A Dutchman, an Aussie, a South African, an Antiguan, a Bangladeshi, a Pakistani and two Serbs walk into a bar. The punchline? Well there isn’t actually a punchline because it’s not a bar, it’s a cricket field, and this isn’t a joke, it’s a story about how a common passion can unite the unlikeliest group in the unlikeliest place.
On this Sunday morning we unlikely few find ourselves in Bački Monostor, a cosy village nestled amid the crop fields of northwestern Serbia, a two-hour, poppy-lined drive from Belgrade. While raging storms lashed the capital overnight, the people of Bački Monostor slept easily and woke to a sunny, dry day; perfect conditions for cricket. We file out of the surprisingly nice change rooms in our burgundy ‘Stari Grad’ shirts, greeted by our sky blue opponents with a chain of hugs and high fives.
Speaking a blend of Hungarian and Serbian, this troupe of local lads – the majority of whom I assume are of Roma heritage – bring enthusiasm and laughter to their makeshift home ground. They play their matches on the local football field, the barely mown pitch distinguishable only by the fast-fading spray paint marking its edges. The pitch’s strange 30-degree bearing renders the square leg boundary barely 15 metres from the batsman’s crease, while only a lusty blow would clear the rope at long on. A few practice balls confirm that this is the kind of deck on which a half-tracker can dribble through at ankle height, while a yorker can fly up to hit you on the chin.
Without knowing whether we’d won or lost the toss amid the joviality, we find ourselves bowling first, our paunchy foes padded up in hand-me-down gear to face the thunder. Jovan – a 15-year-old Serb with the flowing blonde locks of a Pantene model – opens the bowling, his tidy first set demonstrating his talent for this foreign sport. Tim, our Dutch driver, takes the ball for the second over, his awkward but accurate technique bearing fruit with his fifth ball, which the batsman skies to me at mid-wicket. Covering about 10 metres over two nervous seconds, I hold onto the catch, setting the tone for what will be a good day in the field for the boys in burgundy.
After four overs, our captain, Bilal, signals that it’s time for me to roll the arm over. Greatly overestimating my pace based on my height and my Australian accent, he warns me “Samo polako” – “Only slow”, translating in this case more accurately as “Go easy on them”. Bearing his advice in mind, I trundle in off a few steps, windmilling down a few decent balls in amongst some pretty Tragic™ wides. After two wicketless overs I resume my place at square leg, dodging and leaping in vain as shots fly either side of me, crashing into the rusty bleachers marked ‘Domači’ and ‘Gosti’ behind.
Catching opportunities come at regular intervals and, true to our reputation as the ‘international all-stars’ of Serbian cricket, we hold on to them. The most notable moment belongs to Wintley, our Caribbean colossus, who plucks one of the all-time great grabs with a one-handed effort in the deep at long off, while mystery spinner Sakib finishes with a couple of scalps. Every wicket is greeted with a fist-bump and words of congratulations, not only within our team but with the departing batsman, the spirit of camaraderie far outweighing any competitive urges we might feel. The boys from Bački Monostor are eventually dismissed for the eternally hilarious score of 69, with their most prolific batsman holding on for a well-made 29, celebrated afterwards as if it were a maiden century.
With 15 overs to make our sexually explicit target, our opening batsmen take it easy, putting away the bad balls and seeing out the good ones. That strategy works until Jovan cops a lightning bolt from 16-year-old Bački Monostor prodigy Goku, who removes his middle stump with a ball twice as fast as anything I could produce. For reasons known only to the captain, Yours Truly is sent in at number 3. Choosing not to disclose the fact that I won the ‘most ducks’ award for my local cricket team in Australia, I take to the crease, scoring a slow 5 before getting shamefully bowled trying to hoick a half-tracker into Hungary. Wintley and Tim make up for my failure by steering the ship to a comfortable victory, peppering the short boundaries with fours and sixes.
The high fives and general amity continue as we launch straight into a second match, one dominated by our dynamic batting pair of Eddy (South Africa) and Bilal (Pakistan). Both teams carry on half-heartedly, knowing the result, with thoughts drifting prematurely to the lunchtime feast we know awaits us. “Let’s rrrroll these boys quick smarrrt,” Eddy roars in his Afrikaans-laced accent, “because I’m fucking ungrrrry!” Inspired by imminent paprikaš, we tear through the Bački Monostor line-up, with both teams accepting that a quick game’s a good game, but a hot lunch is far more important.
Our celebrations upon leaving the ground are interrupted by the Tragic™ tidings that lunch won’t be ready for at least an hour and a half. We recoil at the news, as if receiving a physical blow to our already aching stomachs. But every cloud has its silver lining, and as it turns out this is when the day’s fun really starts.
As the local kids take to the field emulating cricket heroes they’ve only ever seen on YouTube, we adults sit down on the grass and immerse ourselves in cross-cultural conversation, my broken Serbian fitting in with my hosts’ broken English to form two thirds of a linguistic jigsaw. Ivan, the strapping Bački Monostor captain, joins us, his hulking lumberjack’s frame suggesting that with some more experience he could become a beast of a bowler. “You know, I could get Afghan guys (asylum seekers living near the border) to play on our team, but is better for locals to play,” he says. “Win, lose, no matter; we just want to learn.” We nod sagely, fully aware that we as foreigners are taking up local spots on our own team, but we tacitly decide not to feel too guilty about it. As the conversation about growing the game in Serbia meanders on, my mind drifts slowly away, distracted by the excellent aromas wafting over from the other side of the clubhouse.
I saunter over to the source of the good smells. The village mayor, his deputy, the local doctor and a rotund, moustachioed man wearing an apron fuss over two large pots of chicken and onion bubbling away on the open fire. I take a seat on the improvised log bench and let the combined perfume of burning wood and boiling onions lead me into a kind of culinary meditation. As the head chef sprinkles large spoonfuls of bright red paprika into the stew, I imagine that the two pots are pits of gently bubbling lava, effervescing but never erupting. The mayor pours me a shot of homemade rakija from a plastic bottle, the powerful plum spirit helping to enrich the illusion.
Concerned that I might relax so much as to actually fall face-first into the paprikaš, I return to the field to umpire the kids’ latest scratch match, unconcerned that the haze of smoke and rakija might cloud my judgement. We play for half an hour, umpires becoming bowlers, bowlers becoming keepers, keepers becoming batsmen until that glorious tone rings across the field: “FOOOOOOOOOOOD!”
Cricketers young and old file into the dining hall, where a long trestle table accommodates the two steaming pots, piles of bread, bowls of pasta and 15 ravenous people. The room buzzes with excitement and conversation, falling silent only at that tipping point when the rich, earthy flavours of Vojvodina render all else irrelevant. I savour the thick, warming broth, filling my stomach until I can barely move, my fat smile reflected in the faces of those around me.
Flushed, full and fooded-out, we farewell our hosts and squish back into Tim’s Renault, kilos heavier than we were on the drive up. The deputy mayor escorts us to the road out of town, a honk and a wave seeing us on our way. All of us met and shared this day thanks to the existence of cricket in a country where cricket doesn’t exist. That, I reflect as I count the poppies swaying in the passing sunset fields, is a minor miracle.
Love, joy and peace,