<
>

Might Jade Rodriguez play for West Indies?

Jade Rodriguez ESPN

Jade Rodriguez felt her anxiety rise with every step. Her heart pounded, and her stomach constricted. The masses of people around her didn't help ease the claustrophobia she suddenly felt. She was having an anxiety attack - and she had to get away.

At just 15 years old, Rodriguez had experienced these attacks before, and sometimes - as with this one - they came without any provocation. It was late 2015, and the cricket community in Peru was throwing an end-of-season party at the Lima Cricket and Football Club. She stepped outside and wandered around aimlessly until she found some cricket nets. She picked up a cork ball, started running in and bowling as fast as she could, her bushy brown hair flying out behind her as she ran. She did this over and over, and within minutes, she found herself relaxing. Years of bottled-up emotions flooded out. Her breath was steadying. She felt in control of her life as she held the maroon ball around its seam.

Rodriguez's mother, Juliet Solomon, came looking for her daughter as soon as she realised she was missing from the party. When she found her in the nets, she knew Rodriguez wasn't going to talk just yet. She is known to bear the burden of her intense feelings by herself. So Solomon picked up a bat, and without uttering a word, started defending her daughter's deliveries.

That was the first time Rodriguez had touched a ball in a year. She had been the lead bowler for the Peruvian women's national cricket team since she was 11 years old. But dealing with depression between 2014 and 2015, she could barely find the motivation to live, let alone play cricket.

"Cricket saved my life," says Rodriguez, now 17, thinking back to that day. "Every day I would wake up and would think to myself, 'One less day to Sunday, when I can train' - and that would keep me going."

Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in London, Rodriguez was ten when she and her mother first moved to Peru in 2010 for her mother's job with the United Nations. Her father, Hector Rodriguez, stayed in London. The move was rough for a child who was used to making friends easily in London. In Peru, she suddenly had to deal with cliquish classmates who looked at her like an outsider.

She was bullied, picked on and beaten up for looking different. She would get anxiety attacks during classes, and her teachers would give her permission to go to the gym and take a few swings at the punching bag. She didn't have a pair of gloves, so every swing hurt, but it made her feel better. She sometimes even punched the nearest wall, finding a way to calm down. She changed schools after her first year in Peru, when the bullying got out of control.

Through this rough transition, she had one thing that "kept her sane", Solomon says: playing cricket in the Lima Cricket and Football Club.

Rodriguez grew up in a household where daily conversations included the names of Vivian Richards and Garry Sobers. Her mother, a Trinidadian, was room-mates with the daughter of former West Indies cricketer Clive Lloyd when she was a student in London. She also waitressed in a hotel there where the West Indies team stayed during tournaments.

At nine years old, Rodriguez watched her first match: West Indies v Australia at The Oval. She was clad in the team's maroon and a West Indies hat and jersey, screaming in joy. She had no idea what was going on, but she knew she loved it.

Her first hands-on experience arrived when she was ten, when her mother started volunteering as a scorer in Lima. At first, Solomon tried making Rodriguez sit on the sidelines with her stepbrother while she scored, but Rodriguez wanted to be on the field. That was where she knew she belonged.

Most children want to be batsmen, but ever since Rodriguez saw Curtly Ambrose in Fire in Babylon, the documentary on the transformation of the West Indies cricket team in the 1980s, she found herself dreaming of being a fast bowler. There was a sense of pride in being called such.

She played in the first Peruvian women's national team - a team that her mother organised - that participated in the South American Championship in Brazil in 2011. At 11 years old, Rodriguez, the youngest player in the tournament, picked up her first wicket, a difficult lbw against the reigning champions, Argentina. Wanting to train at a higher level, she stood on the sidelines during the boys' practice sessions, and soon the coach, Julian Walter, called her in to bowl a few deliveries. In 2013, she earned a spot on the team in the South American Championship, the only female player in the entire tournament.

Though she was getting good results in South America, she wasn't competing at the highest level. "When she first played for the Peru team against Argentina and Brazil, she was the best among the worst in a sense," says Solomon.

That was when she heard about the CanAm United Women's Cricket Association - a nonprofit organisation that develops women's cricket in the Americas - during one of her practice sessions in Peru. She talked to the CanAm general manager about playing for the team. In 2015, after her one-year break from cricket, she participated in her first tournament in North America: a T20 series in Atlanta.

In the last match of the tournament, she took a wicket with her first ball. That boosted her confidence. She realised she could be competitive at a higher level outside of Peru. Rodriguez went on to participate in tournaments in Argentina and London for CanAm between 2015 and 2017.

In 2016 she visited Lord's for the first time since watching her first match as a nine-year-old in London with her mother. It was special to go back as a player, she says. That was also the first time she had seen her father in six years. With the distance between them, they didn't have a strong relationship.

In early May this year, Rodriguez was part of the 14-member CanAm squad, that played against 17 men's teams at the 25th Annual Philadelphia International Cricket Festival. It was the first time an all-women's squad played in the tournament. CanAm pushed to take part in the festival, knowing it would expose their players to higher competition. The team won three of five matches, Rodriguez picking up key wickets throughout.

While she may be quiet before games and around her team-mates, Rodriguez lights up when she marks the start of her run-up, her eyes focused. With intensity, she runs down to deliver the ball, releasing it seam up. "She is shy in the sense she doesn't want the attention on her, but she is paying attention to every tiny detail and learning from everybody the entire time," says CanAm batsman Roberta Moretti Avery.

At the end of May, Rodriguez was in Barbados, training at the Franklyn Stephenson Academy to qualify for the West Indies national team - a decision she made after graduating from high school in Panama, where she moved with her mother in 2015. (Rodriguez's Trinidadian heritage makes her eligible to play for West Indies.) First, she hopes to be scouted to play for Barbados, and eventually, to move up to West Indies.

"When we have tournaments at the academy," Rodriguez said, "I have coaches from the Barbados team and a bunch of West Indies board members. So if I perform well in all the tournaments I play in, I will climb up the rankings until I make it to the West Indies team. My coaches and scouts will also keep tabs of my performance in tournaments for CanAm."

To reach that goal, she is training under a private coach, Amahl Nathaniel, who she first met during a cricket camp in Barbados in 2016, where again she was the only female player. She was relentless in her training, and she had a "lovely bowling action, and I knew right then I wanted to train her," Nathaniel said.

Rodriguez trains for eight hours every day - three with Nathaniel and five at the academy. She has been focusing on her batting, looking to become an allrounder. "She reminds me of Hayley Matthews," says Nathaniel. "[Matthews] used to play with boys, with the willingness to learn and improve, and I see a lot of her in Jade."

Cricket isn't Rodriguez's sole focus. She is also taking online film studies courses through the Toronto Film School. The school requires her to be physically present for the second year, so that means training with CanAm in Toronto next year. She will also be touring South Africa and Canada with CanAm in 2017.

Rodriguez has also given back to the sport that saved her. For her, the memories of the bullying, the struggles and that night in late 2015 outside of the Lima Cricket and Football Club aren't too far in her past. She has coached children in Peru and Panama, and still mentors Caitlin Yarna, a female cricketer in Peru. Although they are about the same age, Yarna found a role model in Rodriguez and credits her as the reason she is still playing cricket. Rodriguez also wants to open her own boarding school for foster children and refugees.

"I am glad I went through what I went through in Peru because it opened my eyes to life outside of my bubble. No matter what I do with my life - be it in cricket, in film-making - if it leads to me opening a home for kids, it's all worth it," she said.