As the Super-Size Big-Mac Games waddles to its close one of the world’s most popular sports is conspicuous by its absence. While golf and rugby are going to return to the Summer Olympic schedule in 2016 this sport has only been contested once at the Games in 1900. The reigning Olympic Champions are Great Britain while the silver medal was won by France (good pub question this). This year, while such massively popular sports as air pistol shooting, Graeco-Roman wrestling and synchronised swimming are celebrated, this sport had the ignominy of seeing its spiritual headquarters taken over by archery, a particularly dull sport to watch. A series between the current two top nations in the world was moved around to accommodate the bows and arrows. I mean, of course, cricket.
Some compensation for me came in the publication of a wonderful book on cricket, Third Man in Havana by Tom Rodwell.[i]Tom Rodwell is the current Chairman of the Lord’s Taverners, a leading cricket charity. I was invited to the book launch at Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street, not too far from Lord’s as it was the first day of the Test against the West Indies. I met Tom when he was Chairman of another cricket charity, the London Community Cricket Association (LCCA) as it then was. I was brought in to help Tom think through the strategic direction of this charity. It was 2005, I had just started to build my portfolio career and so had time to to watch cricket with Tom and discuss the charity and the role it could play. It was also the summer the English team beat the Australians in a series believed by many to be the best ever.
The LCCA was founded in response to the Brixton Riots. Its work began in the Inner London communities where it became a source of hope for otherwise hopeless and disadvantaged black youths. The skills developed in those situations were then adapted to the teaching of cricket to the blind and other disabled people. The success enjoyed in these areas brought the charity to the notice of the international community and it has worked its magic as far apart as Afghanistan and Zimbabwe. The book describes some of Tom’s adventures as he visited some of these scattered places.
The vision of the charity was to use the sport of cricket to help develop individuals, groups and communities. Sport, and especially cricket, can give individuals pride and self-confidence and help them develop respect for themselves and for others. Sport gives young people a positive purpose and leads them towards healthy life choices in a world of potentially negative influences.
But why especially Cricket? Cricket is a game that is played as a team game in which individuals need to perform. The individual can contribute in a wide variety of ways. Someone who may not have the hand-eye coordination to bat may have the agility and strength to bowl. Some may contribute primarily through good fielding. Cricket is a summer game that with imagination and wit can be played in all weathers, even indoors. It is a game originally played on grass that can be played on a beach, in the street etc. Cricket is a non-contact sport that can be played by people with all manner of disabilities. Cricket is a game that can be played by people of all shapes and sizes. Some of the greatest players who ever played have been small men who would have struggled in most other competitive sports.
The heritage of cricket is based on the British Empire. One of the better exports of the British was organised sport and cricket was especially successful as an implant in hot countries such as those in the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent where for hundreds of millions it is the number one sport. This heritage can be exploited with the descendants of immigrants to Britain from the former colonies. Many of the stars of the game are Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans and West Indians. No other sport could make such a claim.
The way the charity works is to concentrate on three “Opportunities Through Cricket” programmes.
Disability: This includes the Special Needs Schools Programme, the Youth Blind Cricket Programme, the England Blind Cricket Team, the Summer Holiday Cricket Camps and the county disability youth competition.
Urban: This includes the Housing Estates Programme, the Urban Coaches Programme, the Inner City World Cup and Tapeball Cricket
Overseas: This area of work uses cricket to bring people together after a period of hostility, promote disability awareness and promote HIV/AIDS awareness.
Initial funding was from the Greater London Council but as the charity diversified the name, the London Community Cricket Association, seemed inappropriate and it became Cricket For Change. The biggest of these changes was the overseas programme. As its coaches demonstrated their ability to use cricket as a force for good in difficult places the Foreign and Commonwealth Office became involved and asked them to go into places like Afghanistan, Cuba and Zimbabwe where their own diplomatic efforts were restricted.
It was the FCO that persuaded Tom to take his coaches to Cuba. Ever since the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 and the missile crisis the following year US policy has been to isolate Cuba from the rest of the world and particularly from the other West Indian nations. Its most popular sport is baseball. Tom surmises that the FCO plan was to re-introduce cricket and encourage Cuba to play it against its neighbours and so in a post-Castro world undermine the US influence. I say re-introduce cricket because there was some tradition of playing cricket there. In the 1920s many West Indians had gone to Cuba for work on the sugar plantations. Many of these came from British colonies like Jamaica, only 100 miles away. Some of them built the infamous Guantanamo base for the USA. But in the Castro era cricket has declined although it is still ranked no 38 in the list of officially approved sports. Tom organised a game between Havana and Guantanamo and found himself having to explain terms like Third Man[ii]. This got him thinking about Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana, a wonderfully comic story about a British vacuum cleaner salesman called Wormold who becomes involved in a surreal spy story and the darker novella The Third Man about a criminal conspiracy to exploit scarce hospital drugs in post-war Vienna. Before mixing these together as the title of his book Tom went to see Greene’s daughter to seek her approval. She told him that Greene hated cricket but still had fun with his distaste in Stamboul Train in which two dodgy characters are called Hobbs and Zudgliffe (sic) after England’s greatest opening partnership.
The book is full of wonderful anecdotes. In Jamaica Tom played in a game inside Spanish Town jail. The great West Indian fast bowler Courtney Walsh was helping with the project. The inmates are mainly drug dealers and murderers but when they saw Courtney they all wanted to play a game of cricket with him. Tom found himself fielding to the great man’s bowling with a particularly notorious murderer at the crease. Off a short run Courtney bowled and the batsman lashed out. The ball came straight to Tom and stuck in his right hand. Mixed emotions went through Tom’s mind as on the one hand he wanted to write ‘Caught Rodwell bowled Walsh’ in his scorebook but on the other hand he feared what the outraged batsman might do. The convict walked towards Tom, put his bat down and shook his hand. “Good catch, man.”
The International Cricket Council is surprisingly keen to use cricket to help disparate groups come together, indeed its mission statement is ‘To captivate and inspire people of every age, gender, background and ability while building bridges between continents, countries and communities.’ Often such statements are mere window dressing, but it was at the ICC’s request that Tom and his team were invited to Israel to scope out the possibility of using cricket to help build such bridges. The match involving both Palestinian Arabs and Israelis was played about 100m from the crossing into the Gaza Strip. Only three months before Hamas had fired BM-21 Grad rockets into the area, one of which landed next to the Be’er Sheva cricket pavilion, just on the boundary of the sandy ground. Tom bowled an over from the Gaza end and the last of the resultant sixes went right over the Israeli defences into the Gaza strip. They were just about to ask “Can we have our ball back, please?” when an Israeli armoured personnel carrier came careering round the corner in a cloud of dust, and screeched to a halt about where cover point had been. The platoon commander ran up to Tom’s local representative, George and started screaming at him in Hebrew. Everyone had to get on the bus and leave. Tom tentatively asked George what the officer had said. “Not much,” answered George. “Just that he thought that your bowling was shit.”
Soon after the 1973 Yom Kippur war cricket became a Jewish Olympic sport for the first time. The Maccabi Jewish Olympics take place every four years with teams from all over the world taking part. It’s such a shame that cricket is not featured at the 2012 London Olympics. Twenty20 would have been the perfect format with all the facilities already in place. It would have been a fantastic showcase for one of the world’s greatest games and the archery could have been staged in Sherwood Forest.
Copyright David C Pearson 2012 All rights reserved
[i]Third Man in Havana- Finding the Heart of Cricket in the World’s Most Unlikely Places Tom Rodwell Corinthian Books 2012