By Padraig Belton
You wouldn’t normally think of Switzerland as a country with wickets toppling over green pitches in long summer evenings.
But for Indian engineers at CERN, Australian diplomats, English archdeacons and Afghans setting up new lives, the club cricket scene flourishes.
It links them with like-minded people in a foreign country which has, for a time, become their home.
“I came to Switzerland, in October 2009. I was a little short of friends, to put it mildly – totally new place, nobody known to me,” says Aseem Dhawan, who was born in the Indian city of Chandigarh, in the Punjab.
He read engineering at the south Indian MIT – Manipal Institute of Technology – and moved to Bern to work for a startup called LostyFound. He then moved to PENTAG Informatik AG, where he’s a test engineer.
“People hardly ever venture out in winters and anyway, it’s not that easy to break into a circle,” he says.
“Swiss people are a little private that way.”
Members of Berne CC coming together to erect the new batting cage. Picture Aseem Dhawad.
In 2013 he made his Swiss debut as an all-rounder with Berne Cricket Club.
“Finally something that made me feel at home,” says Mr Dhawan.
“I met guys who speak the native tongue, no matter whether that is English, or Punjabi, Hindi, or Urdu.”
He is now secretary and vice-captain – not to mention webmaster – of Berne Cricket Club.
His team, he says, has an Australian president, an Indian vice-president, and a Sri Lankan captain.
There are about six players from Pakistan, four or five from Afghanistan and one from New Zealand.
“And one Swiss,” says Mr Dhawan. The Swiss player had learnt the game whilst living in Australia.
Playing cricket at Berne CC. Picture: Aseem Dhawad.
The players include doctors, students and asylum seekers from Afghanistan.
The Berne side trains on Friday evenings, from half six to ten. Their season consists of about ten league games, plus semi-finals and finals if they’re lucky.
There are also 40-over and T20 tournaments.
With his skills as a batsman, wicket keeper and medium-pace bowler, Mr Dhawan also quickly found a place on the national team.
The high costs of hotel rooms and restaurants in Switzerland mean most of the Swiss side’s international fixtures are played overseas. This June, Switzerland will field a senior squad on a pitch in Prague.
This one-day international series, like most Swiss international fixtures, takes place within a Central European development league.
It pits the Swiss – none of whom are native to Switzerland – against the Czech Republic and Estonia, over a weekend from 3-5 June 2016.
But there is the occasional visiting team. A touring side of physically handicapped players from Pakistan challenged five Swiss teams over the course of a week in September 2014. Pakistan’s ambassador attended the final match.
And every February sees Cricket on Ice played on a frozen lake at St Moritz, where visiting sides come to Switzerland and play a 20-over round-robin tournament.
It’s unlikely to be played at Lords – but cricket on ice takes place in the winter at St Moritz. Picture: Alexander Mackay.
The snowy pitches
Cricket in Switzerland dates back to 1817.
We know this thanks to a watercolour from that year by Giovanni Salucci, of a village-green fixture being played at Plainpalais in Geneva.
The Grand Tour, then Alpinism, carried international influences to Switzerland’s door.
And the influence flowed both ways. When Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley published Frankenstein in London the next year, she set the murder of William Frankenstein on the grassy plateau of Plainpalais.
In April 1872, Geneva Cricket Club was formed by members of the British community gathered at Café Landolt, again in Plainpalais. This was an expatriate favourite – when the building was torn down in 1969, the Soviet press agency Tass sent reporters to document the end of Lenin’s favourite bistro.
It would take until March 1980 for cricket to be organised across Switzerland.
This time it was the Australians’ turn to bat.
John McKenzie had just been posted to the Australian Embassy in Bern.
As well as serving as the very first chairman of Berne Cricket Club, for which he also kept wicket, the diplomat convened a meeting of the four cricket clubs of Berne, CERN, Geneva and Geneva Asians.
CERN CC is possibly the only cricket side in the world where every last bowler, batsman, and wicket-keeper holds a physics doctorate.
Through McKenzie’s machinations, the ambassadors of the cricket-playing countries all became patrons of the new Swiss organisation.
Canon Peter Hawker OBE, the Anglican archdeacon, was an enthusiastic supporter.
The international game
Cricket is the second most-played sport in the world, after football.
And the arrival of more cricket players in Switzerland has swelled the roster of clubs. For example St Gallen CC, founded in 2014, which counts many migrant workers from Pakistan as members.
Roughly 70% of Switzerland’s cricketers are from the Indian subcontinent – a mixture of engineers, computer workers in banks and pharmaceutical companies, hotel workers and restaurant employees.
This includes ethnic Indians coming to Switzerland from other countries, including Singapore and Vietnam.
Brits make up the next largest group, followed by Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans. A small number of West Indian fast bowlers complete the mix.
Batting at Berne CC. Picture: Aseem Dhawad.
“We probably have 1500 cricketers in the country – it’s enough to have 20 teams competing in a domestic league,” says Alexander Mackay, president of Cricket Switzerland
Where to get tea breaks in Switzerland
Mr Mackay was born in London to Scottish parents from the Isle of Bute.
He learnt cricket while at Battersea Grammar School in London, before falling in love and moving to the Canton of Zürich in 1987 with his Swiss wife.
The next year, he joined Winterthur Cricket Club as a playing member.
These days, Mr Mackay chiefly umpires.
For players and match officials alike, he says, an undoubted draw is “big, big pots of nice vegetable, fish, or meat curry, big pots of rice, and everyone enjoying it” served between innings.
“I love curry,” says Mr Mackay.
“There are Indian restaurants in Switzerland, but they don’t tend to be very good to be honest, and they are very expensive.”
Seeing red on the pitch
Many teams have exchanged flannel whites for coloured kit.
“Which works very well”, says Mr Mackay.
“Try explaining to a Swiss national there are two teams out there, and they’re both playing in white”.
Most clubs have adopted red in some fashion, because of the red field in Switzerland’s square flag.
Members of the new women’s cricket team training indoors. Picture: Alexander Mackay.
“The national team has a red colour code, my local team is red, and Berne also is red and black,” he says.
And then he laughs: “Zurich, fortunately, is blue, which helps very much.”
Last November the first women’s team launched, the Zurich Sapphires.
All of them are new at the crease, but they train each Saturday.
A connection at the wickets
For all of its players, Swiss cricket is both a connection with home and with like-minded people in their new country.
“With cricket, you get to meet people who are here, whose lives are here, who are working, or perhaps gone through the process to be able to stay here,” says Mr Mackay.
And Swiss cricket provides the first step towards integration.
Berne CC provides the ideal setting for avid cricket fans to come together to pursue their favourite pastime. Picture: Aseem Dhawan.
“By meeting people who’ve gone through that process, and found out very ex-pat specific questions like where you get medical insurance, or where you clean your car,” he explains.
“Cricket to me is like chess, because of the strategy, and requires the patience and accuracy of a sharpshooter,” says Mr Dhawan.
And that is its magic, for those players from a dozen nations and a hundred walks of life who spend their Sundays traversing the length of Switzerland to play fixtures.
The Swiss Alps are probably not the backdrop you’d expect for a quiet game of cricket. Picture: Aseem Dhawad.