HAVANA, April 26: Many started playing with sawn-off broom sticks for stumps and home-made bats carved out of wood with machetes. Now, furnished with bats, balls and pads donated by foreigners, they gather in the poor Havana suburb of Guanabacoa at weekends to practise cricket under the guidance of Indian diplomats.
Despite their lack of equipment, young Cubans are taking up cricket in growing numbers, proud to dress in whites in a country where baseball remains the national passion.
Cubans of West Indian descent are reviving the sport first played by their ancestors who came to work on sugar plantations and at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay almost century ago. At that stage the Americans had only recently introduced baseball to Cuba.
“More than 2,000 juniors and adults are playing cricket today in nine of Cuba’s 13 provinces,” said Leona Ford, chief promoter of the revival and president of the Cuban Cricket Commission.
“We hope the children gaining skills now will one day play real cricket, because older Cubans are too influenced by baseball to learn,” she said.
Her father Leonard Ford emigrated from Barbados in 1928 and became a useful cricketer working at the Guantanamo naval base.
The sport was played by West Indian immigrants in sugar milling communities throughout eastern Cuba. Old-timers still recall the first international match in 1952, when Ford’s father played against a Jamaican team including Jamaica’s current Governor-General, Sir Howard Cooke.
Cricket peaked in the 1950s and died out after President Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution steered Cuba toward socialism and state-organised sports.
In the mostly black district of Alamar, on the east side of Havana, juniors practice with plastic stumps and cricket balls donated by the Canadian Cricket Association.
They started with balls made of socks by Victor Aldana, who carves bats with machetes out of old door posts retrieved from rubbish dumps. Aldana’s wife Reina, whose grandfather came from Barbados, has cricket in her blood.
“I’m doing this for my ancestors. We are succeeding in recovering the game,” said Reina, 61, as she coached boys and girls. “Keep that bat down,” she shouts. “They slug at the ball like baseballers. That’s the first thing we have to correct.”
Cuban youngsters say the game gives them self-respect in the dreariness of life in Communist Cuba.
“It is a gentleman’s game that teaches dignity and respect for your mates,” said Javier Gonzalez, 15, who started playing four years ago in Alamar. “I got hooked on cricket during practices and can’t stop playing.”
“We began with nothing. We had to make bats ourselves and play with tennis balls or baseballs,” said Anthony Towie, whose Jamaican parents arrived in a Cuban sugar town in 1919.
“The West Indians brought cricket like they brought their religion and their food. They played against each other in the ‘bateys’ (sugar plantation villages),” said Towie, who is 60 and helped Ford launch the revival in 1997.
“The problem is equipment. We depend on donations. The government lends us facilities, but nothing else,” he said.
Cuba’s National Sports Institute (INDER) recognised cricket as a recreational sport in 2001, which opened access to sports facilities, but not equipment or the use of state-owned buses to take players to games, which is reserved for official sports.
“We badly lack transport to go and play against teams in other towns of Cuba. I have to pay for the bus myself and it is expensive,” said Levis Laws Garrido, a former baseball pitching manager who now coaches young Cubans in Guanabacoa.
In 2002, Cuba was admitted as an affiliated member of the International Cricket Council (ICC), which governs the sport played in more than 100 countries.
“In terms of grass-roots youth development, Cuba has been one of the fastest growing countries in the Americas,” said Grant Dugmore, ICC regional development officer for South and Central America.
“The enthusiasm and passion shown for the game is amazing, and bodes well for the future of the sport in Cuba,” he added.
Dugmore said gaining official status would be an enormous benefit but likely to remain some way off.
Cuba’s cricketers have received encouragement and donations of kit and clothing from South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Guyana, Canada and Britain, whose Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell donated an artificial pitch on a visit in March.
Indian diplomats said Cuba had a nucleus of young players who are eager to learn and ready to play.
“They take it very seriously. We never expected there would be cricket in Cuba,” said Indian embassy attache Santosh Rawat, while teaching youngsters to bowl in Guanabacoa on a Saturday.
He said Cubans were good fielders, who caught and threw superbly, while their batting was strong on the leg side but poor on the off due to their baseball upbringing.
Baseballers, sharing the field, observed the bizarre sport with a mixture of scorn and curiosity while admiring a catch by a bare-handed fielder.
“It’s fun to look at, but you can’t compare it with baseball. That’s a serious game,” said Dany, who stopped his horse and cart loaded with hay to watch. “It will never compete with baseball.—Reuters