The youthful Steve Lubbers, captain of the Netherlands team in the 1996 World Cup © Getty Images
The youthful Steve Lubbers, captain of the Netherlands team in the 1996 World Cup © Getty Images

Steven Lubbers had been the skipper of the Netherlands World Cup squad of 1996 and was the first Dutchman to take a wicket in ODIs. He was taking part in a competitive game against a Swiss national cricket team in when Arunabha Sengupta caught up with him to be regaled with sparkling anecdotes.

Cricket at the other Eden

Het Amsterdamse Bos is a huge English-style park, teeming with trees, immense fields, and quintessentially Dutch pools and canals. It stretches across the cities of Amsterdam, Amstelveen and Uithorn, covering a whopping 1000 hectares. Under the motto ‘Five years work for a thousand men’, tree planting in the Bos began in 1934, providing work for 20,000 unemployed people during the Great Depression. The last tree wasn’t planted until 1967. Thus a forest was built by human hand on land reclaimed from the sea.

In summer, much in the manner of the erratic genius batsman deigning to gladden the hearts of the crowd, the whimsical sun sometimes bathes the beautiful Netherlands turning it into a temporary heaven. On such days, as one cycles through the grounds soul-soothingly thick with greenery, it does seem to be a man-made paradise, right on the brink of one of the liveliest cities of the world. Yet, the unreasonable and pampered heart wants more. On these miles upon square miles of green English parks, the eyes yearn for men in white, engaged in the charming country custom of an unpretentious cricket match.

And today, I am rewarded. From distant grounds hidden by giant sequoias float in the chorus, the melody missing from this divine garden. “How’s that?”

The air piercing cry tells me that I have to take the next right.

VRA Cricket Club

VRA Cricket Club boasts one of the best grounds in continental Europe. Though, during the World Cup of 1999, the unsuspecting locals mistook the cricket bat for, among other things, kayaking oars!

Cricket had once been one of the major sports in Netherlands. That was till the 1860s, before football and hockey slowly took over.

The clubhouse emits the same old English charm as the Bos. The main VRA ground has seen the likes of Sanath Jayasuriya and Tillakaratne Dilshan belt the Netherlands attack to pile 443 runs in 2006. The Videocon Cup on this very ground in 2004, featuring Australia, India and Pakistan saw 12,000 spectators from all around the world flock beside the boundaries.

The main ground was fine tuned for an upcoming match between the Netherlands and Gloucestershire and the Swiss national cricket team, therefore, was playing a VRA XI in a 40-over match in the smaller adjacent cricket field.

The hour with Steven Lubbers

As I park and lock my cycle following the stout Dutch tradition, I notice the visiting Swiss team in the field. Only, there is hardly anyone of Swiss origin. The players are mostly expats from India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Captain Raja Hafeez stands at mid-off, and my main contact, Asvin Lakkaraju, keeps wickets.

A familiar looking elderly man peers at me jovially and asks whether I am with the team.

With some prompting from the medium-pacer from Sri Lanka, Lalith Perera, I realise where I have seen him before. Steven Lubbers played for Holland from 1972 to 1996, representing the country in 154 matches. He also led the Netherlands team during the 1996 World Cup in the subcontinent.

Now 59, he is captaining the VRA team. On paper Keith Ferrett, the chirpy wicket-keeper batsman, may be the skipper, but with Lubbers around there can be no doubt who is in charge.

“We have a few good players in this team,” Lubbers tells me, taking breaks to cheer the batsmen along. He points to the left-handed youngster at the crease. “That’s my son, Victor.”  The younger Lubbers has made his way up the various age-groups and, now at 18, has been impressing many. He is an all-rounder, who can bowl quick and also switch to orthodox spin. And later I will find out that he is a livewire in the covers.

The other batsman is Keith Ferret, who will later dazzle me with some acrobatic keeping. “There are a few playing in the counties. In our days, it was difficult. I went to Derbyshire, but could not get into the first eleven. The spots for the foreign players were already taken by Peter Kirsten and John Wright.”

Ferret drives a full toss to the long on for a single, and Lubbers is livid. “That should have gone there,” he extends his arm and points towards the cow corner.

“Till the 1980s it was difficult,” he nods in answer to my next question. “We were completely on our own. I was a Physical Education teacher, and I had to ask for leave from my boss to play for the country. I was lucky that I was not told to find another job.”

He tells me how during the late 80s and early 90s the system was revamped and some sponsorship came into the game.  There were tours to UAE and Namibia. In 1992, the Danish cricket team was hosted and Netherlands visited England. Return tours followed the next year, and in the intervening winter, the side travelled to New Zealand.

In 1994-95, there was a tour to India as well. “Ah, the short little bu***rs …  Clouting us all over the place,” Lubbers reflects smiling.

Meanwhile, Ferrett is out for a well compiled 53. Lubbers glances at the scoreboard and frowns. “Who set the scoreboard? Fan of Nelson, are you? It’s always 110 or 112, never 111. Now look at what happened to Keith.”

He walks up to the small scoreboard at the corner of the ground and adds a run. When he comes back I ask him about the standard of county cricket those days, with Viv Richards, Ian Botham and Joel Garner playing for Somerset.

“Ah, Big Bird,” he smiles. “He always came at your toes. Even then it bounced to your chin, at times.”

He recalls taking part in a 40-over competition with Garner.

“I was hardly getting a chance to bat. Walked in for 4 balls and remained 5 not out. I and another guy from Netherlands, we were desperate for some practice. Big Bird told us that Tuesday afternoons were slotted for training. We went to the ground, all geared up. And we turned out to be the only two. Anyway, we batted a bit, and bowled at each other. And then we heard a laugh from the stands, ‘Hey Dutchie!’ Big Bird was sitting there, laughing away as we had our session. ‘I couldn’t miss this,’ he said. Well, then he made it up to us by taking us to a Caribbean Bar.”

Bilal Ahmed is struck on the pads and there is a loud appeal. “He might give him,” Lubbers observes as the batsman looks anxiously at the umpire. The finger goes up. “I think we need to tell Bilal a thing or two about what to do when there is an appeal for lbw. You take a run, you tap the pitch. You never look at the umpire.”

Lubbers starts padding up and goes on with his story.

“Years later, after our tour to New Zealand, we had been spending some time in Australia. Nolan Clarke was with me and we walked into a bar. And Nolan gave a cry of joy. There was Big Bird walking towards us.”

Lubbers walks out at No 9. He used to bat much higher for Netherlands in his heydays. In the ICC Trophy matches, he scored 733 runs at 31.86 and took 34 wickets with his off-spin at 23.08.

Even at this age, the difference in standard is immediately apparent. Ali Saleem, who had seemed genuinely nippy, is played with lots of time to spare. Lubbers shepherds the innings to the full 40 overs, scoring 20 not out. In his only moment of indiscretion, he falls over trying to step across to the offside and hoist one from outside the off-stump over square leg. Sitting beside me, his son remarks, “I’ve been showing him too many IPL videos.”

Costly national service

Asvin Lakkaraju works as a scientist in Lausanne. Over lunch in the quaint clubhouse, he tells me about the way cricket is run in Switzerland. Every player in the team has paid out of his pocket for the tour. Captain Hafeez runs a company that provides some sort of sponsorship, but most of it is self funded by interested cricketers.

Recently, there had been two rival governing bodies attempting to control cricket in the country, and neither were recognised by the Swiss Olympic Association. This was a breach of the membership regulations of ICC. Switzerland’s affiliate membership was removed in 2011. Things have got tougher since then.

On television, Shaun Pollock explains how Dale Steyn dismissed Alastair Cook, and 40-odd eyeballs leave the food and focus on the action replay. Asvin informs me that there is some talent in the side. Ovais Yousuf flies to play in England every weekend.

The game must go on

When the Swiss openers walk out to bat, Lubbers informs me that he will open the bowling from the Amstelveen end.

He does and picks up a wicket immediately, Pieter Swanepoel is caught off his glove down the leg side. After a couple of overs, he takes himself off and puts his son on. The first ball of Victor Lubbers swings in, and immediately his father moves the man at long-leg finer.

The only period the Swiss look like making a match of it is during the partnership between Ovais and Lakkaraju. Ovais has class written all over him, keeps absolutely still and balanced at the moment of delivery, and plays very straight. Lakkaraju shows signs of impatience, but when the ball is short, he executes two superb pull shots with élan.

It does not last. Soon Lakkaraju plays across the line and is leg before. Ovais wages a lone battle and goes down fighting for 71, returning to admiring applause from the VRA members. The tourists lose by 58 runs.

Till the last ball, Lubbers diligently moves his field around. There is a subtle change following every single that brings the other man on strike. About forty years of experience fielded against a side of self-funded touring amateurs. No wonder so many play into his hands.

The match over, the teams line up in two moving files, every pair of opposing hands meeting in a friendly shake. Niceties of a gentleman’s game, preserved even beyond the cricket world — even outside the governance of ICC.

Lubbers senior pats me on the back and remarks, “It was a good game.”

Perhaps. While the international cricket calendar gets crammed to limits, often reducing even topmost teams to uninspiring cricket, there are these small yet dedicated nations who have to do with their manufactured moments in the sun, in some small corner in an unseen patch of green.

(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)