Not many sports require a proper pitch. Excepting motor racing and golf (which the Sportsdesk does naturally, as a matter of course), the demands of groundskeepership are thankfully sparse in most amateur outdoor pursuits. A bit of grass away from windows is usually about all that is needed. But, as Joseph O’Neill describes it in his masterful novel Netherland, the nature of the pitch itself is integral to the game of cricket.
“You do not really know how a 22-yard strip of earth, often cut so closely as to appear grassless, will deliver a quick or slow or high or low bounce, whether a spinning ball will deviate upon bouncing and if so to what degree and what speed. You do not know if it will be a featherbed or a dog… the nature of earth, like the nature of air, is subject to change.”
The ways in which cricket grounds, and more importantly their wickets, change across the world gives the game a large part of its charm, and have influenced it in many more ways than any other sport in relation to its playing surfaces.
So as the Berlin Olympiastadion authorities planned to move the only true cricket pitch in the entire area from Hamburg down to Dresden to an unprepared field (that would be shared with polo teams) one can start to understand the incredulity of those who play on it and have done since it was laid in 1947. Berlin Cricket Club (BCC) are leading a fight to get a 10 year lease for the pitch at Körnerplatz, next to Hertha BSC’s training grounds and offices in the shadows of the Olympiastadion, after it was announced that they would no longer be allowed to play there. That the increased numbers of people in the vicinity due to a new “Besucher Konzept” would lead to the increased likelihood of one of them being hit by a hard small red ball. The insurance simply wouldn’t cover it, they claim.
Not that this has ever happened before, but that, I suppose, is the point of insurers. They have to do something about a potential something. The irony in the fact that the offered alternative, the Maifeld, would be a plot unprepared for cricket – and thus infinitely raising the chances of personal injury – seems to have passed them by.
According to BCC Chairman Martin Haynes the authorities have caused the clubs consternation, not just through their actions, but through their unwillingness to listen to the arguments put to the contrary. It is, perhaps, understandable in many ways. Cricket is seen as arcane by many, and is rare enough in Germany that the tabloids had to do a hell of a lot of explaining about whom the chubby blonde guy was when Shane Warne started being seen on the back pages with Liz Hurley. Cricketers are used to having to explain themselves.
It is a legacy of the British army’s presence in this part of the city that is mostly just represented now by old military housing and cemeteries, but it is not for sentimental reasons that the club think the pitch at Körnerplatz should stay. The line in the recent article in the Times about it having been seen as a sign of bringing a civilising effect to the grounds of “Hitler’s stadium” was clumsy at best, and stunk of British arrogance.
It is not to preserve the culture of an occupying army from a different time that is an issue. The pitch is important because a lot of people use it from across the globe who have made this city their home, and because there is simply no other alternative. It would take a minimum of four years to lay an equivalent at the Maifeld. At the moment the nine teams in the Berlin league have to keep a near constant rotation of games during the summer to fit everything in as it is.
Without the pitch at Körnerplatz a multicultural sport in Berlin that was (relatively) thriving will be allowed to wither and die. The flow of players that have blossomed from that 22-yard stretch of compacted earth to the German national team will dry up. And still, across the world, people will continue to be hit on the head by things they didn’t see coming at them through the air.