Frank Worrell’s central role in the transformation of West Indian cricket

“Do they really play cricket there?” This is a common refrain when certain countries are mentioned in the same breath as cricket.

In fact, the list of such countries is long. The International Cricket Council has 12 full members who qualify to play official Test matches, while there are 96 associate members.

That’s roughly half the number of countries that are members of the United Nations, and leaves plenty of room for a quiz answer: “They play cricket there, don’t they? Saudi Arabia is one such country, Thailand is another along with Greece.

Over the past week, I have been met with disbelief when I engage in conversations about the Italian men’s cricket team doing well of late. And that at a time when his football team was knocked out of Euro 2024 at an early stage.

Between 9 and 16 June, the Italian men’s cricket team participated in the 2026 ICC Men’s T20 World Cup Sub Regional Europe Group A Qualifying Tournament, which featured 10 teams. They were undefeated and beat Romania by 160 runs in the final. The team will advance to the final stage of the European qualifiers to be held in 2025. They are currently ranked 29th in the ICC T20I rankings. Saudi Arabia is 32nd.

Italian cricket looks to be on the rise. It wasn’t always like that. This has been recorded in two books authored by Simone Gambino, former chairman of the Italian Cricket Federation and now its honorary president. He wrote a fascinating story, which he kindly summarized for me in English, much of this article.

British merchants and sailors are believed to have introduced cricket to Italian ports in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, who organized a match in Naples in 1793, is even mentioned.

Cricket became popular among the elite in Italy and flourished during the 19th century. In September 1893, the Genoa Cricket and Athletic Club was founded by a group of British emigrants, football being a secondary interest.

In 1899, another group of emigrants led by Herbert Kilpin from Nottingham founded AC Milan Football and Cricket Club to remind them of home.

This apparent focus on cricket was soon overshadowed by the rise of football and later the rise of fascism. His rejection of all things English except football meant that cricket disappeared and was not reborn until after 1945.

It was driven by cricket-loving employees of embassies and international organizations. When downsizing occurred in the late 1970s, Gambino turned to managing Italian cricket, having developed a passion for the game through his London-based American grandfather.

On November 26, 1980, he founded Associazione Italiana Cricket. In 1984, the ICC created an associate statute and Italy became the first recipient. Between then and 1987, the Italian national team made four summer tours to London, mostly made up of homegrown players like Gambino. Between 1990 and 1992 there were three more summer tours with an all-original Italian youth team.

The 1993 tour of Italy at the Marylebone Cricket Club raised the profile of Italian cricket. This was followed by a request for Italy to be promoted to associate membership of the ICC, which was achieved in July 1995. According to Gambino, “that was the beginning of the end of secrecy”. It uses this designation because cricket was not officially recognized.

The Comitato Olimpico Nazionale Italiano had ignored the AIC since 1980, but was preparing a bid for the Olympic Games to be held in Rome in 2004. With the status of an ICC affiliate bringing financial support, official recognition of cricket suddenly became important to gain English-speaking votes for the International Olympic Conference committee became apparent.

Gambino was summoned by CONI and official recognition followed on 28 February 1997. The AIC transformed into the current Federazione Cricket Italiana.

Applications from Italian citizens living abroad, particularly from Australia and South Africa, who wish to represent Italy in cricket, for access to associate status. Under the ICC rules of the time, they were not eligible. Only birth in the country and permanent residence count, not citizenship.

Tension between the FCI and the ICC grew over the issue, culminating in 2001 with the ICC qualifying event for the 2003 Cricket World Cup. The ICC ruled that four Italian nationals were ineligible due to their non-resident status in Italy.

Gambino withdrew the team from the tournament and the matter was officially re-handled by an independent sports tribunal in Lausanne. The ICC initially accepted, but then tried to divert the arbitration to London. Gambino refused to accept.

He was aware that the ICC had a much bigger problem. It wanted to become a member of the Olympic Committee. This would require modifying the eligibility rules to include citizenship. A compromise prevailed that allowed Italy to withdraw without penalty and the ICC committed to completely overhauling its eligibility rules, which it did.

Italy, which was the catalyst for the change, had to take advantage. At the time, children of parents from the Indian subcontinent who had emigrated to Italy were barred from playing cricket for the country because they did not have citizenship.

On 7 December 2002, the FCI approved a rule that all minors wishing to play cricket should be recognized as Italian citizens. CONI initially opposed the decision, but withdrew after Gambino pointed out that playing cricket “is a civil liberty, just like going to the theatre, and besides, the parents of these young people are all taxpayers”. It turned out to be a controversial topic.

Over the past 20 years, Italy’s men’s and women’s teams have risen up the ICC rankings and the game has spread across the country, exposing a lack of suitable playing facilities. Its current men’s national team is a mix of those of subcontinental origin and those of citizenship by descent.

The addition of several quality players in the second category changed the results. This includes South African-born Wayne Madsen, who played almost 15 years in the English county championship and scored more than 15,000 runs. And Joe Burns, who has played 23 times for Australia and is the opening batsman.

There is a fierce battle for qualification for the World Cups among the ICC Associate Members. Italy is making a bold statement with its current strategy. Whether it can rank among countries known for their cricketing prowess remains to be seen.

What it does have is a rich, largely unknown and fascinating history to draw upon.

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