Fidel Castro, cricket, and a crackpot Foreign Office plan for Cuba | The Spin


El Comandante’s diplomatic pitch

Once upon a time, they say, Fidel Castro played a game of cricket. It was in 1998, when Castro, then 71, was taking a short tour of Barbados. He and the prime minister of Barbados, Owen Arthur, were travelling from Bridgetown up to Paynes Bay on the west coast, where they were due to unveil a memorial to the men and women who died in the bombing of Air Cubana flight 455 22 years earlier. On the way they passed a cricket match. And, as the one eyewitness account we have put it, “suddenly, all the security cars and media were put into a spin as they were diverted to the cricket pitch”. Castro took up a bat and asked Arthur to bowl to him.

Castro had played baseball in his youth, although (sad, this, for those who like to speculate about the sliding doors of history) the widespread rumour that he once had a try-out for the Washington Senators is not true. Now he found he was utterly foxed by the bouncing ball. So he called out “Stop” and asked Arthur to deliver it chest-high instead. Arthur did, and Castro duly clobbered a cross-bat shot down the ground. Satisfied, El Comandante decided to try bowling. He had been a pitcher – southpaw, naturally – when he was studying at the University of Havana (he lost his only recorded match, 5-4, to the university’s business school). And much as Arthur tried to appeal to the Laws, Castro insisted on throwing the ball in on the full.

“Like his life,” our eyewitness added, “he played the game but with his rules.” If not exactly a natural, Castro did recognise the political value of cricket, and he remarked to Arthur on the way in which the West Indies team brought the Caribbean nations closer together. They had once played cricket in Cuba too, before the revolution. In the early 20th century more than 200,000 men and women migrated there from across the Caribbean to work in the cane fields. And those who came from Jamaica and Barbados brought the sport with them. George Headley, the black Bradman, actually grew up in Cuba after his family migrated from Panama, before they resettled again in Jamaica.

The English entrepreneur Sir Julien Cahn, who spent many millions on his hopeless infatuation with cricket, took a team to Havana in 1928. At that point there were five teams in the city, and others playing in leagues around the country, in Santiago and Guantanamo. Cahn suggested that the local players should find a new ground, and advised they study FAH Henley’s The Boy’s Book of Cricket to improve their techniques. He even donated a trophy, the Challenge Cup, for which the teams were still playing right up into the 1950s. After the revolution, though, baseball was adopted as one of the five mandatory sports taught in Cuban schools. Cricket withered.

Castro’s match in Barbados came at a time when he was looking to strengthen ties with the other Caribbean nations – he visited Jamaica and Grenada on that same trip. The Cuban government suddenly decided that there might be something to be gained from playing cricket after all. Tentative progress was made. A Cricket Commission was set up, a grassroots programme developed, and in 2002 Cuba joined the International Cricket Council. The trouble was that, as Castro himself had already demonstrated, there weren’t many on the island now who really knew how to play the game, and no one had access to any decent kit.

So began one of Britain’s more curious diplomatic missions. News spread from the British Embassy in Havana to the Foreign Office in London. And somewhere along the way it was decided (this best expressed in fluent mandarin) “that cricket’s unique valency as an individual game encased in the team ethic has limitless powers to create a feelgood factor in troubled communities, while diverting youngsters from crime and keeping them healthy”. If the project happened to grease the wheels of international relations with a little goodwill, that, no doubt, was only incidental. Funding was duly secured from UK Sport.

Ken Livingstone talks to coaches from the London Community Cricket Association in Havana in 2006. Photograph: Claudia Daut / Reuters/Reuters

The British did not actually recruit a vacuum cleaner salesman to lead their team, but a former advertising executive named Tom Rodwell. Really. He’s written a very funny account of it in his book Third Man in Havana. It was Rodwell’s understanding that the Foreign Office believed cricket would be a way to encourage Cuba to “link up with our West Indian former colonies, so that post-Castro they’ll be our friends and not patsies of the US”. Rodwell’s own qualifications for the job, aside from his work on the Honey Monster campaign for Sugar Puffs, were that he was involved with a charity called the London Community Cricket Association.

So it was that in 2006 Rodwell set off for Havana, equipped with a manual on how to umpire and a Spanish translation of the Laws. The ludicrousness of this struck home during his inaugural lecture at Havana Sports University when, after a long disquisition on fielding positions, Rodwell was confronted with the impossible but entirely logical question “If there’s a third man, then where is the first man and the second man”? His teachings were soon put to the test in a match between Guantanamo and Havana on the local baseball diamond. This was played on a matting wicket which, no joke, the Foreign Office had arranged to be flown in from South Africa in the diplomatic bag.

Inevitably, there was a dispute over an lbw. One of Havana’s batsmen refused to leave the field after being struck on the pads. It was settled, in the end, by the national director of recreation, José Cedeño, who reminded the players of Castro’s dictum that “the Revolution must concentrate on sport. Youngsters of outstanding talent will be plucked from the masses and will be given the best training. On the front line of sport the Revolution will advance. Fatherland or death! We will win!” Rodwell understood this to mean that the batsman was out.

Cedeño’s wasn’t the only bit of grandstanding the players had to endure. A later game was gatecrashed by Ken Livingstone, who was making a stopover on his way to Venezuela to sign a trade deal. Hugo Chávez had postponed at the last minute, and now Livingstone and his entourage were stuck in Havana and at a loss for a photo-op. His attaché reached out to Rodwell, and then suggested “that when Ken arrived I should greet him as a long-lost friend, as that’s what he would be doing to me … so as Ken got out of his car we hugged. The cameras whirred and snapped as he said some suitable words about the power of sport to do good.”

No doubt inspired by Livingstone’s speech, they are still playing cricket in Cuba a decade later. There are 1,150 registered players across six provinces. Sir Julien Cahn’s old trophy has even been discovered in the back of a dusty cupboard at the British Embassy, and is once again being offered as a prize in local matches. Of course the effect of all this on diplomatic relations in the post-Castro era will not be clear for some while yet. In the meanwhile we can only speculate whether, as Winston Churchill once wrote, “it may be that future years will see the island as it would be now, had England never lost it – a Cuba free and prosperous under just laws and patriotic administration, throwing open her ports to the commerce of the world, sending her ponies to Hurlingham and her cricketers to Lord’s.”

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