The ghost cricket leagues of France

The Dreux Cricket Ground, in 2023, drew the attention of ghost-hunters of a different kind.

The ghost cricket leagues of France

The Sanatorium of Dreux is an abandoned mental institution in Northern France. Built in the 1930s, it’s gained a reputation of being one of the most haunted places in the entire country - there’s actually a legend that the ghost of a 14-year-old girl haunts the place. Of course, this means that it draws plenty of ghost hunters every year.

The Sanatorium of Dreux © Urbex Connection

In the same compound lies one of the better equipped cricket facilities in the country, the Dreux Cricket Ground, which in 2023, drew the attention of ghost-hunters of a different kind.

It starts with a former cricketer called Tracy Rodriguez, who served on the French Cricket Board from 2021 to 2023. Rodriguez had championed the women’s cricket cause in France for years before getting to serve on the board. But unfortunately, once she got in she realised that support for the women’s game was almost non-existent, despite the front France Cricket put up with the ICC. 

One major red flag for her was an article released by France Cricket in March 2022 titled “The Evolution of Women's Sport and Cricket in France”, which said, among other things, that 73 women’s games were organized in 2021 and 91 were to be organized that year. 

© France Cricket

Rodriguez had had her suspicions about matches being staged for a while by then, but once she saw these claims, she decided to do a bit of investigating in her spare time. She turned up at a couple of grounds where the women’s Division 2 games were scheduled to take place and found her suspicions confirmed. The matches were not being played, at least not at the scheduled time or place communicated by France Cricket. But, days later, the ratified results were being published online by the governing body.

Rodriguez was one of the people Peter O’Brien and Gregor Thompson of France 24 spoke to in a 3-month long investigation, eventually leading them to the Dreux Cricket Ground.

Looking to verify Rodriguez’s claims, their first stop was the Sarcelles Cricket Ground for the Women’s Division 2 semi-final between the Paris Knight Riders and Saint-Omer on September 2nd. Well, a match was played on September 2nd at the Sarcelles Cricket Ground, it just wasn’t the Women’s division 2 semi-final.

Men play at Sarcelles Cricket Ground on September 2, 2023, during the scheduled women’s second division semi-final. © Gregor Thompson, FRANCE 24

Of course, as responsible journalists, once they saw the result of the encounter being published as if the game did take place on the given date and time, they decided to contact the two clubs. 

And this is when things get interesting… and a bit embarrassing for the two clubs in question. One club, apparently unaware that the reporters had actually been to the venue, insisted that the match did take place exactly as planned, but the other club claimed that there had been a last-minute change of venues. And you know what happened soon after? France Cricket called up the guys from France 24 and asked them not to contact clubs directly.

Next, they went ghost league hunting to the Dreux Cricket Grounds for the final of the competition and well, the game did not happen.  But three days later, there was another result sheet published and validated by France Cricket.

Final Result © France Cricket

But why would this happen? What was there to gain by staging these fake tournaments? 

France Cricket, though not one of the biggest boards in the region, have some large ambitions of progressing through the ranks in cricket. Development on that front would mean more funds from the ICC and with cricket set to feature in the Olympic Games at LA28, more resources from the Sports Ministry too.

With the ICC’s focus on growing the women’s game, France Cricket made plans to do just that. Many of their strategy reports to the ICC signalled their intentions to conduct regional training camps and girls’ school competitions. 

However, instead of following through on this and supporting the game's growth, France Cricket chose to pass the buck to the cricket clubs in the country. They decided to tie the fate of top-performing men’s teams to the women’s game, making it so a club could not play in the men’s top division if they did not have a women’s and junior team.

In 2021, France Cricket implemented a structure where forfeiting or failure to conduct games would result in a fine of 200 Euros - this went up to 300 Euro for repeat offenders and a fine of up to 1000 Euro could be incurred if you couldn’t field a team for finals.

This is in no way a professional set-up. The players are amateurs, most with real jobs outside of cricket. 

So instead of paying fines or having their men’s teams suffer, some clubs just pretended to have women’s teams. The board had basically given them a huge incentive to cheat the system, because the honest clubs, the ones who owned up to not having a women’s side, or forfeited games because they couldn’t find enough players, ended up actually having to pay fines they couldn’t really afford.

In 2021, France Cricket reportedly earned over 20,000 Euros in fines, while that figure dropped to just over 5,000 once the concept of a ghost league was born the next year.

Now, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is all on the clubs and that they are actually gaming the system and France Cricket is the victim. But, according to the story broken on France 24, there are board members and other cricket officials involved in many of these clubs - indicating that they cannot claim that France Cricket is unaware of what is happening or is being duped in any way.

Remember the two clubs that couldn’t get their stories straight about the Division 2 semi-final? Both had France Cricket board members in leadership positions.

So why do they let it happen? 

France Cricket’s future strategy is based on the realisation that ICC subsidies are closely linked to performance on a number of indicators - one being the development of women’s cricket. Falling behind on this would mean less funds, so they need it to at least appear to be happening. 

Sure the nine teams in Division 2 may be faking a whole league, but France Cricket doesn’t care, as long as the results are being filed.

For years, those involved in Cricket in France have expressed their concerns about how the game is being run. Even Marjorie Guillaume, who joined the France Cricket organisation in good faith and wrote the statement on “The Evolution of Women's Sport and Cricket in France”, now talks about how bad things were within the board, especially with regards to its finances.

Guillaume says they reached a point when the board was extremely uncomfortable with her being at meetings because she “asked too many questions”. Despite being the CEO, she told France 24 that there were times when she didn’t have access to the budget, further claiming that France Cricket was spending thousands of euros on cricketing equipment, which no one really set eyes on.

The fallout since the story broke has been big. Several of the large clubs released statements expressing their lack of confidence in the current leadership of France Cricket. 

Most damning perhaps was the statement from the women’s national side, strongly condemning the actions of the governing body as outrageous and dissociating themselves from the behaviour and actions of France Cricket.

A statement from former captain, Emmanuelle Brelivet, also indicated how she had been asked many times to misrepresent the state of affairs with women’s cricket in France at the 2021 T20 World Cup qualifiers.

Standard Athletic Club, one of the oldest cricket clubs in France, led the chorus of voices asking that the ICC step in and conduct a thorough investigation into what has been happening and mete out necessary punishment. 

Andrew Wright, who heads European development at the ICC, basically told France 24 that they trust France Cricket because the ICC has “a process to make sure the levels of cricket activity that take place within a country are proofed, and checks and balances are in place”. But, since the story broke, Sky Sports News reported that the ICC had confirmed that they would be looking into the situation, though we don’t know yet if the anti-corruption unit will be involved.

What does France Cricket have to say? The board's president, Prebou Balane told Cricbuzz that the story was baseless and that the journalists who broke the article were trying to get attention (because we all know stories on French cricket leagues are huge news). Balane also mentioned that he is of Indian origin, so there may be a racist element to their allegations. 

While the question about investigations dragged on, France Cricket pulled the women’s side out of the inaugural European Cricket Championship in Spain which took place in December last year, taking away one of the few opportunities they get to play international cricket.

Women’s cricket in France was used as a front for money, and when it was time to play, they were ghosted again. The only difference now is their absence is what haunts French cricket.