April 7, 2012

Brazilians play cricket too

Toby Chasseaud
In the football-mad country, cricket has gained a small foothold. And the best thing is, it's not being played only by expats

Garrincha, Pelé, Sócrates, Ronaldo, Rudy Hartmann. Haven't heard of the last one? He's the fastest bowler in Brazil. Although better known for its football, Brazil is quietly experiencing a revolution in a sport the country is not normally associated with. In the past decade, its men's and women's sides have achieved ICC affiliation and competed against rivals across the Americas.

The game still has great barriers to overcome, including a struggle for funding and for attention in a country where it is soccer that is hardwired into the national consciousness. Although cricket was first introduced to Brazil in the mid-1800s, long before football, it never caught on in the same way. But while most Brazilians have not grown up with cricket, they have played a game descended from it. Taco, played by children in the streets, is two-a-side, with a bowler and wicketkeeper against two batters, who run between the wickets (there are no boundaries).

The batters use a stick to defend a small wicket. Bowling is underarm, but as in cricket, batters can be bowled, run out and stumped - as Prince Harry recently found out the hard way. The prince was visiting a favela in Rio, called Complexo do Alemão, where members of Cricket Brasil and the fledgling Carioca CC were teaching children the basics of cricket. When the kids played their more familiar taco with Harry, he survived seven balls before being stumped by the keeper. Although standing in his crease, Harry had not grounded his bat, thus falling victim to another difference between the two games.

"It was hilarious to watch," says Matt Featherstone, captain of the Brazil men's side. "Before he knew it, this kid was grabbing the bat from his hands, telling him he was out. There was no deference to the third in line to the British throne."

Featherstone's role in Brazilian cricket epitomises the transition being made as expat players bring on a new generation of homegrown talent. Born in Bromley, he played for the Kent Second XI and England Amateurs before moving to Minas Gerais with his Brazilian wife. His side have just returned triumphant from the Amistad Cup, a three-match Twenty20 series against Peru. After losing their first game, Brazil recovered to win the final two. In his three innings, the captain scored 0, 68 not out, and 68 respectively.

But despite being national captain, Featherstone is essentially an amateur. He works for his wife's family's chain of gift shops, and living in the small town of Poços de Caldas means that even to play his club cricket he has to drive three hours to São Paulo. "I'm lucky my wife lets me spend as much time as I do on the game," he says.

When Featherstone moved to Brazil in 2000, he was unaware cricket even existed in the country. But there it was, and he was soon in the national side. Although the team was not recognised by the ICC, it played unofficial international matches in the South American Championship, and Featherstone was able to use his batting ability and his contacts to take Brazilian cricket forward.

Brazil became an ICC affiliate member in 2002, and in 2006 they qualified to join the ICC Americas Championship, with Featherstone as captain. In recent years they have alternated between Division 3, which includes Peru, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico and the Falklands, and Division 2, with Argentina, Panama, the Bahamas, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. They are currently back in Division 3, "which is probably our level to be honest - Div 2 is a big jump up", Featherstone says. But perhaps ten years down the line, "it is not inconceivable that we could find ourselves playing in a Twenty20 World Cup. We're on the up but it's a slow process".

Cricket Brasil is battling to overcome obvious challenges. Money is tight. The ICC pays for entry into tournaments and provides $25,000 a year in direct funding, which goes towards Brazil's only full-time officer, Vincent Bastick, the CEO, and helps pay expenses for three others, including Featherstone in his role as national development officer. "In reality I only get petrol money," he says. "There is not enough cash to do what we do, and it is difficult to gain sponsorship in a country where 99% of the population haven't heard of the game." He is thankful for the sponsors they do have, though, including HSBC and Indian sugar company Renuka.

Featherstone says a major stumbling block to the game's development is that the ICC has not applied for cricket to become an Olympic sport, largely because of opposition from Test-playing nations. "These countries have such a packed international schedule already that they are reluctant to give up a few weeks every four years for the Olympics. But 90% of cricketing nations would benefit from being in the Olympics. If we were in the 2016 Olympics in Rio, we'd be able to secure funding from the government and it would be a showcase for cricket in Brazil. But as things stand, the earliest cricket could be entered as an Olympic sport is 2024. We've missed the boat and it's a big shame. The ICC could do more for Affiliate nations."

At 41, Featherstone is probably one of the oldest captains in international cricket. So how long will he carry on? "Hopefully not much longer. If I could stop playing for Brazil now, I would. But the team still relies on me for runs. I'd rather play a match with a weaker team than with a stronger one totally dominated by expats."

In a recent ICC tournament in Suriname, nine players out of the 14-man squad were born in Brazil. And in an international competition in Nassau, the Bahamas, in 2010, Brazilian players were voted best bowler (Rudy Hartmann), best fielder (the wicketkeeper Guilherme Leferve) and best batsman (Gregor Caisley). Of them, only the last, an Australian, is an expat. "And we didn't even win a game," chuckles Featherstone.

With the game now entering schools, Cricket Brasil is hoping for a homegrown generation of players to represent their country. Junior development programmes have been established in São Paulo, Brasília and Curitiba. And Brazil has joined forces with Peru, Chile and Argentina to establish Cricket South America and host tournaments at the Under-13, 15 and 19 age groups, thus creating opportunities for youngsters to play internationally. "What is great is when you can take successful Brazilian cricketers into schools and show the kids what they can do," says Featherstone. "It's fine for me to go there, speaking Portuguese in an English accent, but to them I'm still a gringo."

While Brazilian men's cricket has claimed its place on the world stage in recent years, the women's side has emerged at breakneck speed. Unlike the men's game, their squad is already made up 100% of players who were born in the country, although again with a helping hand from expats.

Bastick is manager of the Brazil women's national side, based in Brasília. An Australian by birth, he married a Brazilian (a recurring theme here) and moved to her home country in 2004. Having played cricket in Sydney in the 1970s - "I was probably a B-grader" - he, along with Cricket Brasil president Ian Webster, became instrumental in establishing women's cricket in Brazil through his contacts at the University of Brasília. A major breakthrough came when cricket became an accredited PE course and students took to it with enthusiasm.

Bastick says what happened in Brasília was unique. "The nucleus of the women's team was formed in 2007. The women came from sports they were already very successful at. There were several handball players, including two goalies, so we had a readymade wicketkeeper. There were twins who were expert kayakers, and there was a ballerina. There were also futevôlei [foot volley] players - like volleyball but you use any part of your body, except your hands - although unfortunately we lost them when they went on to pursue successful futevôlei careers."

There are two women's teams in Brasília, the Candangos and Brasília CC, and they play each other and against men's teams. The best players can then go on to represent Brazil. In 2007, Brazil played in the first women's international clash in South America, taking on Argentina in a three-match series, which they lost 2-1. It was a promising start and they have never looked back. In last year's South American Championship, played in Brasília, they came second, behind Argentina, but ahead of Chile and Peru.

When I speak to Bastick, his side is preparing to take part in the women's ICC Americas Championship in the Cayman Islands. There, from April 22 to April 29, they will play the likes of the USA, Canada, Bermuda and the hosts. The team trains four times a week in the run-up to the competition, which is difficult considering all have jobs, studies and/or children. Another obstacle is the weather. "It's the rainy season, so we have lots of interruptions," says Bastick.

As well as the Clube Nipo baseball ground in Brasília, the women sometimes play on the main esplanada, flanked by government ministries. For a wicket, they lay out a long carpet over an asphalt pathway. "It makes a pretty good playing surface," says Bastick.

He says the challenge in the next few years is to get U-13 and U-15 girls playing in competitions. As administrator of Cricket Brasil, he draws a modest salary from the ICC but also runs an English language school. Like Featherstone, Bastick says he would be happy to take a step back from the game and hand over responsibility to homegrown coaches.

I ask if it is a problem that Brazilians have no exposure to cricket through television, but he says it isn't. "What you lack in television coverage here, you make up for in technological advances. Want to learn to play the cover drive? Just type it into YouTube.

"We mainly play 20-over matches, but sometimes 40 overs to give the batters a chance to score a hundred, which isn't easy in the shorter game. However, it's difficult to sell the longer format to a nation brought up on 90-minute football matches."

While more homegrown cricketers are getting involved, it is difficult to ignore the influence of expats, particularly at club level. I visit Curitiba, where I meet Norman Baldwin, 52, vice-president of the Brazilian Cricket Association and the backbone of cricket in Paraná state. Baldwin learned his cricket in Vancouver but has lived in Brazil for 17 years. The HSBC ground just outside Curitiba, which has hosted both men's and women's international games, favours batting. It has a reliable artificial wicket, good sightscreens and short boundaries square of the wicket.

There are now two teams in Curitiba, who play each other on a regular basis. Swadisht (meaning "tasty" in Hindi) is an Indian XI, and Gralha Azul is a Rest of the World XI. On the day I visit, the team is composed of five Brazilians, three Englishmen, a Pakistani, a South African and a Canadian (Baldwin).

I ask each of the Brazilians whether they prefer cricket or football. All say football. One of them, Marco Johnson, who has represented Brazil at rugby, shows particular promise with the bat. Another, Raphael *Chiappetti, is playing his first match but already seems to have a basic grasp of the game's complexities. In this particular match, Swadisht hit 182 in their 20 overs, while Gralha Azul finish short on 163.

Four states in Brazil play cricket: Paraná, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and the federal district of Brasília. At the moment São Paulo and Brasília have the strongest set-ups. Although a Rio Cricket Club was founded in 1872, the game died out there for 15 years until being revived in September 2011, with the formation of Carioca CC. Baldwin attributes the decline in Rio cricket to economic circumstances. But with Brazil's economy now firmly on the rise, workers from cricketing nations are returning in increasing numbers and Carioca CC are trying to establish a home after the original Rio Cricket Club rented its pitches out to football.

So while soccer continues to dominate sporting life in Brazil, the seeds have been planted for another beautiful game to take hold in the country. Let us hope, for the sake of world cricket, they are given every chance to grow.

*10:40:21 GMT, 8 April 2012: Corrected from "Chiapelli"

Toby Chasseaud is a freelance journalist and cricket enthusiast