Croatia

Last updated 00:00 20/10/2007

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John Saker goes in search of a rare wine in Croatia, and finds himself umpiring a club cricket match.

The ball wasn't quite yorker length; a little too full. It struck the bottom edge of the batsman's pad. A bit lower and it might have laid waste to a toenail.

The bowler was interested enough to offer the first "howzat?" of the afternoon. Nothing strident, no finger pointing, no neck veins fit to burst. It was a polite enquiry and I was grateful for that.

I didn't come to this paradise in the Adriatic to be shouted at. A small yellow butterfly drifted across the wicket. I shake my head wisely. "Going down leg." The verdict is delivered in measured tones. The umpire within, whom I'd never even suspected was there, has spoken. Even if it wasn't (going down leg) I would have been hard-pressed to raise my finger. I didn't come to this paradise to give some poor bastard out lbw either.

Was this the spirit in which the first game of cricket was played on the island of Vis nearly 200 years ago? You never know with the Royal Navy. The losing captain might have had his team flogged. But historical context suggests a degree of levity prevailed back in 1811. The players had just won a contest where the stakes were much higher a day or so before.

Human collision in all its varying shades it's how history began and will end. Here I am umpiring a Croatian club cricket match.

When I stepped off the Jadrolinja ferry on to the sun-washed pier a few hours ago I didn't know Croatians knew what cricket was. I had arrived on Vis with a simple agenda: to collide peacefully with vugava, a white wine made from a grape variety found only on the island. In pursuit of vugava I headed inland to find the Rokis, a winemaking family in the village of Pliskopilje with whom I had been put in touch.

I appeared at the Roki house unannounced, dripping luggage, right on midday. Niksa and Valerie Roki were setting up for lunch. I felt ashamed of myself but only for about five seconds, they were so welcoming.

Together we lunched on chicken and potato, a tasty Croatian rural staple, under the generous canopy of a mulberry tree. No vugava was served "you'll have to wait for that," paterfamilias Niksa said slyly.

Towards the end of the meal a figure dressed in white bounded into the courtyard. I recognised a pre-sport spring in his step.

"If I didn't know better, I would have said you were off to play cricket."

"You're talking to the president of the Sir William Hoste Cricket Club."

"No joke? I wouldn't mind a game."

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"No, you can't play. But you can umpire."

The rest, or at least the next bit, is history lots of it, as told by our man in white, Niksa and Valerie's son Oliver. It begins with a naval engagement off Vis in 1811 between four ships under the command of Captain William Hoste RN and a much larger French-Italian force led by Captain Bernard du Bourdieu.

Hoste was 31 years old in 1811, his brilliant naval career under full sail. In his first few months as commander of the British naval force in the Adriatic, he seized and destroyed 46 enemy ships. He was the son of a Norfolk clergyman, and if that rings your own steeple bell, it's probably because you've read a biography of Nelson. Those circumstances applied to that other British sailor of no small repute. Their common background was enough for Nelson to take the young Hoste under his wing and he entered the navy at age 13 as captain's servant under Nelson on HMS Agamemnon.

The protege continued to draw inspiration from his great patron well beyond Nelson's death at Trafalgar in 1805. (Hoste missed that battle; he had been sent to Algiers on a diplomatic mission a few weeks before). Prior to engaging the enemy at Vis, Hoste ran up a signal to his squadron from the quarterdeck of HMS Amphion: "Remember Nelson".

Despite their numerical superiority, the French were decisively beaten. Du Bourdieu was killed. The British put into Vis to repair and recover.

Nothing like a game of cricket to stave off post-traumatic stress syndrome, or so Hoste thought. He had his men set up a pitch on a field behind the Franciscan monastery on Pirovo, a small but prominent peninsula inside the harbour. No match records survive if any were kept of those first games played by British sailors. We do know the locals came out to watch, and that some joined in.

It's doubtful whether Hoste himself saw the first wicket fall in the Adriatic. He had been badly wounded in the battle, although he recovered to fight many other battles. A couple of Hoste's later acts of pugnacity and daring were given fictional treatment by Patrick O'Brian in his Jack Aubrey (of Master and Commander fame) novels. Less enduring at that time, was cricket's Croatian foothold. The British occupation of the island was brief. Predictably enough, the cricket club Hoste set up did not survive the handing over of Vis to the Austrians in 1815.

"When I heard all this I decided to revive cricket on Vis," Oliver explained. "We named the club after Hoste and look..." He turned around to reveal the words "Remember Nelson" printed on the back of his cricket shirt.

Oliver's English is excellent, a result of spending the first four years of his life in Australia. He was too young to remember anything about Australian cricket, and it showed in his debut game, the first to be played in Vis since the 19th century. It took place in 2003. Oliver's enthusiastic band of islanders played a team of English ex-pats from France. The game attracted a crowd of 300 curious Visani, who laughed more than they cheered, understanding nothing of what was happening before them.

I was told by another player that besides the intricacies of cricket itself, it was the whole concept of recreation that bewildered them.

"They're fit people, hard-working, but if there's no interest in the financial sense in doing something, they don't understand the point of doing it," he said

I asked him if that approach was typically Croatian. "It's actually very Balkans," he replied.

The crowd that day in 2003 probably guessed that Oliver's golden duck wasn't such a good thing, though it was in keeping with the rest of his team's batting effort. The Sir William Hoste XI went down by 10 wickets. That didn't stop Croatia's national TV network making the match its lead sports story that night.

They don't look like winners today either. In the match I'm umpiring, Vis's opposition is Zagreb, the best of Croatia's three cricket clubs. The third is based in Split, the large port city that services Vis and its neighbouring islands. My reluctance to give lbw decisions hasn't stopped the home side finding other ways to get out. Only Tony Lipanovic, who scores 12 from some swashbuckling cross-bat strokes, and Oliver with 11, offer any resistance. For Zagreb, a smooth New Delhi-born offspinner called Gannesh does some damage with the ball.

Between innings, a Vis specialty is wheeled out for general consumption. This is Pogacki Vis, a pie made from unleavened bread filled with anchovies, onion and tomato. It goes well with cold beer, which itself goes well with the 30C June heat.

The cricket ground wins no awards for aesthetics. Flat land is rare on Vis. This small rough field is tucked away behind the port and close to a supermarket that appears to be the island's most unattractive building. A concrete block smack in the middle helps explain the field's original purpose; military helipad. In the 1960s, Marshal Tito, Yugoslavia's post-war dictator, wrapped Vis in barbed wire and turned it into a military base and listening post. As one of the furthest Croatian islands from the Dalmatian coast, Vis has always been considered militarily strategic.

Cricket is made possible by covering Tito's helipad with a blue plastic roll-out pitch, donated to the club by the English Cricket Board.

Before going to plot his team's defence of its meagre total, Oliver points out Tom, a Yorkshireman who is the only non-Croatian playing for Vis. "Tom lives here for most of the year, but none of us know what he does. Try and find out."

I nod assent, but more pressing is my original mission. One of the Vis players told me Tony Lipanovic's vugava is one of the best on the island.

Tony's a big man. He played a lot of basketball as he was growing up in Split, at a time when Split was one of the game's great European nurseries. Today he is a family man who returned to the island of his ancestors with the goal of making wonderful vugava. He promises me a tasting after the game.

The heat is still intense when Zagreb take up the run chase. It's a cakewalk; the bowling served up by the Sir William Hoste XI doesn't trouble the visitors. Boundaries, so scarce during the Vis innings, are now a kuna a dozen. This makes life easy for me, at least until a couple of bowlers come in and start spraying the ball around. After letting a few wides go uncalled (I am the hometown umpire, after all), I decide such leniency can't continue. For the next few overs I signal so many wides I'm like a scarecrow turning in the wind.

The game is almost over when Tom, the mysterious Yorkshireman, is given the ball. Wearing a troubled look he takes an age to set his field, and in doing so restores my interest in the game. He bowls off-spin, and a feature of his action is a strange, freeze frame-like hesitation just before ball release. Facing him is Australian-born Jasen Butkovic, one of Zagreb's best batsmen and a regular in the Croatian national cricket team.

There's no run off the first ball. Jasen takes an extravagant swing at the second, but he doesn't quite get a hold of it and the ball arcs directly into the hands of one of Tom's careful field placements. Unfortunately, it doesn't stop there. A regulation catch is grassed. Tom looks more troubled than ever.

But before the over's over, a catch is held. Tom deservedly gets his man. The celebration is small; Zagreb inevitably wrap up victory a few overs later. More beer emerges.

My thoughts turn to a swim in the Bombay Sapphire-blue, velvet waters of the Adriatic, but that is put on hold as Tony leads me away to his nearby winery.

Tony's tasting room is at the end of a tunnel that has been drilled into a rock hillside. It's another remnant of Tito's reign, part of a power station the dictator built on the island. As a wine cellar it's perfect. It belongs to Tony today because he was "lucky and knew people".

The label of the 2005 Lipanovic Vugava carries the term Vrhunsko Vino, which means it has been assessed as a "top wine" by the Croatian national wine authority.

I put the wine to my lips. It is dry, quite weighty and viscous. There is also an earthiness that is hard to pin down. It is fresh, interesting, singular wine. I tell him this.

He responds: "We may not play the best cricket, but we do make the best vugava in the world."

  • Wellington writer John Saker, a former professional basketball player, is author of the book How to Drink a Glass of Wine (Awa Press). He flew to Europe courtesy of Air New Zealand.

    - Sunday Star Times

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