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Feature

How cricket is gaining new ground in Brazil

A revolution is brewing in the football-obsessed country, and women are leading the charge

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
09-Aug-2021
Cricket Brasil has handed out 15 central contracts to the top women cricketers in the country  •  Cricket Brasil

Cricket Brasil has handed out 15 central contracts to the top women cricketers in the country  •  Cricket Brasil

The town of Poços de Caldas, about 450km north-west of Rio de Janeiro, is best known for its therapeutic hot springs. Today, it is also Brazil's cricket city, and its mayor, Sérgio Azevedo, has in the past begun speeches announcing, "I'm the mayor of Poços de Caldas, the Brazilian city where more kids play cricket than football."
How did Poços de Caldas come to open its arms to cricket, a sport so far removed from the consciousness of the country at large?
In 2010, as one of several community initiatives, Cricket Brasil introduced the sport to 24 children at a local orphanage. Today, over 5000 children are part of pathway programmes across the country, managed by the board. More than half of the children who play are girls. The sport is now taught in over 50 public, state, and municipal schools, to kids aged between six and 17.
The increasing popularity, especially among girls, has led to a revolutionary move: Cricket Brasil has handed out central contracts to 15 top women players, up from four last year. It's part of a series of steps they have taken to realise their dream of competing at the next Women's T20 World Cup, in South Africa in 2023.
The board has installed a massive clock counting down to the World Cup at their high-performance centre - at the first point of entry to the arena so it's unmissable. But before they get there, their first stop will be the World Cup Americas Qualifiers this September.
Brazil are winners of the South American Women's Championship four times out of five. This ICC-approved annual five-team tournament is played among Chile, Argentina, Peru, Mexico and Brazil - who have climbed from 38th in the world to 27th. At the Americas Qualifiers, they will compete against Argentina, Canada, and USA, with the winner clinching a spot in the eight-team global qualifiers. The top two from that competition progress to the 2023 T20 World Cup.
"We want to be the next Thailand, rise up the ladder despite being a non-traditional cricket country. Everything we are doing currently are steps towards the first goal: South Africa 2023"
Roberta Moretti Avery, Brazil women captain
To most, making it that far may seem a long shot. Matt Featherstone, president of Cricket Brasil, and Roberta Moretti Avery, the captain of the side, aren't among them. They share a common sentiment: "We want to emulate Thailand and be the next success story in women's cricket."

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Featherstone, a former Kent cricketer, moved to the country in 2000. He was one of the founding members of Cricket Brasil a year later. His passion for developing the game at the grassroots in the country got a fillip when the ICC announced an aggressive global expansion programme in its centenary year, 2009.
"We started at an orphanage, and from there on, cricket has grown swiftly across the country," Featherstone says. "Cricket has literally transformed the lives of these kids, many of whom are underprivileged. It has provided them a pathway to finish schooling, attend university, access the country's top facilities, and build a future around the game.
"At one point the kids were so enthusiastic that bringing them together wasn't a problem. The tougher part was convincing their parents that their kids could possibly have a future in a game they hadn't heard about."
Avery grew up playing all kinds of sports, then went over to the United Kingdom to study and work in the early 2000s. When she returned to Brazil in 2010, her husband's involvement in the cricket project fuelled her curiosity.
Today, at 36, Avery is a true allrounder: She runs a fruit export business, captains the national team, teaches the sport to kids in different schools, trains four hours a day at the high-performance centre, and works in an administrative role at Cricket Brasil.
"I lived in England for seven years, but I didn't get into cricket there," she laughs. When she returned, her husband's enthusiasm for the game rubbed off on her and she started playing soft-ball games on weekdays in the evening, from where she moved to the clubs, the local team, and now the national team.
Like Avery, there are 15 coaches presently employed by Cricket Brasil, ICC-accredited and all products of the locally run development programmes. Most are based in Poços de Caldas, where the high-performance centre is located.
Over the past few years, there has been a significant spike in interest in the game around Brasilia. In Rio and Sao Paulo, where it was earlier popular only among expats - mostly English - a number of new clubs have mushroomed, after the surge in popularity of the game.
"Much of the interest comes from women," Avery says. "There is a belief now that you don't need to be a footballer to be looked at as a professional sportsperson in the country. Now they see this new game and wonder, 'Hey, maybe I can be one of the first few to lead the way.' That change in mindset over the years has been wonderful to see."
Much of Cricket Brasil's funding comes from the government, but their progress over the last three years has encouraged sponsors to come on board: Biotreat, an industrial microbiology company, and Dunson, a clothing company, are among their biggest supporters.
"We thought one of the ways to use that funding was to invest in local coaches," Featherstone says. "When coaches come from outside, they spend a year or two getting to know the system and when they are at a take-off point, they go home or move on to other opportunities and it leaves a void. So, we thought if we can get Brazilians living here to do the job, it will be a massive boost."
The Lord's Taverners, a leading cricket charity in the UK, have additionally helped supply crates of equipment, training gear, kits, and other material in the absence of local factories.
"Cricket has provided these kids a pathway to finish schooling, attend university, access the country's top facilities, and build a future around the game"
Matt Featherstone, Cricket Brasil president
"It was the largest ever donation of recycled kits," Featherstone says. "You can see people walking around in Stuart Broad or James Anderson jerseys here. Maybe even Craig Overton or James Tredwell - jerseys you may not even see in England!
Cricket Brasil's next challenge is to develop local resources - umpires, scorers, kit manufacturers, ground staff - to cater to the increasing popularity of the game.
"We are now speaking to plenty of local carpenters to explain to them the nuances of making cricket bats, the kind of wood we need - like Kashmir or English willow," Featherstone says. "They're looking out for the material nearest to that and have started carving out bat replicas that we are now using for soft-ball cricket. So there is plenty of work happening in the parallel economy.
"We also play only on astroturf. The concept of turf is non-existent because we don't have qualified ground staff. We are looking at ways to educate them, bring them up to speed with modern international standards. We can't afford full-time ground staff just yet, but we are putting in place a system that will slowly get them up to speed."
Money is tight, budgets are on a shoestring - even more now because of the pandemic - but Cricket Brasil isn't using that as an excuse to take their foot off the pedal. The contracts, for starters, offer players security. While the values of these contracts haven't been made public, Cricket Brasil says they are worth " more than double the average salary in Brazil" - which, in the urban areas, is about 2400-2500 Brazil Real (about US$ 475) a month.
Cricket being included in the Olympics could potentially unlock further government funding of about $500,000 across every four-year cycle. There is also an active crowdfunding campaign to help import kits and equipment.

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Four years ago, Laura Cardoso switched to cricket from volleyball. At 15, she is now the youngest member of the Brazilian team, also their premier allrounder, like her idol Ellyse Perry. Head coach Liam Cook, an Englishman who moved over to take charge of the national team two years ago, believes if the right-hand batter and medium-pacer were to go to Kent tomorrow, it wouldn't take her long to make their squad.
She came through a community cricket project called Crianca Feliz ("happy child") and has grown to enjoy the sport. Now, she balances school and a demanding cricket schedule, but is more disciplined and responsible than ever, according to her mother, Aline.
Lara Bittencourt is a bit older, at 18. When it came to choosing between cricket and football, she picked the new sport. Three years ago, her older sister went to an experimental class and got to learn about cricket, and she passed her learnings on.
"My sister told me how it was: a sport with a bat, a ball, and that I needed to throw with a straight arm, and that was all I knew about the sport," she says. "I started playing, in 2016, through a project at Colégio Municipal [the municipal college]."
"It instantly became a hobby, and I was looking forward to every class, until I started training at the high-performance centre and training increased, along with out-of-state competitions. So, I grew within the team until I entered the national team in 2019."
Apart from being centrally contracted, she is enrolled in Cricket Brasil's university programme, which requires her to spend time in the community evangelising for the sport.
"Cricket is like a home for me, where I can go to relax and do something I like, like a refuge," she says. "And the people who come together are like a big family, where everyone grows together and strives to take the team far.
"I was one of the few people who won a college scholarship, apart from my central contract. I study physiotherapy thanks to cricket, and I intend to build a career so that maybe in the future I will join the staff and continue contributing to the Cricket Brasil Confederation."
"Lord's Taverners sent us crates of kits and jerseys in what was the largest ever donation of recycled kits. You can see people walking around with Stuart Broad or James Anderson jerseys here"
Matt Featherstone
Apart from the contracts, the players' dietary requirements are taken care of at the high-performance centre, where they are housed for preparatory camps. Health insurance, equipment and clothing are provided, and so is access to medical staff and psychologists.
The bonus is an opportunity to train with several eminent sportspersons who have lent their support to the cricket project voluntarily. Tatiele Roberta de Carvalho, a well-known Brazilian long-distance runner, who competed at the 2016 Rio Olympics in the women's 10,000 metres, mentors the group of 15 women players she calls "champions". She conducts sessions every week, guiding them through endurance training, getting them to become fitter - and therefore better fielders and good at running between the wickets. Matheus Louro Neto, another Olympian and national swimmer, doubles up as their sports psychologist.
"None of them needed an invitation to come onboard," Avery says. "It's just their love for sport and their desire to promote sport at the grassroots in the country. It's amazing to see them devote time to something free of cost, and do it with the kind of passion that is hard to match."
They haven't innovated just on the coaching front. Some of their shots are adaptations from "taco", a local street game like cricket, which Avery once demonstrated on Twitter. Essentially the batter twirls around from her traditional stance and meets the ball powerfully in a somewhat reverse switch-hit kind of position.
"Everything is new to us," Avery explains. "Some of the shots are our own variations. The absence of traditional coaching has given us the freedom to try out new things. Some of it works, some of it doesn't. But that's the positive about starting on a clean slate. There is no history to look at; whatever you do has a novelty factor."

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One of the immediate concerns now is to ensure Brazil has a fixed cricket calendar. The pandemic has wiped out much of their schedule for the last two years. They haven't played a match since beating Argentina in the final of the South American Championships in Peru in 2019.
While they continue to train and play intra-squad games at the high-performance centre, Featherstone admits not knowing when their next competitive game is bothers the players. "It's difficult to keep them motivated," he says.
"We have a cricket house here [in Pocos de Caldas], where the girls live and train together. We have giant screens to watch cricket together. We watched the WBBL, we all watched the T20 World Cup final here, even though the timings were very odd. But yes, once Covid clears and things are a lot more formal in terms of a schedule, we will be able to get moving."
"We want to be the next Thailand, rise up the ladder despite being a non-traditional cricket country," Avery says. "In the next five years, we want to regularly qualify for world events."
If things go according to plan, Brazil could make their much-anticipated World Cup debut, and then a few other mayors from different parts of the country might take a leaf out of Azevedo's book, helping take the sport to even greater heights.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo