Third Man in Havana July 7, 2012

Cricket tales from here and there

Tom Rodwell has been there, seen that and borne witness to the game's power to uplift

In the mid-1980s, I went to a large shed in North London and found a gaggle of unemployed Anglo-Caribbean teenagers in an assortment of whites, greys and jeans, dreaming of another life, any other life. Some of those visions even extended to living the life of a professional cricketer. Father figure and whip-cracker was a small mountain by the name of Reg Scarlett, erstwhile West Indies offspinner and the man whose thirst for life and liquid refreshment was allegedly the cause of Garry Sobers temporarily retiring during his final Test innings in England, at Lord's in 1973, with what Wisden classified as a "stomach upset".

From these unpromising beginnings the charity-run Haringey Cricket College - later renamed the London Cricket College - became an unlikely nursery for county cricket. Its foremost graduates were Mark Alleyne and Keith Piper: the latter excelled behind the stumps for Warwickshire, and but for a flimsy bat, would surely have flown the flag; the former not only flew it several times, he remains Gloucestershire's youngest centurion and most successful captain, a CV he parlayed into his present job as MCC head coach. Only upon reading this book did I discover that one of the charity's driving forces was Tom Rodwell.

In 1996, a year before cuts to Lottery funding and the birth of the ECB created the "perfect storm" that compelled the college's closure, Scarlett was headhunted to run the abortive West Indies Cricket Academy. It is a measure of the breadth of Rodwell's perspective that he suggests, with good reason, that the ensuing void might help explain the game's decline in the Caribbean.

"This book makes me feel good about the game I love," writes the Hon Courtney Walsh ("Order of Jamaica, Ambassador-at-large") in the foreword to a tome described by its creator as the story of an "ordinary" cricketer "given the chance to use the game to help young people from around the world". Walsh should not be alone in feeling good.

Rodwell is a talented chap as well as a generous one. Now a visiting professor at London Metropolitan University's Business School, he worked with the capital's maddest Mad Men (Young & Rubicam, BMP, Burkitt DDB) and helped create advertising legends such as the Smash Martians and the Sugar Puffs Honey Monster. He also adores his cricket, as one might hope of the current chairman of the Lord's Taverners. In fact, he adores it so much he became something of a missionary.

This is the tale of his 18 trips to a dozen countries between 2005 and 2011, a tale of brutal reality, resistance, persistence, compassion and hope. He visits traditional hotbeds such as Jamaica and Sri Lanka but also Cuba, Israel, New York, Rwanda and Uganda. Everywhere he goes, "the cricket that is played and the young people that are encountered, victims of poverty, war or disability, bear witness to the power of the game to surprise, to entertain, and even to educate".

In the Big Apple, the "icing on the cake" is supplied by Dupaul Singh of Queens, who opens the USA's first cricket store. In Uganda, Rodwell is reunited with his pal, Nicholas Muramagi, who, with his country ravaged by civil war in the north and riddled by tension on the Congo border, bussed in 40 disabled potential cricketers and 18 coaches to a sports centre on the outskirts of Kampala, where the pitch had recently been renovated with help from MCC. Muramagi is delighted when Uganda wins an ICC award as the most innovative nation in promoting the game among the disabled. Rodwell's joy is tempered when, in July 2010, he watches a news bulletin about bomb blasts at Kampala Rugby Club, which he had visited: 74 died.

Happily, sensibly, there's also a cellarful of dry white wit to soothe lumpy throats. Concentration can be tricky, Rodwell avows, when troops from the Israeli Defence Forces, having just descended from their armoured personnel carrier, line up on the boundary - of both field and nation - shouting and pointing rifles at you, "especially when your iffy leg-spin is fragile at the best of times".

"In terms of opening eyes to what this game can do worldwide," declared that arch-internationalist Scyld Berry, "one might say that this is the most important cricket book yet written." Who am I to quibble with the mighty Scyld?

Third Man in Havana
by Tom Rodwell
Icon Books, 2012
pp288, £14.99

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton