Playing cricket in a country like Iceland has its own challenges. However, it takes a collective effort from everyone involved right from a grassroots level in a belief that hopefully one day they too could compete at the highest possible level.
With a population of a little over 3.60 lakh, Iceland’s achievements in sport, especially football of late - be it their men's performance in the FIFA World Cup 2018 or their women's team's spirited show in the Euros recently - have had the spotlight on them. With the country taking significant strides in handball and even basketball, cricket has found itself buried under all these sports.
However, Abhishek Raj Chauhan took it upon himself to change the landscape of Iceland cricket and over the years has ensured he has put cricket on the map, with many teams from different countries mainly across Europe visiting the Nordic country.
One of his many contributions to cricket in Iceland is starting Kópavogur Puffins which will complete 10 years and now compete with other clubs like Reykjavík Vikings, Vesturbær Volcano and Hafnarfjörður Hammers in what appears to be a thriving domestic structure could one day lead to Iceland gaining an ICC membership and allow them more opportunities to compete with the other members and grow the game in Iceland further.
In a chat with Cricket.com, he traces his footsteps right from the beginning of his journey which in a lot of ways is synonymous with that of Iceland cricket. Here are the excerpts:
Cricket.com (CDC): I believe you founded the Kopavogur Club in Iceland which has completed 10 years. What was the reason behind you starting this cricket club in the first place? Are you doing something special to celebrate it?
Abhishek Raj Chauhan (ARJ): The main reason was so that we could have more competition in Iceland. At the time, there was just one club, Reykjavík Vikings, and about twenty-five to thirty people who used to play cricket, mostly occasionally.
Forming the Kópavogur Puffins enabled us to have domestic club matches in addition to the occasional visits from foreign touring teams. Now we are well established and to celebrate 10 years, we are launching the world’s first northern lights-themed cricket jersey for the 2023 season. It is already available for our fans to buy.
CDC: Tell me about the domestic structure in Iceland. The Volcanic Ashes is something Kopavogur Club have excelled in. Tell me about that and the other tournaments.
ARJ: There are now four clubs and hopefully a fifth will launch after the end of this season. Hafnarfjörður Hammers formed in 2019 and Vesturbær Volcano emerged in 2021.
The best players from the four clubs are selected in the national team’s high-performance squad based on their performances in the domestic club competitions over the last two years.
This year we have played the indoor Volcanic Ashes (T20), the Íslenskt (Icelandic) Premier League (T20), and the Sixty Ball Shootout (T10). We will play the Valhalla Cup (40 overs) in August, and in September we will play the Ashes on Ice Test (two days, two innings) and Samuel Gill Trophy.
The Kópavogur Puffins won the Volcanic Ashes, whilst Hafnarfjörður Hammers claimed both of the two leagues.
CDC: What are some of the challenges of playing cricket in Iceland? Is there a ground dedicated just for cricket now or the sport continues to be played on football grounds?
ARJ: Since May 2019, all of our club matches have been played at Víðistaðatún, the world’s most northerly cricket ground. It was opened by Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the Prime Minister of Iceland, in a grand ceremony. Before then we mostly either played on an inadequate and rough grass pitch at Klambratún or an artificial football pitch at Kórinn.
The Víðistaðatún facility has its own changing facilities and a nearby storeroom, and the local council looks after the outfield. The parkland setting is also very pleasant, with a lava field, church, pond and campsite surrounding the pitch. The disadvantages are that we are not yet allowed to put down a permanent pitch, with a concrete base and mat.
Other issues concern the weather, which is frequently erratic and rarely above 15°C even in summer. Most games are played in windy conditions. But, overall, we are lucky to be able to play cricket this far north and manage to play outdoor games from early May to mid-September.
CDC: Is getting an ICC membership the next goal for Iceland? Do you think you are on course to getting it in the next couple of years?
ARJ: Yes, the Icelandic Cricket Association, the governing body to whom we are affiliated, is aiming to apply for membership in the next 2-3 years. There are a number of criteria that they need to satisfy, including the development of eight teams playing men’s, junior's, and women’s cricket. Junior training recommenced this winter and will be expanded in 2023, whilst the initiation of women’s cricket is more likely to be in the summer of 2023.
As I said, we plan to have a fifth men’s club very soon and hopefully a sixth not long after, so certainly eight is feasible within the next three years.
CDC: Is there any interest in cricket among the locals yet? Is Kopavogur Club doing anything to encourage them to take up the sport?
ARJ: There is a considerable curiosity among locals who stumble across our matches, and many stop to watch and enquire about the rules. At Kópavogur, we have had three native members these past couple of years - Jakob Robertson, Ólafur Briem and Elliði Vatnsfjörð Jónsson. Jakob was the national team captain back in 2015 and 2016.
We hope to increase the number of Icelanders playing the game over time. Enthusiasm has been particularly strong in the Icelandic Cricket Association’s youth training sessions and when we visited secondary schools to demonstrate cricket to teenagers.
Ultimately, we want cricket to be as successful a sport here as golf or tennis, which have really taken off in popularity these past few decades. We will never be as big as football or handball, but believe cricket can have a place and this requires more Icelanders to take up the sport at a young age.
CDC: On Twitter, Iceland Cricket Association comes across as a very witty account. Could you share some light on the brains behind it?
ARJ: It tries to actively engage the fans and give all sorts of opinions, some serious, but mostly it is a fun account that tries to remind people to enjoy cricket.
Cricket isn’t all about statistics and life or death victories, as some people make out! The Twitter account is run by David Cook, who has been captaining the Kópavogur Puffins these past two years. He is a university researcher here in Iceland and a very slow left-arm bowler.
CDC: Iceland's first international game was a 50-over affair against Switzerland in 2018. You played the Valletta Cup which also featured the Czech Republic, Malta, and Hungary. Tell me about that experience and are there any further matches planned in the near future?
ARJ: Our first international match was held in neutral territory in Weybridge, England. It has to be said that everything went right for us in that game versus the Swiss, which we won by 215 runs. Our leading batsmen, Dushan Bandara (134) and Derick Deonarain (61) both performed excellently and we were delighted to make over 300 in our first ever ‘ODI’.
Bowling is the national team’s strength, so we were confident we could defend the score, which we did with ease. Coming to the following year’s Valletta Cup in Malta, it was a more chastening experience and a wake-up call to the realities of competitive international cricket among associate nations. Although we pushed Hungary and Malta fairly hard in our first two matches, we quite simply did not score enough runs and lost all the games.
After this tournament, we hoped to play more international cricket but our ambitions were dashed by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which made travelling difficult. We will play in the Baltic Cup in August 2023 in Tallinn, Estonia. This will include Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. It will be interesting to test ourselves against these nations following 12 months of intense preparation.
All images courtesy kopkrikket on Instagram