes, it has grown in popularity and the top level of standards of play has definitely improved from year to year.”
According to the website of the Czech Cricket Union, there are several men’s and women’s leagues taking place each year in the country, with multiple divisions. Teams compete in 10, 20 or 40 over games during the summer and some seasons also see a six-a-side indoor league being played during the cold winter months.
Batt(l)ing it out for the silverware every year are over a dozen clubs, divided in-turn into several teams each. Aditya Rayarolu, an Indian IT professional who recently joined the Spartans’ A-team after moving to Prague, says that the level of the game necessitates players practice during the week.
“We have a net session on Fridays every week. That said, every individual also takes care of their own fitness.”
Asked about how he discovered that the sport was being played in the country, he says that it was through social media.
“I was just randomly browsing my Instagram and I saw a few posts relating to cricket in the Czech Republic, so I then started looking for clubs and trying to do more research about cricket here.
“I found the Spartans club and I reached out to them on their Instagram handle. They asked me to join one of their net sessions. They liked my performance in the nets and they wanted me to join.”
Many of the clubs feature their own websites and social media pages, which not only serve to recruit new players, but also to share training schedules and pictures from past games.
Making world records
The Czech Cricket Union even provides full-length videos of games played by the country’s national team on its YouTube channel, including live commentary.
Playing for the Czech Republic is the dream for many of the foreign players competing in the Czech league, a senior member of the Spartans Cricket Club tells me.
“I used to play in India ever since I was six or seven years old. I never imagined I could play in the national team, but when I came here I found out that if you play well you can be part of the national team.”
"I never imagined I could play in the national team, but when I came here I found out that if you play well you can be part of the national team."
As of yet, he is still waiting for his chance to bless the cameras, but his moment may come soon.
“Right now I am in the Eagles team, which is the B-team of the national side. The good talented players that are coming up are first placed into the Eagles and when someone is not available from the seniors they get someone from the pool of the Eagles. If you are part of the national team then you get the chance to go and play in other countries.”
"The captain of the Brno team, he broke the record for the most fours scored in a T20 cricket international."
The “Lions“, as the national side’s A-team is called, are currently ranked 55th in the Twenty20 International category and already have a few world records under their belt, says umpire Pete Vincent.
“The captain of the Brno team, he broke the record for the most fours scored in a T20 cricket international. He took it away from Aaron Finch, a very fine Australian batsman.
“We have a guy that plays for the Prague Cricket Club who, a couple of years ago, equalled the highest ever score in a T20 international. We hold the record for the largest winning margin ever in a T20 international [by 257 runs vs Turkey on August 30, 2019].”
The Czech National Team’s games are also played at Vinoř’s Scott Page Field. Maintained every week of the season, Vinoř has become the country’s premier cricket facility, sporting two full-size cricket grounds.
Overlooking the field is also the “Scott Page Bench”. Unveiled in 2021, the bench pays tribute to Australian Scott Page, a man who played a pivotal role not just in setting up the Vinoř ground and the training nets in Prague 3’s Olšanská street, but also in the wider establishment of cricket as a permanent sport in Czechia.
“Czech Cricket wouldn’t have started without him. Scott had such a big influence on everything that we did. He was a big dreamer, but also incredibly handy. The first cricket nets that we had – he just found some metal polls, put a bit of netting and rope together and made a cricket net. He was that kind of guy,” says Chris Pearce, an Englishman from Mansfield who used to play with Scott Paige and now runs the Czech Cricket Academy, an organisation that focuses on growing the sport in the country.
“We have something like 16 training courses around Prague. It’s just kids from the elementary schools. We go in, we show them what it is and they can sign up and start playing with us.
“Pre-Covid we had about 30 groups, which was somewhere in the region of about 360 kids playing at any one time once a week. Now we are down to around 200.”
“People write asking whether we will provide the horses” – popularising cricket among children
"I like this sport. It’s very much based around fair play. It’s also a team sport, but with a lot of space for the individual."
I met him at one of the academy’s training sessions, which take place inside several Czech elementary schools in both Prague and Brno throughout the school year. He says that one of the reasons why he chose to set up the academy was the wealth of talent he sees in Czech children for the game.
“Especially the girls, I might say. I think it has a lot to do with the tennis background because if you tell the girls to play like they would a backhand in tennis, they just smack it everywhere.”
During the cold autumn and winter months, training’s take place inside the schools physical education halls with plastic bats, balls and wickets that the Academy provides.
“I like this sport. It’s very much based around fair play. It’s also a team sport, but with a lot of space for the individual,” a mother of one of the girls that are practicing tells me.
Her daughter, who was a baseball player before she first stood in front of a wicket, says that she now likes cricket more due to its complexity.
“Teamwork is more important in this sport. Baseball feels more like a solo sport. You have one batsman. In cricket you have two and they have to communicate with each other.”
She is one of the girls and boys in Czechia’s U-14s team, which recently won an international tournament that saw aspiring young cricketers from Czechia, Hungary and Serbia face off against each other in Belgrade. The success did not go unnoticed. Official praise came from both Prague City Hall and from the Ministry of Education.
Chris Pearce says that it’s just the first in a series of competitions that will pit Czech talent against their European counterparts.
“In March they’ll be going to Budapest, Hungary. Then, sometime in the summer, those two groups will be coming here, so it’s like three three-way tournaments throughout the course of the year.”
"In one of our signup questions about whether there are any special requirements, some people write asking whether we will provide the horses."
Yet despite these successes, the head of the Czech Cricket Academy says that the sport is still far from becoming a serious sport in the eyes of most Czechs deciding where to sign up their children.
“The biggest problem we have is with the parents. In one of our signup questions about whether there are any special requirements, some people write asking whether we will provide the horses. It shows the level of understanding of cricket here.”
“They know what it is. They think it’s boring, so they don’t want to sign their kids up for cricket,” his wife Renata adds. Less talkative than her husband, Renata is nevertheless a key figure in the story of Czech youth cricket. It was she who, more than a decade ago, told Chris to leave England and pursue his dreams, he says.
“I was just about to put a deposit down for a house when my now wife said: ‘You are not really happy selling IT that you don’t know much about, so why don’t you rather invest the money into something that you enjoy.’”
The Czech Cricket Academy that the couple subsequently set up is built around the motto of “growing with the kids”, she says in a voice that reveals much ambition for the future.
"Our main aim is to take a team that’s learnt the game in Czechia and get them to represent the country either at the Olympics or at the World Cup."
“We started with some kids in the elementary school. We did some training sessions. Then we set up a club because they wanted a club. Then we added some more activities and started a talent programme. Now, we are developing into a national team.”
Still relatively young, the two have at least two generations of Czech children to work with. Chris reveals the couple’s ultimate goal.
“Our main aim is to take a team that’s learnt the game in Czechia and get them to represent the country either at the Olympics or at the World Cup.”