"We have established a cricket club at this wretched place, and when we do get anchored for a few hours,
it passes away an hour very well."
Captain William Hoste (pictured above) was a former shipboy of Lord Nelson himself, a distinguished naval commander who was on his way to a knighthood and was rather more used to sinking Napoleon's warships than guarding a small island in the Mediterranean (around 200 ships were captured or resting at the bottom of the sea on his account). His six-year posting on Vis was not entirely to his liking - after all, it was hot, isolated and Englishmen of his time were never terribly comfortable away from home; it was 1809, and air-conditioning, ice-cream, the aqualung and sun-lotion were all discoveries that lay many years into the future. Instead, they turned to that most English of pastimes - cricket!
There's some doubt as to whether the Captain ever actually played the game - he appears to have been a specialist fielder much like other more recent English recruits to the club - but he gave it his blessing and over the years the island became used to the sound of leather on willow. Captain Hoste would later distinguish himself further during the 1811 "Battle of Issa", overcoming significantly larger French forces and inspiring his men with the cry "Remember Nelson!". In honour of his victory, the islet in the mouth of Vis harbour still bears his name. It wasn't to be his last brush with lasting renown; his 1814 defeat of French forces in Dubrovnik would later be attributed to Jack Aubrey, the famous seafaring character created by Patrick O'Brian and portrayed on screen by Russell Crowe.
When the British departed, the club was disbanded and ought to have become little more than an interesting footnote in the island's history - but the story wasn't quite over yet...
The rebirth actually started with Nik Roki. Nik was born on Vis but emigrated to Melbourne in the 50s when he was just fifteen years old. It was a time when Australia was in need of foreign workers and actively encouraged immigration (how times change!) - Nik was one of thousands who made the journey and settled quickly into their new way of life. This, of course, soon included a fascination with the game of cricket, a sport that Nik initially found extremely confusing. After spending several years in Australia, in the process moving across the country to Perth, Nik had seen enough of the game to become a complete convert - and like any good "Australian" passed on his enthusiasm to his son, Oliver. It was with some surprise, then, that twenty years after returning to Vis to set up his wine-making business with his wife Valerie they discovered that the island had a secret cricket history of its own.
"In 2002 I found a letter in Tom Pocock's book, Remember Nelson, where he talked about the club," says Oliver Roki, reminiscing in Roki's Konoba in the tiny hamlet of Plisko Polje (the all-important line is reproduced above). "I thought it would be a great idea for tourism if we started up the club again, so we did. After all, I started up a restaurant without knowing how to cook - why not start up a cricket club even if you don't know how to play?" (both Oliver's cooking and medium pacers have improved hugely since).
Did they have a pitch? No. Did they have numbers enough for a decent game? Not really - all they really had was some very basic plastic training equipment but this was enough to improvise their way around the game, playing wherever and whenever the occasion allowed. With a keen eye for publicity, Oliver had already managed to get the revived club into the local press - they even managed to get a professional cricket coach to come over and give them a few pointers. The Sir William Hoste Cricket Club was on its way. The island's helipad became the club's unofficial pitch ("great if there are any injuries during the game!"), and after the St Radegund pub in Cambridge had donated some proper kit for them to use, they were ready (almost) for their first match.
"I had no idea!" Oliver laughs. "I mean, I'd watched cricket on TV but I'd never actually played before. We got this offer from a team from France [the Saumur Strays] who had heard about us and saids they'd come over and give us a game. By the time they arrived we had 200 people watching, even though none of them had any idea what was going on! We even had Croatian TV turn up with a news van. We were all really nervous, so I decided to set an example and went out to open the batting. First ball, this guy sends it down at a hundred miles an hour or something, I swing, and the next thing I know the stumps have been knocked over. I scored the first duck on Vis for two hundred years, haha!"
Getting out for what was in fact a diamond duck is an event he has never fully been able to live down; after all, he was one of only three people on the island at the time who even knew the rules. Undaunted, Oliver continued his publicity offensive, figuring that most Croatian newspapers and magazines would be sufficiently intrigued by the nature of the cricket club to run a few articles that might also allow him a decent plug or two for the konoba. He turned out to be right - and it was perhaps the cheekiest article of the lot that made the biggest difference.
"This friend of mine, Vlado, he had a friend who worked for Croatian Playboy. I asked if he could persuade this guy to do a feature on the island and about our restaurant. We got three pages in a 2003 issue! And somewhere in the article I mentioned that we were starting a cricket club. And anyway, then something really strange happened; the co-founder of a team in Zagreb saw the article and asked if I needed any help getting started!"
The other admirer of the female form was Robert Dumančić, the current club captain. A Croatian-Australian (like many Croatian cricket club members), he chuckles when he recalls how it was exactly that he came to be reading that copy of Playboy. "Nah, seriously, it was a complete fluke. Ivan Bilić and I had just set up a cricket club in Zagreb, and I was on my way down to Makarska when I went out for some beers in Split. I just happened to see the magazine on a news-stand because Vis Island was one of its cover stories - so I had a quick flick and it mentioned that there was a guy there who had started a cricket club. I mean, what are the chances? I was all set to go down to Makarska, but then I thought, hey, this is a guy I've gotta go and talk to! I changed my plans and got the next ferry over to Vis. That was the start of the Croatian national league." It is a league which now includes teams from Zagreb, Split, Vis, Komiža (also on Vis), šibenik and Ivanić Grad. It was also the start of a relationship with Croatian Playboy that has seen two more articles subsequently appear following the fortunes of Europe's oldest cricket club!
These days Vis CC has around thirty adult members and almost as many in the junior ranks, the only cricket club in Croatia to have a dedicated youth set-up. They are also the only club side with a policy of selecting home-grown players, mostly out of necessity; the majority of Croatian-Australian "retournees" settle in either Zagreb or Split for professional reasons and join the clubs there. This leaves Vis to pick their side from islanders and the occasional lost Englishman. Given their disappointing showing in annual Hrvatski Kriket Kup competition (only once have they not finished bottom) they could probably do with a few more Australians...
Despite this slight setback, the club has since gone from strength to strength. With talented juniors coming through and the arrival of a couple more talented seniors, results have improved and the club already has several teams booked in to play them in 2012, with cricketers from England, Germany and Slovenia having made the pilgrimage in the past (not to mention the MCC, who toured here in 2010!). The Croatian national side, meanwhile, has seen even more spectacular success, winning promotion from the European Representative Division in 2004, and then winning the European Third Division title in 2007 after a thrilling, last-gasp victory over Spain. On 17/18th of November 2007 they faced a play-off against Division 2's bottom side, Israel (bottom after the Greek team were disqualified for fielding ineligible players), for the right to be just one step away from the one-day game's elite, and came through in a nerve-shredder of a game to win by only six runs, once again taking the vital tenth wicket in the very last over. Vis CC is proud to include several national team players in its ranks, including Siniša Vodopija, Antonio Lipanović and most recently, Lenko Marinković and Craig Wear.
And the future? Work on the island's brand new pitch in Plisko Polje was completed in 2009, where a new oval nestles in between the vineyards and olive groves. It's the perfect setting for a leisurely (but competitive) game of cricket, and provides a much kinder bounce than the plastic wicket and the old helipad that served as Vis' first "ground".
Why don't you come over and see for yourself?