From Havana to Kigali, cricket's good-news stories can be found in the least likely places
In 1895, Winston Churchill, then a journalist covering the uprising against Spanish rule, made an optimistic prediction for Cuba. The Caribbean island would, he said, “be free and prosperous under just laws and patriotic administration, throwing open her ports to the commerce of the world, sending her ponies to Hurlingham and her cricketers to Lord’s”. Churchill is yet to be proved right, but the association of cricket with economic progress lives on in the British imagination. In 2006, Foreign Office officials hatched a plan to teach Cubans to play cricket. The logic appears to have gone something like this: if Cubans fall for the game, then when the Castros’ autocracy collapses, cricketing Brits, rather than baseball-playing Americans, will be best placed to capitalise on the island’s new economic freedom.
But how to persuade Cubans to swap bases for stumps and catchers for wicketkeepers? For this the Foreign Office turned to Tom Rodwell, whose new book, Third Man in Havana (Corinthian, £14.99) — Rodwell apologises to Graham Greene, who hated cricket — documents his failed attempt to win the Cubans round as well as other unlikely adventures with bat and ball. His trips to Israel, Panama, New York, Sierra Leone and elsewhere make Rodwell a cricketing missionary, packing his pads wherever he goes to do good with cricket.
Rodwell was as ill-suited to his Cuban mission as Mr Wormold, the vacuum cleaner salesman-cum-spy of Greene’s Our Man in Havana. The Spanish translation of the MCC’s Laws of the Game, he soon discovered, was written by someone who knew plenty of Spanish but little about the sport. A game in Guantánamo (the town, not the nearby US naval base) ended prematurely when Stalin, a stubborn fast-bowler from Havana, had an lbw appeal turned down; and unsurprisingly Rodwell failed to persuade a baseball bat manufacturer that cricket bats would be a more lucrative trade.
Another cricketing adventurer is Oli Broom, who demonstrated his dedication to the game when he cycled around the world from Lord’s in London to the Gabba stadium in Brisbane in time for the start of the 2010 Ashes. In a 14-month trip he pedalled through 23 countries, playing cricket in all but three of them and raising money for the Lord’s Taverners, a cricket charity.
Broom’s latest project is to raise the £400,000 needed to build a cricket ground in Rwanda. Despite increasing interest in the sport, the country has just one shabby pitch. When Rwanda joined the Commonwealth in 2009, it was the first country without any former British colonial links to do so. When Tony Blair backed their admission, he quipped, “Well, they play cricket, don’t they?”
The Rwandans will doubtless take heart from the rise of the Afghanistan cricket team, a story told by Tim Albone in his film and book Out of the Ashes (Virgin, £11.99). In 1987, the Afghan Cricket Club was founded in a refugee camp in Pakistan. This year, the national team will take part in the Twenty20 World Cup, competing against the best in the world.
With corrupt Pakistani cricketers behind bars and the gaudy, money-soaked Indian Premier League on the rise, cricket needs good-news stories. Fortunately, there are still plenty to choose from.