Dutch seek a change of image

Derek Pringle, in Peshawar, assesses the team who are looking to upset England tomorrow in the World Cup
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There is something reassuringly wholesome about cricket in the Netherlands - a sort of cosiness that would not appear out of place in John Major's idyllic 1950's vision of England.

Played by well-behaved men on small picturesque club grounds where the teas are legendary, it is just about popular enough to raise a hearty crowd, competing as it does with the more popular sports of football and hockey for its talent. Unhappily for nostalgists, it is an image those playing are desperate to change.

"Cricket has always been seen as one big happy family," said Steven Lubbers, the captain since 1988 who leads his team against England in Peshawar on Thursday, and a team stalwart for over 20 years. "When I started playing we used to be happy just going over to Dover and playing the Fire Brigade and the Free Foresters.

"We were definitely regarded as a bit of a joke, especially at home, where people thought we were slightly strange to be playing this English game. But all that has changed and we've much more ambition now."

It is fighting talk, particularly when only 5,000 people play the game, as compared to the 400,000 who play hockey and the millions who play football. Sometimes though, lofty ambition is the only way to force change, though Lubbers is eager to play down any ambitions for this World Cup.

"We hope to gain in experience and are just pleased to participate. Our ambitions are to compete in most of our games and to be able to go home saying we haven't been crushed. As long as we have some respectability, I think interest at home will grow and grow."

There are signs that this is happening already, a trend Lubbers puts down to the Netherlands' third place in the 1994 ICC Trophy. "After the tournament in Kenya, there has been a lot more media interest, and we now have three reporters following us around. We even had a Dutch programme about cricket on TV, profiling the players. That was unheard of before and most of us had to watch the BBC to see anything about cricket."

Lubbers, now 42, first got involved, after being taken to games by his father, who only started playing himself once a friend had introduced him to the game. Cricket has been played in the Netherlands since the 19th century, and it seems that most home grown players take it up through the limited osmosis of family or friends.

It is a slow method, and one that Lubbers admits as being "no basis to successfully extend your numbers". It is hoped it will be speeded up with the introduction of youth programmes at all the major clubs.

Another problem has been their heavy reliance on "foreigners," such as the Barbadian Nolan Clarke and Queenslander Peter Cantrell, to make their runs. Clarke, who is 47, first shot to prominence after making a century for Barbados against England in 1974. On song, he is the Netherlands' most destructive batsman and featured heavily in their win over an England A team in 1989, a game your correspondent played in.

If either Cantrell or Clarke comes off, as the latter did on that sodden day at Amstelveen, - where one of only two turf pitches have been laid - the Dutch can be a difficult proposition. England are not the only side to have been turned over by them on the indigenous jute matting strips they play on, and recent scalps have included both West Indies and South Africa.

Despite the advancing years of their best players, they are a well organised team with a disciplined bowling attack led by Glamorgan's Roland Lefevbre and the ex-Hampshire seamer Paul Jan Bakker. These two are backed up by Lubbers' off-spin and the medium-pace of all-rounder Tim De Leede.

However, get Clarke and Cantrell out cheaply and fault lines begin to show. The batsmen are more used to the exaggerated pace and bounce of matting pitches than the slow, low baked mud surfaces here, where most runs have to be scored off front foot rather than the back.

However, in their current state of unreadiness, England are by no means immune to upsets, though since New Zealand these appear to have been confined to the stomach region.