Cricket prepares for the French revolution

Pounding in from the Quizzical End…in spite of the raised eyebrows cricket in France is about to take off

One of the exciting aspects of this T20 Cricket World Cup is to see how it sparks interest in countries that are not recognised cricket lands.

One of these is France where Eurosport is showing blanket coverage of the tournament with a French commentator accompanied by what is politely termed an ex-pat expert ie someone who understands the game and can explain the nuances and background to the French audience.

This is not the first time that Eurosport has covered T20; two years ago we covered England’s victory in the West Indies and we have also locked into the Champions Trophy. The short game appeals to the French in the way that baseball does; all splash and dash and over in three hours. Perhaps the major setback is that no teams are wearing pink or pastel shades this year.

I am biased because I work for them and will be working on the cricket with my French colleagues on the two tournaments over the next month but Eurosport is to be applauded, not least by the French Cricket Association which is currently in the process of shaking up their organisation and giving the game here a royal boot up the derrière.

“We want to make cricket in France more French,” says the chief executive Mark Moodley.

At last.

In 1989, I travelled to Paris for the bicentenary in which France beat an MCC team led by the ex England and Warwickshire bulwark John Jameson.

Jack Short: one of the most gifted players to come out of Ireland, led France to a famous win over the MCC

It was a phyrric victory because in that French team that day there was a single genuine Frenchman, the remainder all Englishmen abroad. Oh, there was one Irishman as well, the captain Jack Short (left), a robust opening bat who always seemed to make runs for Ireland when touring teams visited. He was a quality player who, if he had ben playing today when the doors are wide open for Irish players to play in England, would surely have made his mark in county cricket.

Jack made a cultured 73 not out that day to lead his team to a seven-wicket victory.

I remember two other aspects of that game 23 years ago. One was a demonstration by a group of Tamil players who insisted they were being unfairly overlooked by the France selectors. The other was the sight of a French television crew trying to get into the thick of the action, slowly encroaching from third man to third slip, at which point they were finally shoed away by a rather irritated Jameson.

In fact the MCC got a measure of revenge this year when they beat France in Thoiry, watched by former Australia captain Richie Benaud (see video below) who is now Patron of French cricket.

The point is, though, that cricket was confined to the ex-pat meadows of Meudon, home of the rather stuffy Standard Athletic Club, the doors largely closed on French involvement.

But that is now set to change. Moodley is an Englishman, yes, but he had been in France for some 20 years and is passionate about developing the game rather than preserving a small corner of the Empire.

The national team remains a priority. This summer they were edged by Belgium in the World Cricket League Division 8 qualifiers in Spain but Moodley is looking more closely at developing the grassroots. Working closely with the ICC he has invested heavily in Kwik Cricket which is being introduced into 150 schools this year alone.

The target is to reach 300 to 500 schools within three years which Moodley reckons will expose around 40,000 children to cricket.

At the same time 150 teachers have been trained up on the basics of the game; within three years that figure is expected to reach 800. The association is hiring a full-time schools project coordinator and five regional development officers.

It is an ambitious programme and Moodley is still looking for sponsors to help with it. So, if you happen to own a bank, insurance company, car dealership and so on, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with him.

Moodley is also trying to alter the balance of the French national team so that it is made up of Frenchmen and not by ex-pats.

“It is important that the young French kids who start to play the game see an achievable goal at the end of it, that is to represent their country,” says Moodley.

“That really is the only way that cricket will find a way into French hearts.”

Another avenue for any good young French players is county cricket in England. Kent in particular, given their relatively close proximity to France, are looking to use it as a scouting ground – they have already taken one French player on board.

Nineteen year-old leg spinner Zika Ali has spent some time at the Kent academy and is due to return to Canterbury for further training sessions this winter. He has even benefitted from a Richie Benaud masterclass.

It will take some time for French cricket to start producing quality players on a regular basis but the wheels are in motion – and at least the kids at home can tune into Eurosport and watch the big boys in action.

©Barney Spender 2012

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