Wednesday, July 10, 2024
HomesportsPaul van Meekeren: From delivering pizzas to Cricket World Cup heroics

Paul van Meekeren: From delivering pizzas to Cricket World Cup heroics

Pune, India – Paul van Meekeren’s memories of the Rood en Wit Club in Haarlem, on the outskirts of Amsterdam, stretch back to when he was three years old.

His father, also named Paul, played at the club, located a few kilometres from the Dutch capital’s coastline.

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The junior van Meekeren remembers watching the action while sitting underneath the trees by the old-style cricket scoreboard, on which the numbers ticked over when a cord was pulled by the scorer.

On Saturdays, he would join their practice sessions when – if he took a catch – someone would treat him with an ice cream.

It was a setting that ultimately fired his ambition to become a professional cricketer and set him off on a journey that has taken him to two Twenty20 World Cups in the past two years and his first one-day international (ODI) World Cup in India.

On Sunday, the pace bowler was in the midst of the action as he bowled to a star-studded Indian batting lineup in Bengaluru and dismissed their in-form opener Shubman Gill.

“When I was 11 years old, I wanted to quit cricket and play football instead,” van Meekeren told Al Jazeera in Pune last week.

“But my parents wanted me to play one more season,” he said.

That season, van Meekeren was selected for the Dutch under-12 team and won the player-of-the-tournament award at a European championship in Denmark.

From thereon, there was no looking back.

“I stuck with the game because I loved it and most of my friends played it. It wasn’t about winning or becoming a professional cricketer – but spending time with friends, hitting a ball and having a great time.”

Summer holidays of cricket bloopers and club games

During his early foray into the game, international cricket existed as a distant dream for the Dutch.

Live cricket was not televised and fans had to make do with rarely found match recordings. The then 13-year-old would watch match highlights and cricket bloopers on tape.

Van Meekeren’s introduction to Test cricket came as a teenager, spending long summer days of school holidays at the club, where he would watch Test cricket on the TV when he was not playing.

He played on matted pitches, which often made the pacer slip and left him frustrated.

“When I made it to the Dutch team [in 2013], I was lucky enough to run in at full tilt on grass wickets at training,” he said.

Fast forward 10 years to the ongoing tournament in India, van Meekeren has played a crucial role in both of his team’s wins in the tournament.

He dismissed Aiden Markarm and Gerald Coetzee cheaply as the Dutch stunned a highly-fancied South African team to win by 38 runs.

Eleven days later, the pacer took four wickets in the Netherlands’ 87-run win over Bangladesh and picked up the player-of-the-match award.

Play the game or pay the bills?

The 30-year-old knows opportunities to appear at world tournaments are hard to come by for players belonging to the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) associate teams, who exist on the margins of professional cricket and do not enjoy the same benefits as full-member nations.

International cricket is still run in the form of an exclusive club, with only 12 full members.

In the ICC’s most recent funding cycle – from 2015 to 2023 – India and England received $405m and $139m, respectively.

In contrast, $160m was distributed among the 93 associate nations.

Van Meekeren is one of the few lucky associate cricketers whose international performances have earned him contracts in the English domestic cricket system, with stints at Somerset and Gloucestershire.

Despite his success, the tall bowler has had to travel across the cricket-playing world to make ends meet, spending winters playing club cricket in New Zealand and South Africa and coaching younger cricketers in his hometown.

“Between the ages of 18 to 20, I made good money playing for the Dutch side and with help from my parents,” he recalled.

Three years later, he moved to the United Kingdom and began playing county cricket.

“Back in the Netherlands, we lose young players when they finish their studies and face the decision of choosing between full-time work and professional cricket – as they have to find a job to pay the bills.”

‘Should have been playing cricket’

Juggling the job security that comes with a county contract with the desire to play international cricket is a difficult proposition for associate players, who risk losing their English county contracts if they miss matches to represent their country.

Van Meekeren found himself in a similar conundrum being one of several Dutch players who were unable to participate in their team’s World Cup qualifying campaign, as the matches took place during the English domestic season in June.

Despite deciding to stay back at his then-county team Gloucestershire, van Meekeren played only one match in the entire season.

It is something he could not have predicted, just as he would not have known he would be delivering food on the day of a World Cup final.

During the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, and on the day the 2020 T20 World Cup final was originally scheduled to be played in Australia before it was pushed to 2022, van Meekeren revealed he was working as a food delivery driver to make ends meet.

Standing up for player’s rights

Alongside delivering pizzas, van Meekeren was busy setting up the Dutch Cricketers’ Association (DCA), which he currently leads.

“With the team going from strength to strength and operating almost at a professional level, we felt we weren’t getting enough support from the board,” van Meekeren said.

“We were a bit sick and tired of putting our bodies on the line, training hard and getting into all these tournaments without the recognition.”

He is the only player at the World Cup to sit on the board of the players’ global representative body, the Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations (FICA), and is passionate about the game’s expansion into non-traditional areas.

“In the Netherlands, we need a professional setup, with at least 12 players on professional contracts, which will help us get closer to Test nations.”

The Netherlands’ qualification for this year’s World Cup came with a financial bonus worth $1m and their wins over South Africa and Bangladesh netted an extra $40,000 each.

It comes off the back of their success in last year’s T20 World Cup, where they progressed to the second round and guaranteed qualification for next year’s T20 World Cup in the United States and the Caribbean, for which the Dutch cricket board, KNCB, will receive a further $500,000.

Any prize money or qualification bonuses are of huge significance in the associate world, where professional contracts are still rare.

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‘I’ll find a way’

Van Meekeren’s future is uncertain.

His negotiations with English counties, one of which has withdrawn its offer, have been difficult as he is not qualified to play for England – counties receive funding based on the number of England-qualified players they employ.

The uncertainty, coupled with the upcoming birth of his first child, has led him to consider applying for British citizenship.

Van Meekeren faces indecision as acquiring British citizenship would mean giving up his Dutch passport, although he would still be eligible to play for the country of his birth.

“I hope everything falls into place,” van Meekeren said, hoping that his team’s on-field success will lead to increased ICC funding and an offer of a “worthwhile” contract that will help him keep the orange kit on.

But what if a contract does not come through?

The wise Dutchman has a few options up his sleeve.

“Take a smaller county contract, play more club cricket, do a bit of coaching on the side – who knows? But I’m sure I’ll find a way.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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