February 7, 2000

Cuba, land of rum, cigars, salsa and CRICKET!

"I had the great good fortune to be appointed the first Director of The British Council in Cuba, when we opened our office in Havana in November, 1998

Michael White, our man in Havana, reports on genuine attempts to establish a permanent presence for cricket in Cuba:

"I had the great good fortune to be appointed the first Director of The British Council in Cuba, when we opened our office in Havana in November, 1998.

I, like many foreigners, had a vision of Cuba based on "Our Man in Havana", Che Guevara posters, and travel documentaries. I was aware they had a strong tradition in sport (Alberto Juantorena, Javier Sotomayor, Teofilio Stevenson, etc.), and that they were fanatical about baseball.

Imagine my surprise when I found that there were groups of cricket players who are keen to preserve the tradition of cricket in Cuba that go back to the early years of this century. Although it is believed that cricket was first introduced to Cuba by railway engineers in the last century, there is an unbroken living tradition of cricket playing that owes its existence to immigration from Jamaica in the first half of this century.

Cricket in Cuba is in danger of dying out, or only surviving as a sport for expatriates. There is a semi-functioning Havana Cricket Club that last played two years ago, and there are groups of veteran cricketers of descendants of immigrants from various West Indian islands, including Jamaica, Barbados and the Bahamas. In November 1998, Leona Ford, daughter of the captain of the Guantanamo Cricket club, presented a paper at the annual meeting of the West Indian Welfare Association on the history of cricket in Cuba.

This attracted attention from Jamaica and from Trinidad, and as a result, some equipment was donated by the Governor General of Jamaica, who had been a member of a visiting Jamaican team in the 1950's and played against Leona's father. Even more encouraging was the visit by Earl Best, sports writer of the Trinidad Express, to run a cricket coaching workshop for sports coaches in Guantanamo.

Meanwhile, Leona arranged, with material sent by Earl Best, a six week course for sports coaches drawn from 14 municipalities in Havana. This initiative had the support of the National Sports Institute of Cuba (INDER). It was very encouraging to see that cricket was reaching out from the West Indian community associations, and involving Cubans of all ethnic backgrounds. Of course Baseball is the national sport in Cuba, and ex-baseball players take some time to adjust to the eccentricities of cricket. They need to learn to keep a straight bat, to keep their arm straight when bowling action, the advisability of carrying your bat when running, the fact that you don't have to run when you hit the ball, the desirability of keeping the ball on the ground. But they are naturally aggressive stroke players and excellent fielders. I was fired with enthusiasm when I attended the first practice game involving the 28 coaches; so much so that I actually took up a cricket bat with serious intent for the first time in 25 years. And found my services enlisted as a bowling coach.

A severe limitation on the growth of cricket has been the lack of equipment. Cubans earn a salary of around $20 per month, and cannot hope to buy their own sports equipment. The MCC have very kindly provided a couple of sets of Kwik Kricket equipment, and also a complete set of equipment for a youth team and an adult team. A British businessman, Syd Lowe, has contributed some bats and balls, with more on the way. We are now planning the first exhibition game between two kids' teams at a sports festival to celebrate the 40th anniversary of INDER on 23 February.

What cricket in Cuba needs most of all is equipment, and teaching materials. We would also provide a very warm welcome for visiting cricketers of any level at any time; though we have found that cricket is a bit difficult during the hurricane season (September - November) and it's a bit too hot for comfort from May to November.

If anyone is interested in helping the development of cricket in Cuba, they should get in touch with : Leona Ford,
President of the Commission of Rescue and Development of Cricket in Cuba,
c/o Departemento de Organización deportiva de la subdirección de actividades deportivas,
Dirección Provincial de Deportes,
Calle 3ra A e/2 y 0, Miramar Ciudad de La Habana
Cuba
Tel.: +53-7-29-2915
or with the author of this article, who has been elected an honorary member of the commission of rescue and development of cricket in Cuba: Michael White
Director,
The British Council
The British Embassy
Calle 34 No 702 esq a 7a Ave
Miramar
Ciudad de La Habana
Cuba
Tel + 53 7 24 1771
Fax + 53 7 24 9214
email: mw.britcoun@ip.etecsa.cu

The British Council recently (last November) opened its office in Cuba, and I have the great good fortune to have been nominated as its first Director. When I arrived I was somewhat surprised to discover that there are a few cricket players here, though baseball is far and away the National sport.

Cricket has been played in the past by Jamaican immigrants, many of whom came to Cuba in search of work in the early years of this century. Virtually all the cricket is now played at the Eastern end of the island, which is where there is the greatest concentration of Jamaican descendants. However, I have recently been approached by a group in Havana, led by Leona Ford, who is herself of Jamaican descent, and is writing a history of cricket in Cuba. She has managed to persuade the National Sports Institute in Cuba that they ought to try and get cricket re-established, and as a result the National Sports Institute has just organised a month of cricket coaching for 28 sports coaches in the province of Havana. I attended the final day of this course, when the coaches had a knock-about game to try to put into practice what they had learned. It was an incredible experience; and they even got me playing - I have not played cricket properly for over 20 years.

They have tremendous enthusiasm, but almost no equipment. They had one ball and three bats among the 28 players. They also have a very rudimentary grasp of the game - one person was given out for dropping his bat after striking the ball. They need equipment and coaching materials. They have no money - the average salary of a Cuban professional person is US$20 per month!

In the course of the day, I met a senior official of the National Sports Institute. He was very interested in getting cricket started in Cuba, and recognised that to do so effectively, they would need to get young players involved. He reminisced about his own experience as a young man getting volleyball started in Santiago University, starting with a group of only six players who knew the rules. Given that Cuba is so keen on all branches of sport, he was confident that, provided they could get hold of the necessary equipment and expertise, it would not be difficult to get people enthused.

Even these humble beginnings have attracted some local press and television attention, and I am myself becoming infected with the evident enthusiasm for cricket. Some-one confided in me that they were intrigued by a sport that was similar to baseball, but one that had so much more to offer in terms of style, elegance and complexity. Whatever their motivation, I am convinced that for a relatively modest effort, we could see very rapid development of cricket as a sport in Cuba. This is a country where they take sport very seriously; and what's more its in the Caribbean. If smaller islands like Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad can produce the stars of the West Indies, what might Cuba do?

My purpose in writing to you is to ask if you can advise me how we might help them. For example, if you can think of any person or institution I might approach who would be prepared to donate some equipment and or coaching or training materials (books, videos, nets, matting, bowling machines, slip catching cradles etc.). Or perhaps if any cricketers at whatever level who are holidaying in Cuba, but would be prepared to spend some time encouraging the development of the game, they would made be extremely welcome.

I should stress that because the British Council office here is so new and so small, we do not have sport as one of our priority sectors. And our budget is so small that it is already overcommitted on priority work. I am involving myself purely out of personal interest, and would be quite happy to write directly to whoever you think might be appropriate. I would be most grateful for any suggestions you might be able to make as to how we can help Cuban cricket.

I have had a couple of planning meetings with the Committee, and learnt that they have had some initial help and encouragement from Earl Best, who is sports editor of the Trinidad Express, and also from the Jamaican Embassy. However, most of that support has gone to the Eastern end of Cuba, Guantanamo, where there is the biggest concentration of Jamaican immigrants.

The committee are now planning to move on to the second phase of their project which has two objectives. The first is to raise the profile of cricket, which they aim to do by securing interviews on radio and TV; and by organising formal presentations by the National Sports Institute to the cricket veterans. The second is for each coach to form a couple of teams - one youth team and one senior team in each municipality, and get them playing. I remain very impressed with their energy and enthusiasm, and I hope that we will manage to get them the help and support they need. Their most critical needs are a good playing surface, and multiple sets of equipment.

Obviously the more sets of equipment that they can obtain from donations, the faster they will be able to develop the game. They recognise that ultimately they will need to commission the production of equipment locally, and would welcome sample sets that they can use as models.

But they also need advice on matters such as pitch preparation, scoring and umpiring as well as the full range of cricketing skills. As I explained to Mr Dodemaide, the British Council simply does not have the resources to pay for visits by trainers or consultants in these areas, but we will be happy to help organise any time that any cricketer or coach or manager has to spare if they are passing through Cuba.

They have obtained, through Mr Best, some cricket training material in Spanish, and they are engaged in translating the Laws of the game; if you know of any material on cricket already published in Spanish, that would be a tremendous help.

There have been several more practice sessions involving the group of sports coaches who received the original training, but attendance has been a bit erratic as July and August is the summer holiday period, and there have also been torrential rain, leaving the pitch very soggy. However, we have succeeded in getting some interest from the Sri Lankan Embassy, and continued interest from the Jamaican Embassy. We also got the British Ambassador's son, who plays for Winchester 2nd XI to come for a couple of sessions, as well as my own two sons, who are slightly younger, but equally keen. We even got a visiting British cricketer from Chile who has promised to bring his team from Chile to play in Cuba."