Bowled over of Albania
The Times, Friday 6 July 1990
Could the dissidents of Albania, growing ever bolder in defying their determinedly Stalinist regime, have drawn strength from the civilising qualities of cricket? The Chelsea-based cricket club, the Phené Wanderers, and its tour operator, Martyn Holidays, have just returned from a coaching mission to Albania, and in addition to having imparted the advantages of a straight bat the club hopes that it may have helped to resolve the 44-year-old dispute over the Corfu Channel incident which led to the breakdown of diplomatic relations between Britain and Albania.
During the Greek civil war in 1946 two British destroyers were mined in the strait between Albania and Corfu with the loss of 40 lives. An international court awarded Britain compensation, but the Albanians refused to admit liability. Britain thereafter blocked the return of Albanian gold recovered from the Nazis, worth £38 million at today's prices and still in the Bank of England's vaults.
While coaching at Saranda, Noel Baptiste of the Phené club met an elderly Albanian official who offered an explanation for Albania's reluctance to admit responsibility for the incident. "The official, who insisted on total anonymity, admitted that Albanian forces co-operated closely with the Yugoslav forces of Tito and the communists and that the Yugoslavs had laid the mines with the co-operation or connivance of the Albanians," Baptiste says. "It would be nice to think that cricket may have played a small part in leading to the solution of the dispute and the restoration of diplomatic relations. If the Albanians had been introduced to the game years ago they might never have been ruptured."
The Foreign Office, while pointing out that Britain has never claimed that the Albanians actually did the deed themselves, accepts this is a new development. "This would appear to be the first time anyone in Albania has admitted knowledge of the mines," it says. "Britain has always been keen to talk. The ball is in their court." Or should that be on their wicket?