A group photo of the Russian team which was represented in a tournament in Bulgaria in 2012. Source: personal archive.
March is the last month of the forced wait for the Indians who’ve got itchy feet to resume the cricket season in Russia after a long winter-break. This is not a problem for their compatriots back in India who can play the gentleman’s game all year round. However, for the members of the Indian community in Russia, March is the time to brush the dust off their cricket bats and get ready for the action.
The Moscow State University’s (MSU) large and spacious stadium where most cricket matches in the capital take place is finally clear of thick layers of snow, under which it has been buried for a good 4 or 5 months, and the sports spirit has been awakened. The members of the teams consisting mostly of Indian businessmen are preparing for new battles on the pitch. Those who don’t bat, bowl or field, contribute to the game as umpires or enthusiastic spectators!
The Indian cricket community proves that strength is not exactly in numbers but more in spirit. A rather small numbered group, it still managed to get in the media limelight (for example, the fashionable Russian magazine “Bolshoy gorod”) as one of the city’s attractions and even approached the country’s sports ministry with a request to be included in the list of official national sports.
Although the centre of cricket life in Russia now is in Moscow, the game initially wasn’t confined to just one city and brought its allure as far as to the far eastern island of Sakhalin. The Sakhalin Cricket Club was a place where cricket traditions were vibrant and the players indulged in the game with gusto and passion until the sad moment of its dissolution.
One of the memorable events for the club, which had a truly international XI with Indian, South African, English, Dutch and Russian players, was the victory over the Hokkaido International Business Association (HIBA) team in a 2001 match, and the rematch that followed in 2002 on the island of Hokkaido where the Japanese side won by the narrow margin.
The members of the club also travelled all the way from Sakhalin to Delhi for an exhibition match.
Cricket aficionados in Russia have had to overcome different obstacles. There were problems with finding a stadium to rent. At first, the cricket matches were played at the Moscow’s Dinamo stadium. But then an agreement was made with the MSU, where the university’s stadium could be used for holding cricket matches when it’s not in use by the students. But even though the cricketers in Russia are happy to have a big and modern stadium at their disposal, they are still on a shaky terrain not having their own cricket pitch and having to make compromises.
However, there are bigger issues that cricket in Russia has to face. At the moment, the situation within the Indian cricket community in Moscow is rather controversial. The Indian cricket lovers are split into two groups not connected with each other: a smaller organisation “Cricket Russia” officially recognised by the International Cricket Council (ICC) and a larger unofficial cricket organisation “BCCR.”
Although the two cricket organisations have their differences, there is one thing that all the Indians who live in Russia and are interested in cricket whole-heartedly agree about – the necessity of promoting the game in the country and engaging more locals to actively participate in it.
Abhijat Sawarkar, a veteran cricket enthusiast, thinks that cricket has a potential for growth in Russia but should be given a boost. “Today, the cricket infrastructure is far more advanced than it used to be for anyone who is interested,” Sawarkar says. “Teams are better organised, the tournament is well conducted and availability of the ground is fixed well in advance.”
He believes that development of the sport in schools should be an area of focus.
“If the younger generation is developed for this, then a few years down the line there will be Russian teams playing cricket,” Sawarkar adds.
Tanveer Khan, an experienced cricket player, points out the lack of funding as well as not enough interest in cricket on the part of Russians. “In my opinion, cricket as a sport can have a mass appeal only if the locals not just our expats and people from cricket playing countries take an active part in it. Funding is a huge problem since we have no big sponsors and it is completely self financing,” Khan says.
Despite the problems that the Indian cricket community in Russia has to tackle, the interest for these kinds of sports is on the rise. Despite the initially unfavourable conditions such as cold climate or lack of pronounced interest towards the game compared to the kinds of sports that set the nation on fire like ice hockey or football, cricket carved a niche for itself among the Indian expats in Moscow and serves as one of their favourite recreations as well as an essential part of their social life.
For the Indians living in Russia, cricket is more than just a sport for the sake of sports. It’s also a way of bringing a bit of India to Moscow; a pretext for catching up with old friends that one otherwise loses contact with due to the hectic rhythm of the city’s life. It’s an opportunity to exchange the latest gossip, meet people and given the Indian flair for enterprise, a chance for some networking that might just come in handy.
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