Heard about the Italian cricket team?

Published: Wednesday, January 26, 2005, 23:53 [IST]
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Rome:The sound of leather on willow is not one you'd expect to hear in Italy, but contrary to popular belief, the country where football reigns supreme does have a cricket team.

And perhaps even more surprisingly, the national side is competing in an eight-nation tournament in Malaysia next month which, if they win, will take them a step closer to the 2007 World Cup, one-day cricket's biggest prize.

Excitement hasn't exactly reached fever pitch in Italy, but coach Joe Scuderi believes cricket here is slowly gaining ground.

"The fact that there are Italians playing cricket is just not something people are aware of," he told AFP.

"It's very difficult trying to promote the sport in a country that has no tradition of cricket and is dominated by football. Rugby has had similar problems in Italy, but the sport has made good progress since joining the Six Nations tournament and that's something we can take encouragement from. We are improving all the time and that has been reflected by the quality of our recent performances."

The Italy team includes two South Africans, two Sri Lankans, a Pakistani and an Englishman, all of whom are Italian nationals, while five of the squad are home-grown.

Scuderi, who was born in Australia of Italian parents and played first-class cricket in England with Lancashire, admitted the lack of investment in cricket has severely restricted its growth in popularity.

"The International Cricket Council (ICC) do give grants to emerging countries, but money is obviously a problem," added the former Italy international, who still plays as an amateur in the Lancashire league.

"The facilities aren't particularly good here. There are no turf pitches, only artificial ones. It's simpler and much cheaper. You don't have to worry about maintenance and you don't have to buy rollers, which don't come cheap!"

With only 700 registered players and only 400,000 euros of funding from the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) each year, Italy have had to spread their net far and wide to attract players.

"Culturally it's difficult attracting people to cricket in Italy, but we do have two reservoirs of resources - the local Asian community and Italians living abroad," said Simone Gambino, president of the Italian cricket federation.

"There are five million people from the sub-Continent living here and for many of them cricket is the number one sport. There are also many Italians living abroad who have been introduced to the game, through schools and universities or through friends."

"But local interest is improving all the time and we have five Italians playing for the under-19 side, which is promising."

It is believed cricket was first played in Italy by Admiral Nelson's sailors in Naples in 1793. Towards the end of the 19th century, several cricket/football clubs were founded in northern Italy, but cricket never took off.

After World War II, cricket enjoyed a brief revival when Englishman Frank Pogson married into the powerful Doria Pamphili family. Under his instructions, a cement cricket pitch was laid in the grounds of their villa in Rome and the staff of the Australian and British embassies played there.

The winner of the World Cup Qualifying Series in February will claim the final spot for July's 12-team ICC Trophy in Ireland. The top five countries from the ICC Trophy qualify for the World Cup in the Caribbean in two years.

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