I still have the letter. It is dated June 8, 1984, and invites 25 boys to a training camp for Holland’s national under-17s cricket squad. Though I was neither particularly good at cricket nor Dutch – I merely happened to be growing up there - my name is the last on the list. Getting the letter was the proudest moment of what has passed for my sporting career. Later that summer I spent a week sleeping in a changing-room in the eastern town of Deventer, and got the best cricket coaching I would ever receive.
One of those 25 boys later won an Olympic gold medal with the Dutch hockey team. Another became a well-known cabaret artist. Most probably sit in offices dreaming of the weekend, and some of us live in Paris and can’t be bothered to play cricket anymore.
However, one of the boys from that week in Deventer is about to captain Holland at the cricket world cup in the West Indies. Luuk van Troost, now an old man of 37, leads the most unlikely nation in the tournament: the last team to qualify, the only continental European side, and the only participating country never colonized by Brits. Zen Marie, a South African making a documentary film about the Dutch team, admits: “There is a certain humour in the fact that they are playing.”
That cricket ever reached the Netherlands is a tribute to the country’s levels of globalisation. Rather than simply crossing the Channel from England, the game was imported by South Africans. It didn’t land on propitious soil. The Dutch summer is even shorter here than the English one, and Dutch clay is so soggy that cricket here can only be played on matting wickets or Astroturf. This means that even 14-year-olds can bounce balls at your head. At the most pathetic levels of Dutch cricket, many batsmen wear helmets.
Cricket only ever penetrated a few pockets of Dutch society. In The Hague, it’s played by posh types who regard it as a sort of magical rite with the power to transform them into English gentlemen. The game somehow also took root in Schiedam, a tough town just outside Rotterdam, known as the only place in the Netherlands where boys play cricket on the street. Schiedam once even produced a rare case of Dutch cricket hooliganism, when thousands of fans watched two local teams contest the national title. Van Troost, Holland’s captain, is from Schiedam. And increasingly since about 1990, Dutch cricket has been played by poor Asian immigrants. When these dockworkers and cleaners meet Hague bankers, both sides presume (often correctly) that the other is cheating.
There is another category of Dutch cricketer: people whose families were randomly infected by the game generations ago, and never shook it. Leaf through scorebooks and you come across the same few surnames. Arguably the royal family of Dutch cricket is a cheery tribe of blond giants named De Leede. On chilly summer mornings 25 years ago Tim de Leede used to tonk my legspinners into the local canal. Now he travels to the world cup as Holland’s 39-year-old elder statesman, the holder of many national records.
When I rang him in the Netherlands he was playing in the snow with his children. Tim works for KPN, the Dutch telecoms company. “They really don’t care that you play in the Dutch cricket team,” he said, “so you have to buy yourself free, take unpaid leave to go the world cup. It’s costing me handfuls of money. Only Ryan ten Doeschate is a professional cricketer. The rest of us work.”
How had Dutch cricket changed in the last 20 years? In the past, said Tim, almost all the country’s 5,000 cricketers were “Dutch”. Now many were “immigrants”. At lower levels of cricket this produced tensions, Tim confirmed. “You see many people quitting because they’ve had enough.”
In the world cup, Holland are in a group with the two best one-day cricket teams on earth, South Africa and Australia, as well as with Scotland. What would count as success? “Beating Scotland,” said Tim. “South Africa and Australia are so much better. How we do against them depends more on how they go into the match than on how we do.”
Is it fun to play against much better teams? “Lots of fun. As a bowler it’s fun because you see that if you bowl a good-length ball, even they have to block it. Though I’m not really looking forward to facing Brett Lee.” Perhaps fortunately, Australia’s pace bowler has just pulled out of the world cup with an injury.
Something puzzled me, I told Tim. Luuk van Troost as a teenager was not a very good cricketer. Once, when his club visited mine, and we were short of players as usual, he played for us and opened the batting with me. We scratched around horribly for ages, neither of us seeing the ball. He also lacked charm: the last time I played against him, I said hello and he gave me a blank look. When I reminded that we knew each other, he said, “That says nothing to me.” Yet a whirl of the clock later, he is captaining his country. How had he done it? “Mentality,” Tim replied.
I had to tell Tim: “When we were kids, you were the best of everyone.” “Really?” he asked. I didn’t mention the time he got bored of tonking us into canals the usual way, switched to batting left-handed, and tonked us even further. But he had never turned pro in England. Had he maximized his talent? “We’ll produce a professional once every ten years,” he sighed.
Does Tim now feel old as a cricketer? “Absolutely, yes,” he said, which is remarkable, because I can still see the ball sailing off his bat over the birch trees and wondering what on earth to do about it. Fortunately that is now the problem of Australia’s captain Ricky Ponting.