Serbia and cricket are two words that normally don’t go together. The country only has eight teams, 150 active playing members and only played two international T20 matches, losing both of them.
They’re so new to the sport that they currently don’t even have an ICC ranking, yet they continue to push on despite the daily struggles they face to even be able to train.
A lack of finances means the team have a real lack of equipment. In the UK, most club sides would have around 50 cricket balls and 200 tennis balls at a training sessions, plus an almost unlimited number of cones. Serbia don’t have any of this. Most of their winter training is done inside, where hard balls are banned, and they improvise by using upside down plastic cups rather than cones. Some of the children they are coaching to play are so poor that they have no shoes to train in and the gym which the first team use is basic to say the least.
Despite these hurdles, Serbia are constantly looking to test themselves and this summer they’ll take part in their first ever qualifying series for a place at the World Cup later this year.
Although England-based head coach Richard Black is excited with how the squad is progressing, he is realistic about his side’s chances.
“If we won a game this summer I’d be absolutely delighted. I think the main aim for us is to try and compete.
“The biggest hurdle for us at the moment is that there’s only one level two coach in Serbia, it can be tough running sessions.
“The plan would have been for me to travel over to Serbia for various camps, but clearly the pandemic has prevented that. Currently myself and six level-three consultants based in the UK, Australia and South Africa are in contact with the level two coach every week and we help plan the sessions for the rest of the week.”
Richard Black is not your conventional international cricket head coach. His day job is head of cricket at the Royal Grammar school in Guilford, but last year he felt he wanted a different challenge and to work with some grass roots cricketers.
“I’ve always had an interest in European cricket ever since I lived in Belgium for six months and I loved playing the game out there because of all the cultural differences within the country.
“When I was there, I started wondering what other cricket was being played in Europe, and I stumbled across Serbia. I approached their chairman and general secretary asking if there were any coaching opportunities with them, and I haven’t looked back since.”
Although Black has helped the team make huge strides forward, coaching players in another country during the pandemic has had its difficulties. Black still hasn’t met any of his players and coaches them all virtually via an online coaching platform.
The platform lets the players upload videos of themselves in training, such as their batting stance and how they execute their bowling run up. The coaches can add comments and annotate on the videos so players can alter their technique.
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“With some of the players when I got sent over the videos in week one, from a coaching perspective, I was having a bit of a heart attack. But now with a couple of adjustments over the past five weeks, they’ve already become a hundred times better.”
Although coaching in these circumstances can be tough, the real issue going forward for Serbia cricket is their distinct lack of funding, both within the country and in comparison to the other teams they play against.
“From the ICC we get US$18,000 per year, while some of the teams we’ll be playing this summer receive at least US$150,000. As you can imagine the money we get from the ICC goes absolutely nowhere when you factor in coaching fees, kit, equipment etc.
“Then in terms of the funding we get from the government, we get so little that I wouldn’t even call cricket a minority sport in Serbia. Lawn bowls, darts and luge all get more funding than we do.
“But we’ve been really lucky running into this tournament as we’ve got guys buying all our kit, trainers, baggy hats etc. for us. Ludimous [the online coaching platform] have decided to sponsor us and people have been really generous. I think they almost see us as the Cool Runnings of cricket.”
This summer, Serbia will face European cricket powerhouse Denmark in their qualifying group, and even the likes of Belgium, who aren’t considered as good as the Danes, receive eight times more funding than Serbia.
Belgium will be one of Serbia’s opponents this summer
Although Black wants the team to reach their potential this summer, he is more focused on the long-term plan for cricket in Serbia.
“We’re launching a coaching course in Serbia so we can try and have between five and ten level two coaches in the country.
“From there we’ll be targeting schools heavily, just to try and make people in Serbia aware of cricket and aim to get youngsters involved early. If we can do that then we’ll have long term talent coming through which should help our ranking and in turn mean we get better funding.
“There’s also no female cricket which has to change. After the world cup, improving age group cricket and women’s cricket in Serbia will be our main focus, otherwise it’s all very short sighted.”
In the short and long term, Serbia cricket seem to be on the right track. There’s an incredibly enthusiastic group of current players who are determined to spring an upset this summer, while the plans are already in place to help the sport grow regardless of what happens in the middle in six month’s time.
If you’re keen to find out more about cricket in Serbia, all their qualifying matches this summer will be live streamed for free online and you can check out their Twitter account here.