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A very English game of cricket in France

Somerset Maugham famously described the French Riviera as “a sunny spot for shady people”.  And dressed the way we were – in cricket flannels for a 5-day tour of southern France, we aroused a great deal of suspicious interest wherever we went.

As club fixture secretary I arranged two “Tests” at Cabris Cricket Club in the Plan de Provence hills above Cannes. The tour began with lunch in Juan-les-Pins followed by a rooftop drinks party in Nice. Some of us spent the next day playing golf badly at Royal Mougins while others visited Grasse, St Tropez and Monaco.

The majority however poured all their efforts into studiously avoiding anything more cultural than drinking and eating. It is an irony that sports tours tend to be the least active of any activity holiday. While the ladies had facials at the acclaimed “Le Mas Candille Spa” in Mougins, the intellectual engine-room of the tour party prepared for their big games by playing childish games around the bar and around the pool at the team HQ in St Cezaire sur Siagne.

‘St Cezaire is ancient fortified perched village famous for its green village fountain (1878) and 12th century Chapelle Notre Dame de la Sardaigne’ I read from a brochure as we enjoyed Pastis under the shady maronniers (chestnut trees) of the town square while discussing tactics and generally doing nothing more energetic than avoiding all thoughts of going to see the neolithic necropolis at Camplon, the local covered Roman wells or the dolmens at La Graou.

We were saving ourselves. Culture took a back seat to cricket.

Some of us, however, did wander around Cabris and enjoyed the views from the walls of the old Chateau des Marquis de Clapiers in Le Place Mirabeau. The less myopic of us actually saw the Lerins islands in the distance. Others – the ones with ladies in tow – were themselves towed around Mougins to see Christian Dior’s old house L’Hotel les Muscadins where Picasso stayed in 1936, and the house next to Notre Dame de Vie where he lived until his death.

Resisting the urge to do any hiking in the Caussols plateau, the highest most of us climbed was up onto the nearest barstool. The acquisition of knowledge went no further than discovering how much Bandol wine we could drink before we forgot the way home. Those who did not party, slept it off.

On the morning of our first match we played a game of petanque against the Amicale Boulistes du St Vallier. There were more restaurant recommendations than tactics.

“If you ever want directions ask a boules player. Unless you are playing against him” we were told. As well as “We would like some more fixtures from Britain. We always like to win.” They also recommended that we visit the famous stalactite xylophone.

We finished a not-very-close second at boules and didn’t come at all close to teaching the French about cricket. They stared at our flannels as if they could never be chic and they frowned at our grass-stains as if they could never be modish. We failed to teach them about the nuance of the great game. The only thing we did teach them was how to perspire impressively.

“It sounds and looks a very silly game“ said one player. He was left speechless when we told him that cricket is considered in Britain to be the most manly of sports.

Cricket has in fact been played in France since 1863 although a letter of complaint sent to the French court in 1478 mentions soldiers at Liettres in Northern Calais playing a game of “criquet”. Walpole wrote about a game he watched in Paris in 1766. In 1789 the Earl of Devonshire abandoned a tour just before the storming of the Bastille.

The “Standard Athletic Club” of Paris (Patron: ‘Her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador’) was formed in 1864 in the Forest de Meudon by British businessmen and shortly afterwards entertained the Warwickshire Knickerbockers in the Bois du Boulogne. Its clubhouse was a radar jamming station during the war.

By the turn of the century there were teams in Cannes and Nice. The artist Pissaro was a cricket fan.

There are some 800 players and dozens of clubs in France. Most are in Paris and the Ile de France. The Ormes Club in Brittany is considered one of prettiest in Europe.

Cabris CC was founded in 1990 by a Swedish softball fan and Ivar O’Brien, a retired British brewer. Their first game was against Monte Carlo. The first ground was on the village green in Cabris. One day they turned up for a game and there was an antiques fair. They played on much to the stallholders’ bemusement.

The current ground is the Quartier de Sainte Anne Oval in St Vallier. Above is the Tour de la Faye col and the road to Digne which is on the Route Napoleon. Our game was played in a very friendly spirit with the fast bowlers eyeballing the batsman and telling them frequently where to go and the slip fielders telling us “You must see the Ponadieu natural rock bridge and the camp at Castellaras de la Malle”.

The visitors won one and we won one. No heroes were born or legends forged. But we were a team united. Possessed of one mind, driven by one will and intent one purpose – to enjoy ourselves and have the best time possible.

We didn’t bother with the “bothies” (stone huts), the Roman strongholds, the barrow mounds, the Celtic-Ligina camps or the grottoes. The local lavoirs went over our head. But the hospitality and the iceboxes were overflowing and the cricket was good.

By Kevin Piley, a former professional cricketer, now travel writer. He’s also the former chief staff writer of PUNCH magazine and has written for over 600 titles.

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