Friday, August 31, 2007

SPORTIN' LIFE: Guardian, July 6 2007

Amongst the swarm of minor pieces of information that slipped out of the press wires on Thursday there was a small snap, around about 4.55 in the afternoon.

"ST JOHN'S, Antigua, July 5 (Reuters) - Former West Indies fast bowler Courtney Walsh believes that Cuba has natural cricketing talent and could become a force in the game. Walsh said on Thursday he had visited the communist country several times and had been amazed by the talent on show."

Cricket in Cuba - a curious idea, that. Curious enough to make your eyebrow flicker up and down when you read it.

It could almost be a joke (the same kind of joke that led Matthew Engel to remark of Chinese cricket, in the 2006 Wisden Almanack, that "if I ever get the chance to report the first China v England Test at Guangzhou, I would be delighted to celebrate with a plateful of sweet-and-sour hat").

It's not. On Wednesday, the Texas-born billionaire Sir Allen Stanford announced that Cuba and Turks & Caicos Islands would be joining his Caribbean-wide Twenty20 competition. Stanford is investing $100m into Caribbean cricket over the next three years, with a genuine conviction that he can create a profit.

It's serious business. And it suggests that in Cuba, unlike the vast majority of the International Cricket Council's 101 members, the game is played by more people than just a few ex-pats in panama hats. As in so many other ways, Cuba is different.

On January 1 1899, the USA took formal control of Havana after the end of the Spanish/American War. Within four years a patsy regime was in place, and a lease was imposed by America on Cuba that allowed them to take possession of Guantanamo Bay. Construction of the naval base soon began, and a long and inflammatory history was sparked.

Cricket, in its first flourishing in Cuba, was one of the minor, and undocumented ripples of change that occurred in consequence. The American presence led to waves of immigrant workers from the Caribbean. At first it was Jamaicans coming to construct the base and its infrastructure, then, in the 1920s it was Bajans coming to work in the sugar mills.

The game came with them, and in Oriente region, to the east of the country, it thrived. Leagues were formed, cup competitions held. In 1955 and 56 the Guantanamo Cricket Club hosted teams from the Bahamas and Jamaica.

And then came the revolution. Cricket clubs were, like everything else, nationalised. The government did not take a great interest and the game dwindled and died. In the records the scorecards run up to one final match in 1974, and afterwards the game all but disappeared. One match a year was played in a town to the south, Baragua, in celebration of Emancipation Day.

For 25 years there was no cricket other than that, and a handful of games organised by various English-speaking diplomats, in Cuba.

The astonishing resuscitation that took place over the decade between then and now was caused by several things. Among them was the receptiveness of Fidel Castro's administration towards alternatives to baseball, even as Bill Clinton was preaching 'diamond diplomacy' and organising friendly matches in Havana between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban national team; also, the British government grew wise to this new angle of relations, and set up a 'Memoranda of Understanding' between UK Sport and the Cuban Sports Ministry.

More than either of those, though, the transition was, incredibly, brought about by just one woman.

Leona Ford was born in 1943, in Guantanamo. She is a second-generation Cuban; her father Leonard Ford came to the Cuban sugar plantations from Barbados. Leonard was the founder of the Guantanamo Cricket Club.

"The club meetings were held at my home, and when I was little I used to hear about it a lot. There were cricket photographs all over the house," Leona remembers now. After a lifetime spent working as an English professor, she decided to write a history of Cuban cricket in her retirement. The details above are only widely available because of her work. She was increasingly drawn towards the idea of re-establishing the game.

In 1998 she presented a paper on the subject at the annual meeting of the West Indian Welfare Association. In the crowd was a man named Sir Howard Cooke. Cooke was Governor General of Jamaica. What was more, he had captained one of the Jamaican teams that had visited Guantanamo CC in 1955, and remembered playing against Leona's father.

With Cooke's support, not least in the form of getting his old friend Courtney Walsh involved, Lord set about re-establishing the game in Cuba. They started appealing for donations for equipment, and rounded up elderly former players to act as coaches and umpires. Earl Best, a sportswriter with the Trinidad Express, volunteered to run a six-week coaching course, bringing an Argentinian copy of the Laws of cricket with him.

Amazingly, and despite the unique problems Best faced in a baseball-crazy nation ("for a Cuban a bat is held and wielded horizontally," he wrote), the game began to take off. It was designated a 'recreational sport' by the National Sports Institute of Cuba (INDER). That meant it could be taught in schools. With the help of the British Consul, the campaign grew and kit donations flooded in.

In 2002 they were given affiliate membership of the ICC. In 2003 the UK Sport started sending out teams of coaches as part of their new pact with INDER. By then there were eight senior teams, and the game was being played in 37 different schools by over a 1,000 children. The first provincial tournament was held in 2004. From there, the curve continued upwards until two days ago, and Stanford's announcement.

Ford, having spent a long time running the national association out of her house, spending much of her free time watching video copies of Test matches from overseas, was made the ICC's global Volunteer of the Year in 2002. Now 64, she is still the only female head of a national cricket association in the world.

Her's has been an astonishing feat, and one that now looks certain to have a real legacy. The descendants of the Bajans and Jamaicans who first introduced cricket to Cuba now make up 8% of its population. And of course the popularity of baseball ensures a certain affinity with cricket on the rest of the population as well. Possibly the only thing working against the game growing further is the fact that there's not nearly so much satisfaction to be had in whupping the USA at it.

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