HCC's Rene Smits: Dutch 'act and live way above our standing'
One of the oldest cricket clubs in The Netherlands, HCC has an enviable record: its teams have won no fewer than 48 national championships (the most recent in 2008), and they have contributed more internationals than any other club.
The days may be gone when HCC had two – or even, briefly, three – teams in the top division and HCC 2 was as serious a contender for the championship as its rival, and De Diepput may no longer be an international venue. But with six men’s teams, three in the main KNCB competition and three in the recreational leagues, and no fewer than twelve youth teams, De Haagse is still a force in the land.
Chairman René Smits acknowledges that, after a disappointing Hoofdklasse campaign in 2009, the top side is in a rebuilding phase.
‘With the retirement of Derk Rijkens and JJ Esmeijer, and the frequent unavailability of our internationals, it’s time for us to capitalise on the youth development initiatives we’ve built up over recent years.
‘We’ll have teams in both the Topklasse and the Hoofdklasse next season, giving our younger players great opportunities to develop further – and our aim is to be challenging for the title by 2011 and to win it again at least once within the next five years.’
Smits emphasises that the commitment to building success from the ground up is not a passing fashion at HCC.
‘The main pillar of our youth policy is our Friday evening competition,’ he observes. ‘Starting at 5pm, over one hundred kids between the age 5-9 are playing Kwik Cricket on every corner of our grounds.
‘Between 5 and 7pm all the parents visit our terrace, which then becomes The Hague’s most popular hang-out place to celebrate the beginning of the weekend. With a barbeque afterwards the last families leave long after sunset.’
But that’s only the base of a well-structured youth programme: with Tom de Grooth as overall youth coach and former international Peter Entrop overseeing the whole operation, HCC is well placed, not only to maintain more junior teams than any other club in the country, but to ensure that its young players develop to the full extent of their ability.
‘Our exchange programme is also an important element in the mix,’ Smits continues. ‘In every single case, our players have benefited from the experience playing cricket on a different continent with a different attitude towards the game.’
Continuing to invest in the future, HCC will be upgrading its nets over the winter, so that its facilities match the club’s organisation and ambitions.
‘And we’re planning to introduce a homework course at the club,’ he adds, ‘because during the cricket season a lot of our enthusiastic youth members take their bike directly to our grounds after school has finished, and don’t return home before nightfall.
‘Obviously this conflicts with their homework, so we are planning an initiative to set up a homework course at our club with professional teachers to attend to these kids – just making sure they finish their homework before they hit the nets.’
Smits admits that for a club of HCC’s standing the absence of a women’s team is regrettable. ‘It’s definitely on our wish list,’ he says. ‘But we’d like to take that seriously, and see no value in making a few phone calls to create a team just for the sake of it.
‘It needs to come from our own ranks, and we started that process last year by forming an under-11 girls’ team. Currently we have 32 girls playing at our club, and we will do everything to keep them interested once they reach the critical age of 12, by organising girls’ training sessions and games. It will perhaps take a few years, but a competitive women’s team is in the making.’
Turning to the national scene, Smits believes that there’s a danger of people becoming ‘estranged from the fact that in Holland cricket is a game played in the margin’.
‘Our international ambition does simply not correspond with the fragile base of the sport in our country,’ he suggests. ‘There are football and hockey clubs which have more youth than all the cricketing youngsters in Holland.
‘Our current international success largely depends on our ancestors’ love for travel. The fact that the ICC is willing to invest large sums of money to give our 15 or so elite players the time of their lives is fantastic, but it won’t benefit the growth of our sport. That the ICC is now reigning over the KNCB is something we should seriously be concerned about.’
The HCC chairman would like to see more attention being given to the Dutch game’s recreational cricketers as well as to youth development: ‘those cricketing enthusiasts who turn up at weekends to enjoy the social aspect of the game form in many cases the base of the club organisation,’ he points out.
He also has interesting ideas about making cricket ‘cool’, echoing a point made by VOC’s Lau van Everdingen a couple of weeks ago.
‘Go to any school in Holland and you’ll see the kids wearing football shirts, baseball caps and sneakers worn by their role models. Youth fashion is influenced by the sports industry. We should lose the whites and give kids the opportunity to look cool in the schoolyard with colourful and branded sportswear, and give girls the opportunity to look feminine in the field instead of putting them in a potato bag.
‘I am convinced that the effect on the perception of our sport – and with that the popularity among youngsters – would be far more effective than millions being invested in Elite programs, and in the end it can prove to be a cost saver for the clubs as they could order cricket gear in bulk, made in club colours.
‘The KNCB should invest a substantial amount in commissioning an established sports brand to redesign the cricket outfits, just as the Rabobank took the initiative to redesign the most recent hockey outfits for our Internationals. Make cricket "cool" in apparel, without losing the values.’
Like other multi-sports clubs HCC suffers from the ever-increasing demands of the footballers, currently planning a further extension of their season, and Smits suggests that this is something which needs to be tackled at national level.
‘Perhaps it’s time for the KNCB to sit down with the football and hockey associations and ventilate these issues. But of course, they’ve got the numbers, so we may have to look for other solutions.'
But above all, he is keen to stress the need for realism.
‘Let’s not kid ourselves and act like our current international standing is a fair representation of the state of Dutch cricket,’ he argues. ‘Just take a quick look at our current selection and take away the players who weren’t born on Dutch soil.
‘They should be welcomed and used to benefit from ICC funds as long as possible. But I’m afraid that at present we act and live way above our standing.’