North Korea might not be the first team that comes to mind when one thinks of cricket. Photo courtesy: North Korea Economy Watch
North Korea might not be the first team that comes to mind when one thinks of cricket. Photo courtesy: North Korea Economy Watch

It has often been argued that cricket is not a global sport. They say the sport has hardly any existence outside commonwealth countries. However, this is not quite true. Cricket has actually been played in the most bizarre places of the world, even in North Korea — on April 25, 2008. Sandipan Banerjee has more on an incredible story, one of cricket entering in the most secretive nation of the world.

Maria Sharapova made headlines last year when she said she had never heard of Sachin Tendulkar. For fans, this statement was not only an insult of Tendulkar but also the the game of cricket, where he is hailed as “God” by many. If the identity of a sport or that of its legend is unknown to a star in another sport, the recognition of the sport the former represents come under serious doubt.

But is cricket not a global sport? Is this game only recognised by few former British colonies only? Not really.

According to Wisden, the sport is played in most parts of this World — from Norfolk Island to Falkland Islands to war-torn African nations like Angola and Congo — the game has found its way in every nook and corner of the globe. But the most notable invasion this game has ever made is has to be in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or the North Korea, for decades which has been recognised as the most covert nation of the world.

Since the creation of two Koreas after World War II North Korea has remained an infinitely secretive and hostile nation. For decades foreigners have been denied access — until in this new millennium, when the country has finally started to issue tourist visas for a few selective portions of the country. Pyongyang is one of those areas which an outsider can visit; and Taesongsan Park in Pyongyang is the venue where the only recorded cricket match took place in the country.

Background

In an interview given to The Telegraph (UK) Jon Newton, the then President of Shanghai Cricket Club (SCC), said that the idea of arranging a cricket match in North Korea came from a bet between him and his friends Ainsley Mann (a Scottish Businessman) and Denzyl Allwright (Secretary of SCC). But then, when there is a Newton around, can an idea be far away?

Though North Korea was open to foreigners those days, it was not easy to secure visas in a bulk. But somehow they managed to secure 21 visas —a remarkable achievement in itself. After getting the permission, however, the club officials had to go through a lot of paperwork and a planning of eight months to make the unthinkable possible. One must remember that every little movement in North Korea was strictly scheduled by the Government.

Finally, after a lot of fuss, The Ministry of Sport in North Korea allotted SCC a ground — Taesongsan Park — perhaps the only place where cricket can be played in the country. But preparing a wicket for a cricket match was not possible, so they decided to import a matting wicket from England. This is when DHL stepped in: they shipped the wicket to Pyongyang and also sponsored the tournament, which was named DHL Pyongyang Cricket Friendship Cup.

The Match Day

Finally the big day arrived — just before North Korea’s May Day festival. On April 25, 2008, the first ever formal cricket match was played in North Korea. In a country where a normal life is luxury and one is not entitled to a hairstyle on its own, cricket had taken its first step. It was a landmark moment for this sport.

It was a triangular tournament with three matches. Each team had six players. There were two teams from SCC and one team from Pyongyang Cricket Club (PCC). PCC was founded in 2002 by the head of European Union, who later left for India, leading to decay in cricket in North Korea.

The two teams of the SCC were named Juche and Reunification. These names were very diplomatically chosen, as Juche and Reunification are the names Kim-II Sung’s two political theses.

According to Wisden, the players of the two SCC teams were “Mainly British, Australian and South African expats…The Pyongyang side included the tourist’s two government minders [Guides], the coach driver [Mr Li, who, it turned out, had played professional baseball in Japan in his younger days], two lads from the tour company that organised the trip, and a man from DHL.”

Wisden provides a description of the ground and the pitch: the ground lay in the shadow of Taesongsan fortress — a large pagoda-like structure over three centuries old. The fortress was damaged by the American bombs in Korean War. The fort had to be reconstructed after the War.

In his interview with The Telegraph, Newton narrated an unusual incident that took place during the match: “At one point a marching band came past and stopped to watch what was happening. They had probably never seen a group of foreigners before, never mind foreigners playing cricket.”

According to Newton, none of the North Korean players had picked up a cricket bat before. But Mr Li’s experience in baseball helped him score some runs. He hit the first boundary for the Pyongyang side. Around 800 runs were scored from the three games. Juche emerged as the winner of the inaugural Pyongyang Cricket Friendship Cup in the land of Kim Jong-il.

Some innovations were introduced during those three games. There were tea intervals in between the games and during those Cucumber sandwiches were served. There was also a performance by North Korean accordion band to add a bit more flavour.

Pyongyang Cricket Friendship Cup still takes place, but in Shanghai. April 25, 2008 remains the only occasion when a cricket match was played in North Korea. Nothing has been heard or written about the Pyongyang Cricket Club since then. As cricket fans we can merely hope that cricket has survived in that nation.

It will indeed be a pleasant surprise for us if they break through the way their football team did, when they qualified for the FIFA World Cups 1966 (and defeated Italy to reach the knock-outs, where they lost despite going up 3-0 against Portugal after 25 minutes) and 2010.

(Sandipan Banerjee is a reporter at CricketCountry. Cricket has been the biggest passion for him since his childhood. So, when it came to choosing his career, he chose to turn his passion into his profession. Apart from cricket he likes mountain trekking, river rafting, and photography. His twitter handle is @im_sandipan)