July 5, 2014

Cafeteros' cricket challenge

Tom Jeffreys
Cricket has been played in Colombia for over a hundred years, and things seem to be on the upswing for the sport here

The stumps are the real giveaway. One red, one yellow, one blue: the colours of the Colombian flag. And, of course, the altitude - at 2600 metres above sea level, fielding here is an exhausting business. So too fast bowling. But everything else about this match feels decidedly English: from the relentless afternoon drizzle to the dominance of a tall Australian with a handlebar moustache. This time, however, those ducking and diving are not batsmen but bowlers (the umpire and non-striker too); and the Australian in question is not Mitchell Johnson but the considerably less well-known Damien Alifraco, a former grade cricketer now living here amid the ever-expanding urban sprawl of Bogota, Colombia.

Welcome to the Bogota Sports Club, aka Club Ingles, a little slice of old England on the outskirts of Colombia's capital city. Founded and funded by a pair of English expats in 1961, Bogota Sports Club is now on its third location, as detailed here on ESPNcricinfo back in 2000. This June, while the rest of Colombia was focused on an increasingly divisive general election and the football World Cup, the British ambassador was here in the pavilion to watch the cricket with his family. The building - a quirky, brick Modernist-tinged affair - is spacious and well-equipped. In the bar hangs a large portrait of Prince William and Kate Middleton in all their wedding finery. Elsewhere, bare brick walls are adorned with sepia-tinted photos of cricket teams of yore.

Hard as it may be to believe, cricket has been played on and off in Colombia for over 100 years, with reports of matches at La Magdalena Jocking Club as far back as 1905. But while the sport has flourished in other South American nations (Argentina, for example, have been ICC Associate Members since 1974) Colombia has been left behind. As the article from 2000 on ESPNcricinfo noted: "Like many outposts of the game, the playing numbers and standard varies depending on economic variables which either attract or repel foreign labour to or from the country."

The fortunes of cricket in the country therefore provide an echo of the wider economic and political context. In the comparatively peaceful 1970s, with many players employees of the Royal Bank of Canada, Lloyd's Bank, and the British Consulate in Cali, frequent matches were played against Caracas and Lima. High-profile visitors included John Morrison and Andy Roberts (playing together for the New Zealand Ambassador's XI in 1970). The apex came perhaps in 1979, with the arrival of the Derrick Robins XI, captained by Chris Cowdrey and including the likes of Bill Athey, Tim Lloyd and Graham Stevenson.

But as Colombia became increasingly violent in the 1980s and '90s, the foreigners began to leave. The early 2000s saw the brief return of regular cricket, thanks in part to Norman Bracht, a Canadian expat and some-time ESPNcricinfo correspondent. But in truth, cricket here hasn't been the same since its 1970s heyday.

But that may be about to change. The last few years have seen the resurrection of Bogota's long-standing rivalry with Cali, a city some 400km to the south, with the return of a fixture that dates back to 1957. This June saw the Cali team fly in especially for the weekend, so it was a shame it was not more of a contest. After losing the toss and being asked to bat first, Alifraco led from the front with a chanceless innings. With his opening partner, Cameron Forbes, notching a (noticeably less classy) hundred of his own, the Cali bowlers, though tidy, were put to the sword on a matted concrete wicket that offered nothing. Bogota racked up 264 for 1 in their 25 overs, Cali, in reply, never got going (they managed just 67 for 5) and the result was victory for Bogota by the crushing margin of 197 runs.

The weekend was notable not only for the game itself but also for a significant step in the evolution of the sport in Colombia. After the match, the two teams gathered in the north of Bogota to mark the inauguration of the new Colombia Cricket Board - at a gastro-pub named (what else?) El Ingles. The first aim of the board is to put structures in place to ensure cricket's future here. Much credit for this initiative - and for the success of the weekend - must go to Andy Wright, a rugby-playing former banker from Newcastle, who was introduced to the Bogota Sports Club by Bracht. "Cricket has been on record in Colombia since 1905," he says. "However it has depended upon individuals, and no official club or board has seemingly ever been formed. The idea now is to give more structure to the practice and development of the sport here, so that it stands the test of time even if individuals come and go."

Because come and go they do, especially during periods of pronounced political turbulence. The mid-2000s, for example, was among the bloodiest periods in Colombia's long-running civil war. As George Bush ramped up his War on Drugs (spending billions on the controversial "Plan Colombia"), thousands were killed each year in brutal fighting between government armed forces, rebel groups (such as the communist FARC and ELN), and right-wing paramilitaries. Violence is not an attractive proposition for foreign investors, and as the expats departed, so cricket too faded away.

In recent years, however, violence in Colombia seems to be on the decline, and the ongoing peace talks taking place in Havana offer at least some hope of a permanent solution. Colombians agree, as President Juan Manuel Santos, who initiated the talks in 2012, has just been voted in for a second term. As the political climate stabilises (leaving aside Bogota's recent mayoral fiasco) investment is returning. Under successive neo-liberal presidents, vast shopping malls have been popping up in the city's affluent north, containing all the usual multinational conglomerates. Wright too returned in 2009 and he is now CEO of UK Colombia Trade, a trade development agency based in the British Embassy, "helping British companies do more business in Colombia". At the same time, he has helped to get cricket going again, and with a group of other committed cricketers restarted the traditional fixture against Cali.

The long-term aim of the new Colombian Cricket Board is to widen the sport's appeal beyond the expat community. This year's Cali-Bogota fixture was dominated by English and Australian expats - small businessmen, teachers, journalists, and a member of the British military. But two Colombians also played, which is a start at least. Meanwhile the Cali players have already made great efforts to teach the game to local children - both boys and girls.

Wright hopes that cricket can follow the success that rugby has had here. Since rugby's introduction as a purely expat pastime in the 1970s, there are now 12,000 registered players across all the major cities of Colombia. Wright - who coached the national rugby team, The Toucans, at the 2001 World Cup qualifiers - credits the support given by the International Rugby Board. "Significant IRB funding has taken rugby to real problem areas in the country," he says, "and the sport is changing lives."

It's something the ICC could learn from, Wright believes. Other countries in Latin America have registered as Affiliates of the ICC, and Colombia will be hosting two of them (Peru and Brazil) on October 4 and 5 for a tri-national T20 tournament. Unfortunately, as Wright points out, "the entry standards have since been raised and Colombia does not currently qualify for ICC support". In order to become an ICC Affiliate, countries must have a minimum of eight senior teams and four junior teams playing in structured competition. But with the country currently in the grip of football World Cup fever it's hard to see how cricket could really take off here without significant investment. For now, then, cricket remains a predominantly English pastime, but by some distance the best one there is.

Tom Jeffreys is an art writer, curator and editor. He runs an online magazine called The Learned Pig and tweets here

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  • mrhamilton on July 6, 2014, 1:20 GMT

    Splendid.....splendid...you little ripper

  • mrhamilton on July 6, 2014, 1:20 GMT

    Splendid.....splendid...you little ripper

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  • mrhamilton on July 6, 2014, 1:20 GMT

    Splendid.....splendid...you little ripper