August 1, 2011

The view from the bottom

The Affiliates have to work the hardest, for the least amount of money, to keep the game alive in their countries. Their stories are also the most heartwarming

At the ICC's annual conference in Hong Kong in June, the skies were always grey and rumours rumbled on. Cold vibes seeped out through closed doors, and plenty of gritted teeth were seen after changes in rules and formats. But one afternoon there came a story that floated up and above past everything - the soaring glass frontage of the W hotel, the driving rain outside over Kowloon, the bickering, the egos and power struggles, past jadedness and cynicism.

It came from a patch of land in a suburb called Kicukiro on the outskirts of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.

Seventeen years ago the Ecole Technique Officielle (ETO) was a place of refuge during Rwanda's 100 days of genocide in 1994. For a few months the ETO, the country's lone technical college, sheltered thousands, watched over by UN peacekeeping soldiers. Until the day the Belgian peacekeepers pulled out after 10 of their own were killed in Kigali. A militia mob, wielding swords, clubs and machetes, stormed the campus. More than 5000 people gathered in the ETO compound were killed, either on the premises or after being moved to a neighbouring location.

Kicukiro joined a long list of places - Jalianwala Bagh, My Lai, Tiananmen Square, Srebrenica - whose names carry the smell of death. Except now, the ETO has been renamed the College of Technology; one part of its killing fields has been cleaned, swept, smoothed and turned into a cricket ground. It is the only one in Rwanda, given to Rwanda Cricket as its headquarters. Play began there in 2002 and in January this year, there was much to celebrate, when Rwanda won its first trophy, the Africa Premier League T20 tournament held in Ghana.

Rwanda Cricket has just marked the tenth year and it is one of the ICC's 59 Affiliate Members, countries on the bottom of cricket's food chain. Their resources and manpower are limited, their circumstances far from ideal. But like the best stories about cricket everywhere, they stir the heart.

The ICC's Affiliates are diverse and distant nations where cricket is played, pushed and promoted with evangelical enthusiasm. They are all clubbed together well behind the teams the elite of the game consider the "minnows", who themselves are only worthy of sniggering and debate after their bad days at a World Cup.

To the Affiliates, Ireland, Kenya, UAE, Namibia, Scotland, Canada are at dizzy heights in cricket's hierarchy, with greater powers in the ICC (one vote per nation, as against five Affiliate nations mustering a single vote) and greater access to the ICC's cash. The Affiliates are far removed from the multi-million dollar ecosystem but understand the worth of every dollar; they know it is the commercial ecosystem that sustains the ICC's development programmes that reach them.

It is worth realising that the smallest teams can be reminders of the game's simplest beauties, as well as of the beautiful simplicity of what may seem a complicated pursuit.

The story about Rwanda came from Dipankar Sengupta, a representative of Africa's 13 Affiliate nations and the CEO of the Mozambique Cricket Association. Four other such representatives attend the ICC's annual conferences on behalf of the other zones - Europe, South America, Asia and East Asia-Pacific (EAP).

The Affiliates must promote the game in what are cricket's new territories: usually countries without traditions belonging to a British colonial past. Their representatives must fight the good fight: sell a culturally alien sport that is far from simple to teach, with few coaches, fewer grounds, and participants who need to be kept interested and regularly egged on and rewarded.

What matters most are the intent and capabilities of the hands that rest on the tiller. Many are British and South Asian expatriates, while on the Pacific rim, Polynesians, who took to cricket in either neighbouring New Zealand or in Australia, have been drawn to spreading their gospel.

East Asia-Pacific Affiliate representative, the Samoan Sebastian Kohlhase, played club cricket in New Zealand and represented Auckland and Northern Districts in the 1960s. His own country plays an open-ended 20-a-side-social sport called Kirikiti, a derivative of the sport missionaries tried to teach the islanders. The formal version was seen as too costly and took too long. Men like Kohlhase are in effect starting over.

For the Affiliates genuinely trying to take cricket across mystified lands, the involvement of the local populations is vital to give cricket breathing space beyond expatriate cliques. Of the 800 players registered in Oman's national league, says Asia representative Pankaj Khimji, there are 100 ethnic players. Club teams are required to have at least one Omani player in the playing XI (at least three per squad), who must not bat lower than No. 5 in the side. Clubs are required by regulation to go out into the local population to open up the sport and spread it as widely as they can.

One hundred years ago British missionaries and soldiers taught the game to various tracts of their Empire. It is why cricket can still be sighted on the island of Corfu, just off Greece. It is how the game began in South Asia. It is the template the ICC is now using to push the mantra of genuine globalisation. It moves beyond merely handing out ODI and Twenty20 status: globalisation in cricket, men like Sengupta and Kolhase will say, is very hard but satisfying work. It begins, they know, with children. And Twenty20, which at the Affiliate level is where everything begins.

Kohlhase says playing numbers in Samoa have tripled over the last year; in the EAP region South Korea had their first international victory when they beat Indonesia; the Philippines team reached the final at the East Asia-Pacific Division regional competition. The fastest-growing cricket-playing population in pure numbers in EAP, is Indonesia's, approximately 186,000, he says. Cricket in Jakarta may sound like fiction, but it is happening.

In Samoa the primary schools development project involves boys and girls, and Kohlhase's mission is to seek out not the top athletes in the 12-14 age group, but those who, he says, "will stick with cricket". Cricket cannot compete with rugby in Polynesia, he says, but can expand the population of its loyal supporters. Samoans, he says, can watch international cricket on TV, with the government giving the country's majority farming population free ESPN. His eyes sparkling, Kolhase says, "A Samoan [Ross Taylor] is now captain of New Zealand - we did good development work," and laughs.

The region's biggest drawback is the absence of turf wickets, a mandatory requirement to move up to Associate status. Cricket in the EAP is played mostly on matting. "We cannot afford turf, it costs more to put a turf pitch than the whole development programme," Kohlhase says. The EAP's struggle is: "We can develop, but we can't sustain."

What keeps the work meaningful, he says, is the camaraderie he sees cricket generate among those who compete.

Surely there's sledging? Indonesians having a go at Filipinos or Samoans at Cook Islanders? Not much, he says, but the ripple effect of television can be felt. Besides, he laughs, "All wicketkeepers sledge, always, everywhere."

The Affiliates must promote the game in countries without traditions belonging to a British colonial past. Their representatives must fight the good fight: sell a culturally alien sport that is far from simple to teach, with few coaches, fewer grounds, and participants who need to be kept interested and regularly egged on and rewarded

In Africa cricket is being pushed in schools, much like schools in the developing world push education itself. Some of the 13 African Affiliates send cricket officials to government schools to invite Under-13 kids into training. They offer three extras other sports do not: bus fare to the training ground, free medicines in case of illness or injury, and an egg sandwich every day after training. In countries where income is less than US$2 a day, that's enough for parents to pack kids off to cricket. As they progress. the training programme holds out greater incentives: shoes and t-shirts.

Sengupta's experience with Mozambique has made him a passionate and outspoken advocate for the Affiliates. Africa's stories are some of the game's most moving: Sierra Leone's team in the 2006 World Cricket League African regional competition held in South Africa featured two rebel fighters from its bloody 11-year civil war. South African officials understood the situation, ensured that the boys were issued visas and could travel across borders to play their cricket. They still do and their identities are still secret.

Morocco scouts its cricketers from those athletes who fall through the gaps of the country's elite middle-distance running cadres. Mozambique began its cricket with expats asking for backing from the ministry of education in exchange for supplying equipment and organisation. When the programme began, a number of bats and stumps were turned into firewood before it was decided that the playing equipment had better be left in the school.

Eight of the 13 African affiliates have access to cricket on community television, on video, or seen live. When children see big men in yellow, blue, red, green, play the game they play, cheered on by thousands, it widens their eyes and their worlds, and can lift their ambitions.

That is why, Sengupta says, he pushed for Mozambique's U-15s to go to their first international event in Namibia in 2005, even though his colleagues worried about their results. Sengupta believed the experience itself would be the result. Fifteen boys, accompanied by two teachers, pulled on Mozambique's national colours, and for the first time in their lives travelled by air, lived in swanky hotels and played the game they had just started learning.

They won one of 11 matches, but when they returned, Sengupta says, they walked in their neighbourhoods like kings. "We didn't look back from that day. Those boys are our best advertisements." The U-15s have grown up into senior cricketers now, and their parents still drop by to invite the Mozambique cricket people to family celebrations and festivals.

Central to the Affiliates' health, apart from the energy and drive of men like Sengupta and Kohlhase is the ICC's funding. Direct cash grants between $15,000 and $70,000 are available every year. How much is directly dependant on performance and results.

Should an Affiliate nation, like Afghanistan did a year ago, enjoy a breakthrough performance, they are given High Performance Programme Status and access to additional funding of between $350,000 and $650,000.

The ICC's development programme also involves central and regional support to Affiliates, helping them conduct tournaments, education courses for coaches and administrators, and support of equipment and facilities.

In Europe, while there are charming French and German translations of cricket terms, (Frenchmen who may play the sport call the googly a Bosanquet, and the German for lbw is a very logical "vorgetsanden" or "standing in front" and an over is "wechsel" or "change"), the Affiliates' struggles go beyond vocabulary.

In Finland, laughs Affiliates representative Andrew Armitage, cricket is a curiosity. The natives ask: how could it possibly be a sport - "they never sweat". Over 50% of Finland's cricketers, says Armitage, are local Finns; the other half belong to the expatriate communities of 18 countries that play in Finland's 20-club 40-over two-division tournament and an eight-team Twenty20 tournament. The country's first permanent cricket ground, with grass outfield and artificial turf wicket, has just been set up in Kerava.

The Affiliates ought to inspire a David Attenborough-style documentary, with the narrator travelling to their outposts, and saying ever so often, "And even here..." slight pause, "there is cricket."

That holds for Brazil, in its own version, the Taco or the Lato or Betes - a street sport that has set of three short stumps marked with a circle around them. The players stand facing each other at a distance of 15 yards. The bowling is underarm, and batsmen must tap their bats as they cross each other. It is believed that the game is a leftover from the English, who built the railway lines or owned mines in Brazil.

The Americas Affiliate representative, Matt Featherstone, from the almost antithetical-sounding Cricket Brazil (Associacao Brasileira de Cricket), says the major difficulty in the region is "not a lack of enthusiasm for cricket but rather, staffing". Finding and training personnel who can teach cricket, and finding those from the local population, as opposed to expatriates, who when they up and leave, "the whole system breaks down in that area". At the moment there are two native Brazilians who can teach cricket, a man and a woman. The player numbers, though, have risen. As late as 2006, there were only two native Brazilians in the national squad; today it is 11 out of 14. In an international South American women's affiliate tournament, no player was an expat.

"Twenty20 has been great for us - people see what it looks like on television through videos we show them, and they like the razzmatazz, the carnival-style supporters." The pitches in Brazil are either of coconut matting or artificial astro-turf surfaces. There are two turf wickets in the country. Cricket Brazil aims to fill in the gaps in school sport where children usually have only two options: football or volleyball. Six hundred Brazilian children between the ages of 7 and 14 are being exposed to cricket. Brazil Cricket has even roped in a sponsor, an Indian sugar company called Renuka.

The next step, according to Featherstone, is the push for beach cricket to follow on from a social six-a-side event that takes place at the Vina Del Mar in Chile every year. What about international teams coming in for some pre-season training in Peru? After all, Featherstone has just said there's a turf wicket in Lima and "it doesn't rain in Peru". He laughs at the very idea.

At the ICC conference, officials from Australia, South Africa, India, England met and talked in tight, closed groups. As appreciative and grateful as he was to the ICC for its support to the Affiliates, Featherstone observed, "They live in one world and we live in another one."

The Affiliates' world is far from glamorous or lucrative. For anyone involved in cricket, however, it is a place of discovery, humility, and of the pure happiness of possibility.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo

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