A Texas Billionaire, Cuba, and…Cricket? By Callie Batts

 

Cuban youngster playing cricket

The Cubans should have been there.

Last Sunday, Trinidad and Tobago defeated Jamaica in the championship match of the Stanford 20/20, a regional cricket tournament that attracted twenty teams from across the West Indies. Organized and financed by Texas billionaire Allen Stanford, the tournament offered more than $1.9 million in prize money, making it one of the richest cricket competitions in the world. In addition to splitting the $1 million championship prize, the team from Trinidad and Tobago also received $200,000 for domestic grassroots cricket development. Jamaica, the runners-up, collected half a million dollars for their tournament success and $100,000 for grassroots initiatives. Lest the other teams felt left out of the monetary windfall, Stanford personally invested more than $6 million to support local development projects in each of the participating nations. This money is being used to fund the construction of new cricket facilities, provide adequate equipment, and generate a pool of qualified coaches and officials. By plunging so much money into regional development, Stanford hopes to revive West Indian cricket and establish his adopted home of Antigua as a central base for a Caribbean professional league. Intriguing, but what about the Cubans?

Long known as a baseball power and home to talented boxers, Cuba has recently rediscovered cricket. Originally brought to the island in the 1920s by sugar cane workers from Jamaica and Barbados, cricket flourished in the southeastern area of Cuba until the 1959 revolution. Soon thereafter, Castro and his regime nationalized the sport system and gave priority to supporting Olympic sports and their beloved game of baseball. Hampered by a lack of funding and waning interest, Cuban cricket virtually disappeared. A slow revival of the game began in the 1990s, spurred primarily by the British Council in Havana. In 2002, Cuba gained affiliate membership to the International Cricket Council. Since then, Cuban cricket has benefited from substantial British aid in the form of equipment, skills clinics, and coach trainings. Fidel Castro (perhaps in a moment of anti-American fervor?) even declared cricket to be an official “national sport” of Cuba.

Recognizing the promise of Cuban cricket, and its potential importance to the resurgence of a unified West Indian cricketing culture, Stanford invited the Cuban national team to participate in the Stanford 20/20 tournament. The team was scheduled to make its regional competitive debut in the opening match of the tournament on January 25, 2008. By competing in the tournament, the Cubans stood to gain significant financial resources to devote to the local growth and expansion of the game. Yet, six weeks before the start of the tournament, the United States government denied Stanford’s application to engage in commercial activity with Cuba. As an American, Stanford had a legal obligation to gain permission from the government prior to conducting any business relations with Cuba, including inviting the Cuban cricket team to play in his tournament. Stanford appealed the decision, but to no avail. He was forced to rescind his invitation to the Cuban cricketers, and they never made it to the tournament.

It is a travesty that the US embargo continues to prevent economic and cultural exchanges with Cuba, and particularly ridiculous that the Cuban cricket team—the cricket team!—became the latest victim of the embargo. Why would the US government care about an innocuous cricket tournament in the West Indies? Sure, the Cubans could have walked away with $1 million of an American’s money, but it’s just a sport competition. Why should the government care if Stanford wants to give away his fortune to cricket-playing island nations in the Caribbean? Right?

Not so simple. Perhaps Stanford’s tournament, and his wider project to promote cricket throughout the region, is not as innocuous as it first seems. Beneath the surface of sporting goodwill lays a political project that seeks to reaffirm West Indian national identity and challenge the existing power structures of international cricket. For Cuba, cricket could very well represent a means to constructing a national identity that is intrinsically tied to its West Indian neighbors rather than reliant upon the binary opposition with the United States. As Stanford’s tournament illustrates, cricket is also a path to hefty financial awards that could dramatically impact the Cuban sport system. With this mix of monetary incentive, regional unification, and the assertion of a changing national identity, it’s not a surprise that the US government sought to maintain its control over Cuba by blocking the cricket team’s participation in the Stanford 20/20.

The US needs to stop its Cold War posturing and quit meddling in Cuban affairs, sporting or otherwise. It’s too early to determine if the recent shift of authority from Fidel to Raul Castro will have any affect on the US embargo, but two things will remain constant: the Cuban cricketers will continue to train, and Stanford will continue to offer them an invitation to his annual tournament. Hopefully the Cubans will be there next year.

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One thought on “A Texas Billionaire, Cuba, and…Cricket? By Callie Batts

  1. I’m tempted to muse about dimpled chads and Cuban cricket, and note that a West Indies cricket tournament has got itself wrapped up in the Republican desperation to win Florida by any means necessary. As enticing as it is to ponder this problem, the shenanigans of US domestic politics are less interesting in the context of Callie’s posting here than the question of global cricket politics. In global terms, cricket isn’t all that important, and in cricket terms 20/20 attracts contempt from old duffers such as those ones at my local county cricket ground (Gloucestershire, if any one is interested or cares) as not real cricket – and it’s not (I’m on track to becoming an old duffer), but it is a marvellous entertainment spectacle that draws the crowds. Maybe a couple of hundred old duffers attend Gloucestershire’s three-day county matches, several thousand turn out a few hours on a Friday evening to watch and party at a 20/20 match, in many cases before heading off for a night out. Cricket is, however, really significant in some places – the West Indies, and the Indian subcontinent.

    As a game, 20/20 is only a few years old – it came into being as an approved version of cricket in 2002 – and the cricket establishment is really uncomfortable with it, just as they were with the changes forced on them by rebel big business inspired one-day cricket competitions in the late 1970s (the parallels with Stanford’s 20/20 and recent developments in India ar uncanny). The last year has seen a bunch of challenges to the controlling body – the International Cricket Council – with Stanford’s 20/20 tournament in the West Indies, and with the Indian Cricket League setting itself up in opposition to the ICC’s member in India. The rivalry in Indian between the ICL and the ICC-supported Indian Premier League has seen players being paid silly amounts of money. The Jamaica Gleaner on 16 March this year noted that “US$30,000 to a West Indies cricketer for a tour, or a series, lasting every day for seven hours a day for two months is a pittance in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a tournament involving a few 20/20 matches spread over 40 days”. In short, much more money for much less play – who’d say no?

    The ICC is mired in an inability to lead. This summer’s ICC organised 20/20 world tournament is in trouble because the ICC lacks vision and because the fraught relationship between the UK and Zimbabwe governments is at odds with the ICC’s refusal to take a stance against Zimbabwe. Its English member organisation is about to go to court because it has refused to register players associated with the ICL. Australia is citing security concerns as a reason for cancelling its 2008 tour of Pakistan, yet hopes to squeeze the tour into an already full 2009 schedule. What is more, the ICC’s 2007 World Cup in the West Indies would have been laughable if it hadn’t been so tragic – money spent, stadia built, local crowds and fans priced out of the competition, local economies hammered with public expenditure on cricket grounds that are becoming white elephants. Two decades ago the West Indies was a powerhouse of world cricket, now a Texan (hardly a cricket stronghold) living in Antigua (definitely a place of cricket) challenges the grumpy old men at the ICC, shows them how to organise a tournament, and in the meantime gets a wrist slapping from the US government – he can’t be too bad.

    Callie’s right to point to Stanford’s challenge to the pervasive Cold War politics of US attitudes to Cuba (and winning the vote in Miami-Dade County), but this isn’t all there is. He has also sent out a challenge to cricket’s governing bodies. A columnist in this week’s Observer (in the UK) wrote of Stanford: “It’s what those Madison Avenue guys call ‘the vision thing’. The Indians have it. Stanford has it. I’m not so sure the ICC have even heard of it.”

    These West Indies developments could presage significant challenges to the ICC and changes in global cricket; they might also lead to some interesting challenges to US Cuba policy as British and West Indies cricket bodies look to support and develop the sport in Cuba. Ah, the wonderful world of sport and politics.

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