On tour with the Greek Green and Golds
As Greece continues to grow its internal cricket infrastructure, the first visit of the Australian-Hellenic Cricket Federation to Corfu heralds a new era for Greek cricketing partnerships, and offers rich opportunities for the future.
Mike Sweet reports from Greece.
With Greece taking further strides to cement cricket within its national sporting culture, last month saw a tour to Corfu by the newly-formed Australian-Hellenic Cricket Federation (AHCF) based in Melbourne.
The Aussies played four matches against local sides, and a game against the national team, all of which they won. But the tour was much more than the games, with all the Australian tour members being of Greek descent, it was a homecoming, and a timely springboard for the further growth of the game in Greece. Hosted by the Hellenic Cricket Federation, who spared no effort in ensuring the success of the tour through its generous hospitality and the tireless efforts of its President Iosif Nikitas and his staff; the tour was a success on many levels.
Phil Evangalides was one of the main co-ordinators of the tour at the Australian end. "When the Greek teams first saw us and interacted with us, they had this stunned look on their face, like 'how's it going to be? What's going to happen?' And then they realized it was genuine friendship coming and it wasn't about us coming out here and showing how great we are." The tour had a busy schedule of schools visits, where the players would coach. The time and energy the Australians showed in enthusing local schoolchildren about the game, was something to behold.
For Evangalides, those sessions are unforgettable. "When you see the kids find their confidence in themselves, and you've been party to that - you've just taken them one step further, that is a very sweet moment." The tour comes hot on the heels of some major steps forward for the game in Greece being made by the Hellenic Cricket Federation.. During the tour Richard Holdsworth arrived to see for himself the recent progress being achieved by the Federation. "It's been very productive" said Richard. "There's been a whole host of initiatives - a lot which have been in the pipeline, but many have been initiated by the tour".
A crucial step forward Richard is keen to point out, is how the Federation has been able to persuade local government in Corfu to establish cricket an official sport within the schools' curriculum. "It's a step that can begin to change the culture of the society" says Richard.
With the game embedded in the Corfu schools' curriculum, the idea now is to roll that out to the other Ionian islands, and at a future stage to all Greek schools. Creating political support for the future of the game continues to be a crucial part of the Hellenic Federation's work, and they have been successful in sustaining and growing those relationships, despite Greece's turbulent political playing field.
Angela Gerekou, the Member of the Greek Parliament for Corfu is a tireless and influential supporter of the game in Greece, and spoke of the importance she attaches to the Australian visit. "With this tour we've opened a new road to develop cricket not only in the base, here but all over Greece" said the MP "We have to educate and learn and give cricket the place it deserves - and to connect with each other through sport." The climax to the tour was the match against the Greek national team. The game took place on Corfu's ancient cricket pitch in the heart of the old town, where in 1823, sailors of the British Navy first played the game. There's something quite unique about watching a match here on a late Ionian summer's afternoon from a shaded café beside the hallowed turf. Glimpsed through the netting that protects spectators from lustily hit blows to the boundary, it's a sublime combination of cultures; frappes (iced coffee) at fine leg; mezedes at mid-wicket.
The captain of the AHCF XI throughout the tour has been Paul Maraziotis, who plays in Sydney for Blacktown, and started out as a youngster at Bankstown, when the Waugh brothers played for that illustrious club.
In Corfu, on his 36th birthday, with great irony, Paul was about to play against the team he had captained in the infamous European ICC tournament of 2006. That tournament, and Paul's involvement, is forever etched into Greek cricketing history.
In short, during that competition, Greece looked set to reach a historic peak in its cricketing achievements internationally. Readers of this newsletter will no doubt be aware of the story of Maraziotis (and another player in the national team) being declared ineligible during the competition, and of the Greek tragedy that followed. To anyone knowledgeable of the facts, it is clear that Paul was completely blameless of any wrongdoing during that traumatic tournament. Paul has never played for Greece since.
As we talk on the boundary as prepares to take the field against his old team, the modest Maraziotis admits it's a special day. "We're really good mates and there's been a bit of banter going into the match. I never thought I'd play against them." He's kept in close and regular contact over the past three years, offering advice and helping them prepare for matches. On this tour, Paul's batting often made the difference between the teams. "I felt excited to be playing on this tour. If I can come here and play good cricket, others will follow and set the standard. It's very close to my heart what we've done here". So with great drama and irony Paul Maraziotis is set to face the national side which still means so much to him.
After winning the toss, Greece opt to bat first and make 223 for 9 in their 40 overs. The Aussies start slowly but surely, making 50 without loss off their first ten. With the first wicket falling, Maraziotis comes to the crease. After playing himself in, towering sixes are soon landing on the tables of the cafes that edge the ground, creating eruptions of coffee cups and plates - much to the mixed delight and consternation of the café's customers. Paul makes an almost faultless 130 not out. The game is won comfortably - 229 for 3 off 34 overs. It is Paul's second century of the weekend, taking his average in the five games of the tour to 113.
As we sat on the boundary, Nick Hatzoglou, President of the AHCF, shared with me what he felt had been achieved, beyond the victories on the field. "We wanted to get a tour up and running, and begin to develop some relationships, but we've exceeded what we were expecting." At the heart of the considerable steps forward made during their two week stay is the signing of an MOU between the AHCF and the Hellenic Cricket Foundation, - a blueprint for collaboration between Australia and Greece for cricket development in the future. The signing, witnessed by Richard Holdsworth, sets down a clear path for future partnerships. "We want to open this up to all of Australia" says Hatzoglou who points out that creating exchanges of players is one of the key elements of the MOU. "We want to help create opportunities for Greek Australian boys to come and represent Greece. This will grow the game here and take it to new frontiers."
With this first tour an unparralled success, the AHCF and HCF have already begun talking about creating more Greek Diaspora tours, involving South Africa, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. Those kind of partnerships may offer Greek cricket precious and long-lasting benefits. To play in the next ICC tournament in June 2011 every player will have to meet the criteria. Those conditions mean a big ask for those living far from their national team's base; the costs and the time have to be found. But have no doubt, with Greek parentage, a Greek passport and Greek passion, Paul Maraziotis' intention is to fulfill the ICC guidelines to the letter, and to make himself available once again, to play for his ancestral homeland.
As Greece continues to grow its internal cricket infrastructure, the first visit of the Australian-Hellenic Cricket Federation to Corfu, heralds a new era for Greek cricketing partnerships, and offers rich opportunities for the future.