Cricket is everywhere in Austria – if you know where to look.
“Er spielt für uns!” (“He’s playing for us”) comes the repeated chirp from somewhere behind the stumps. The Vienna Cricket Club batsmen are struggling in this preseason friendly match against the Indian Cricket Club Vienna. On a chilly field somewhere just north of the city, I’m being teased by the opposition about my slow scoring.
My fellow non-Austrians are cackling, no doubt thinking this newbie is a native who’ll need his “mental disintegration” – verbal barbs perfected by Australian cricketers and now aped at every level – served up in his own language.
This is my first match in Austria, and on this day, it’s less about making runs than about taking in a wonderland I’d never have believed existed. After three years of village cricket in Oxfordshire and Surrey, I expected that coming to Vienna would mean sacrificing my favorite pastime for opera or cross-country skiing. But shortly before departure, Google wafted up faint hope and I cautiously threw my whites into the taking-to-Vienna pile.
I need hardly have bothered, it turns out. Whites were abandoned by the Austrian Cricket Association (ACA) as of 2017; instead, they play in colored kit with a white ball, which meant I was quickly signing up for a set of yellows. I’m not the only purist still grumbling.
For anybody who knows cricket only as an impenetrable English game played in white trousers and V-necked sweaters, the boiled-down explanation is as follows: One team of 11 players tries to get more runs than the other over a period of hours or, at the highest level, even days. First one team repeatedly bowls the ball at the other team’s batsmen, who try to score runs by hitting it into the gaps between fielders or, even better, bludgeoning it over their heads. But the latter comes with the risk of a fatal mistake: Let the ball hit your stumps or hit so a fielder catches it, and you’re out. When all of a team’s batsmen are out, that’s the end of their innings and it’s the other team’s turn to bat. If you know baseball, cricket won’t be entirely alien.
The seebarn village green
My surrounds today seem otherworldly. There’s one part that isn’t remotely new, as I stand there shivering: The gray, moody sky feels suspiciously like England. But the other features of playing at Seebarn just north of Vienna – along with Velden in Carinthia, one of two adult cricket grounds in Austria – are distinctly unfamiliar. The first is Burg Kreuzenstein, the Disneyesque fantasy castle that perches on a distant hilltop. In another storybook twist, it belongs to the Honorable Count Wilczek, who learned cricket at the Lyceum Alpinum in Zuoz, Switzerland. This used to be one of his turnip fields.
It’s no Lord’s, though, even if it does elicit a double take from puzzled Austrian motorists. The “clubhouse” consists of five shipping containers arranged in a C-Shape, making the cricket term “sheds” very apt, complete with a mishmash of garden chairs strewn on the roof.
Inside, I’m relieved to find it has warm, running water, along with a small fridge. It’s as close to a functioning bar as Seebarn is going to get any time soon. There is a men’s WC and – charmingly optimistic – also a ladies’. All the guys use both.
We had a late start, thanks to a wet outfield, which is distinctly more varied than the deadflat farmland surrounding it – most of which belongs to the cricket-friendly count as well. The landscape is uncomplicated in this part of Austria, far from that of Alpine postcards: You’re either on a low hill or you’re on a plain. Seebarn’s cricket ground sits on the edge of one, corn the crop of choice on three sides. It’s going to be a nightmare to find balls when the vegetation shoots up in summer, when back-to-back ACA Open League (40 overs) and ACA Twenty20 matches are held on most weekends.
At the close of innings, though, comes what I consider far and away the most critical difference to England: There’s no mouth-watering tea buffet. Everyone brought their own food: bananas, sandwiches, Pringles in the curious paprika flavor that holds sway in the German-speaking world. There’s highly rated subcontinental mango, thanks to our Rajasthani veteran, Pushi Ranawat. I wish I’d known to bring lunch. Fortunately, my teammates share: There’s not so much as a corner store for miles around.
The Indian Cricket Club is just one of the Vienna-based sides we’ll be facing this season. Of Austria’s 12 Open League teams, only Salzburg Cricket Club and Ljubljana Cricket Club from Slovenia hail from outside the capital. The T20 competition features a further two Salzburg clubs plus Afghan Steiermark, a remarkable refugee team from Graz. Today doesn’t bode well: we’re never in the game. But Ranawat gets a chance to bat at the end, and even the opposition smiles when he picks up a few runs. It is a friendly match, after all.
In search of a pitch
The narrative of Austrian cricket follows a path similar to that of most of continental Europe. An expat-driven flurry in the 19th century, followed by several decades of total shutdown in the 20th, thanks to two world wars. Ranawat came to Vienna in 1970 and recalls how the owner of an Indian restaurant called Maharajah sponsored a Five Continents Cricket Club. “The biggest problem was finding grounds,” he said. “We played on the Jahnwiese in the Augarten, or on hockey fields in the Prater.”
Around the same time, Australian teacher Kerry Tattersall established VCC, while the late Brian Lewis started the United Nations Cricket Club (UNCC). With Seebarn still a long way off, they too had to make do with cricketing in thoroughly unsuitable locales, like the Papstwiese, a free-for-all city park in Kaisermühlen, where angry confrontations with dog walkers were par for the course.
Five Continents, VCC and UNCC are now the grand old clubs (if not the most successful) of the Austrian cricket scene, with the founding of the ACA in 1981 and the Open League following a decade later. Then came Seebarn, which hosted a handful of European tournaments in the 2000s.
The Markomannenstraße grounds (the “Austria Cricket Stadium” on Google Maps), came along in 2002, courtesy of Sri Lankan Siva Nadarajah. Along with former England age-group player Andrew Simpson-Parker Sr., he did much to promote the game in local schools and established Concordia CC. Nadarajah – apparently never one to back down in an argument – has left a big mark on the game here. Long since considered too small for league cricket, Markomannen- straße is still a training pitch for the Austria Cricket Club Vienna (ACCV).
Back to the roots
On a muggy, overcast evening at the height of summer, Ranawat takes me to the hockey field in the Prater, where big hitters like Nadarajah broke many a window. Apart from the AstroTurf that rang the death knell for cricket here in the mid-1990s, it’s all exactly as he remembers – well aware that those riding by on the Liliputbahn would know nothing of the ghosts that haunt this place.
We drive on to the Donauinsel, a 21-kilometer manmade island and the mooring point for the curious Bertha von Suttner school-on-a-ship, the unusual venue for the European Indoor Cricket Championship in 1995. There can’t be many boats that have hosted competitive cricket, but there’s no allusion to it in the deserted sports hall today.
Back outside, there’s a remarkable surprise: Live cricket! By sheer chance, an unidentified Indian team is playing a practice match on an unkempt patch of grass. While Hundertwasser’s zany tower across the water at Spittelau confirms that this is indubitably
Vienna, bowlers are charging in with a red tennis ball, really giving it some. Batting doesn’t look easy with the two-meter belt of gravel running across the pitch, and a brace of wickets tumble while we watch. We came here to reminisce, and find an actual game in play. You couldn’t make this up.
Our last stop is Markomannenstraße, hidden among the residential sprawl in the depths of the 22nd district. There’s just time to take a couple of snaps of the towering fences that (sometimes) keep cricket balls out of the street when a suspicious woman with a dog tells us she’s about to lock up following ACCV’s practice session. She speaks in a meaty Viennese dialect, which makes the idea of her being responsible for a cricket field all the more incongruous.
But, as with almost every European country, it’s the foreigners who keep cricket going. Former Austrian national team player Erwin Grasinger is an exception, lucky to have learned his unlikely habit from Simpson-Parker, whose wife happened to teach at his school.
“The early to mid-1990s was the peak for Austrian native players,” says Grasinger. “I had a soft path into the game, but that doesn’t exist any more. There used to be an Austrian Championship, primarily for native players. So there was a structure to see that they wouldn’t get crushed. But of course, the national team is far stronger now!”
One of the most popular – and silly – tourist t-shirts you can buy here plays on a common geographical misunderstanding, with “No Kangaroos in Austria.” No cricket either, I might have said a year ago. I couldn’t have been more wrong. And you can even get a spot of mental disintegration too.