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When the coin is tossed at Lord’s on Thursday, the battle for the top spot in the second most popular sport in the world will commence. Yet, for all the excitement of the English and South African media, the event will go largely unnoticed in the rest of the globe. Just like Marmite and heavy metal, cricket really is a love-me-or-hate-me business.
Italy, the country in which I was born and raised, is firmly on the “hate” side of the divide. Reading the name “Andrew Strauss” in an Italian sporting daily today would be as unlikely as finding black pudding on the menu of a restaurant in Milan. And while there are obvious patriotic reasons for this negligence, the national cricket team hardly enjoys greater attention.
Last year, when Italy managed to defeat the likes of Austria, Norway, Gibraltar and Croatia to win Group A of the Twenty20 Division 1 Championship, no horns were beeped in the streets of Rome. Nor was there much mourning when Denmark crushed Italy’s dreams in the tournament’s final, despite the 83 valiant runs scored by the Azzurri.
Personally, I have defected to the other camp. The key moment in my conversion was sharing a flat with five Englishmen during the Ashes in 2005: such was the hype around that series that hearing (again and again) about Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff’s double-wicket over at Edgbaston was my only realistic hope of socialising.
All in all, learning what a “nightwatchman” really was turned out to be quite useful, as I could finally stop wondering why security guards were occasionally summoned on to the field of what appeared to be a generally non-violent sport.
After seven years spent listening to more Henry Blofeld than any Italian has probably ever dared, this summer I even made it to my first Test match. The memory of Hashim Amla, the South African batsman, making a triple century against England at The Oval will rival those of that warm spring day when, at the age of four, my father took me to admire Diego Maradona at the Stadio San Paolo in my home city of Naples.
My compatriots’ disdain for cricket has long left me stumped. Genoa Athletics and Cricket Club, Italy’s first, was founded almost 120 years ago, in 1893. But my country’s maiden exposure to the sport predates the 1890s, and can be traced as far back as the early 1810s. The man who claims to have first introduced cricket to the peninsula was an artful Mancunian of Italian origin, Count Francis Maceroni.
Maceroni’s life story could have been penned by Alexandre Dumas. A diplomat and inventor, he joined Simón Bolívar in the struggle for Colombian independence.
In Britain he designed visionary inventions such as the boiler-powered “Squire-Maceroni horseless carriage” and wooden paving blocks for roads, which earned him a song that I am sure the Barmy Army will want to include in its repertoire:
When London roads are paved with wood,
long live Maceroni.
We’ll go in for something good
Saved out of our coal money.
The count’s contribution to Italy’s sporting history came when, in his 20s, he was an aide-de-camp to the king of Naples, Joachim Murat. Having already introduced archery to the Neapolitan court, as well as a weekly dining party (a concept that, according to his memoir, “had never been heard of at Naples, if we except the Masonic lodges and festivals”), Maceroni built the bats and balls for one of the first ever cricket matches on Italian soil.
It is not entirely clear how exactly the Neapolitan version of cricket differed from Maceroni’s dining clubs. Matches were in fact followed by “a field repast of macaroni, cold fowls, hams, tongues [ ... ] and a store of wines”, he wrote, giving an entirely new dimension to the tea interval that normally interrupts cricket sessions.
Unfortunately, the success enjoyed by Maceroni’s games of cricket quickly faded. When the count left Naples the passion for the sport went with him.
In Genoa, the cricket section of the club was shut in 1900. By contrast, another 11-a-side sport that had been introduced in 1897 – football – proved more popular and quickly spread across the peninsula.
Still, as I watch Strauss and Amla battling for the top spot this weekend, I will cherish a hope. If a Briton can win the Tour de France, perhaps an Italian Federico Flintoff will one day soon bowl his way to glory.