Juliet Solomon with her daughter Jade at Queen's Park Oval

Las internacionales: the author with her daughter Jade at Queen's Park Oval in Port-of-Spain

© Colin Borde


Liming in Lima

In which a Trinidadian mother and daughter seek cricket in Peru

Juliet Solomon  |  

On an overcast Saturday in November 2014 a tall, bow-legged Australian stood in the centre of a shabby concrete stadium in the Magdalena del Mar district of Lima waving his Peruvian identity card in one hand and a cricket bat in the other. He was addressing a group of six-to-16-year-olds in highly accented Spanish.

"Look, I know you Peruvians love your football, but you haven't been very successful at it, so why not give it a rest and try the second most popular sport in the world?"

Harry Hildebrand, the long-time El Presidente of Cricket Peru, waxed lyrical as our small group of pioneers watched nervously from behind a goalpost on the AstroTurf football pitch. We were there on a mission to expand the gene pool of cricketers in Peru. The signs were not particularly auspicious as the kids, fresh from football practice and still wearing their Messi and Ronaldo T-shirts, gazed uncomprehendingly at him.

Cricket has been played in Peru since 1859, with the founding in that year of the Lima Cricket and Football Club (LCFC) by a British community whose ranks had swelled during the "railroad and guano" era, when the newly independent country relied on British expertise and investment to modernise its transportation system and monetise the abundant supply of seabird excrement. Despite its long pedigree, the sport never really caught on, driven as it was by expatriates whose main interest was weekend knockabouts rather than long-term development.

Children raised in football-mad Peru struggle to grasp cricket's more sedate pace

Children raised in football-mad Peru struggle to grasp cricket's more sedate pace © Cricket Peru

I had arrived in Lima from the UK in 2009, a heavily pregnant Trinidadian with a young daughter and no friends or acquaintances in Peru and no inkling that we were both to become consumed by the sport. Always a fan, I grew up during the era of the blackwashes and the four-pronged pace attacks, when the teams led by Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards dominated the sport. I watched them from the Schoolboy Stand at the Queen's Park Oval and later, as a university student, from the 3Ws Stand in Barbados - at one point taking a job selling cricket programmes outside the Kensington Oval just long enough to gather the price of an entry ticket.

But my daughter Jade was born in the Dominican Republic and had never lived in the cricket-playing Caribbean. About to plunge her into an alien, non-cricketing culture, I decided that our last outing before leaving London would be to take her to see her first game: a World T20 group match between Australia and West Indies at The Oval. Perched high in the priciest seats I could afford, and draped in the maroon flag, she watched Dwayne Bravo, Chris Gayle and our boys beat Australia by seven wickets, and a nine-year-old cricket fan was born.

To commemorate the occasion we purchased official souvenir T-shirts, which came in handy some months later when I was approached by a goateed Brit at a pantomime audition in a church hall in Lima. "You like cricket?" he asked, gingerly pointing at the T-shirt that stretched over my ballooning belly. The ensuing conversation led to my initiation into the bizarre mélange that is cricket in Peru.

Players wait for their turn to bat at the Lima Cricket and Football Club

Players wait for their turn to bat at the Lima Cricket and Football Club © Cricket Peru

I lied my way into the position of official scorer. On being offered the job I said that of course I knew how to score and then googled it furiously.

There are five cricket clubs in Lima. The originals, LCFC, are the proud possessors of the only real cricket ground and are relentless identifiers of newly arrived talent. The Kiteflyers, a football-cum-cricket group, occasionally struggle to put together a team for early Sunday matches following late-night excesses off the pitch, and tend to get fined regularly for wearing non-regulation surfing shorts during play. The earnest Eidgenossen (a German term for confederates or fellowship) are known for their signature purple hats and dogged devotion to eking out disciplined, hard-fought victories with rigidly straight bats. Chak De is made up of what seems to be the entire Indian population of Lima, and are the providers of samosas and sound systems for high-profile matches - blasting bhangra beats at the Limeñian upper classes who gather at the LCFC clubhouse on weekends and expect cricketers to be picturesquely seen but not heard. Lima Indians is an offshoot of Chak De, coming into existence when the original club grew to such an extent that members grumbled they could not get a knock despite showing up religiously and displaying prodigious talent.

Being severely mathematically challenged, scoring for these teams was not easy. And the difficulty level varied by team. Kiteflyers tended to come off the pitch and head straight for the rehydrating Gatorade, and I yelled scores at them as they passed. Eidgenossen and LCFC were usually content to hold their post-match debriefs over a few beers and snacks in the clubhouse until the day's final scorebook was delivered to them, giving me ample time to calculate, recalculate, erase and tidy up. But each of the highly competitive Chak De and Lima Indians would head straight for the scoring hut after their dismissals, demanding individual averages, flipping the pages of the scorebook (which were pages downloaded from the internet and photocopied, until I could buy a proper Gray-Nicolls one on my next trip to the Caribbean) while I frantically counted on fingers and toes and craned my neck around them to record time of wicket, cumulative score at fall, how out, bowler's name, batsman's score, bowler's figures, time of entry of next batsman, small w in bowler's box, how many balls left in the over, who will face…

Peruvian newspaper <i>El Comercio</i> reports on the Ambassador Cup in 2012

Peruvian newspaper El Comercio reports on the Ambassador Cup in 2012 © El Comercio

This was not helped by the fact that the teams rarely got around to giving me names or batting orders. I developed the habit of identifying players by their distinctive clothing or style of play. Umesh, for example, was easy to spot, his hop-skip-and-jump deliveries amusing but deadly; Chris Mahoney always wore yellow surfer shorts to bowl and grungy green trackpants to bat. One of the most aggressive Indian batsmen was in the habit of wearing his box outside his whites, thus making my job much easier, while scandalising the general public.

Matters were not improved by my Peruvian husband's total bafflement at why I needed to spend my weekends in this hotbed of vice. On one occasion, having left his son with him at home while I scored, he called my cell phone incessantly, demanding that I come home and take the baby to the park because his crying was interrupting the football match on TV. I hung up on him. Things were heating up on the pitch and I needed to concentrate.

Eventually, every weekend during the season, Jade would beg people to bowl at her in the nets while my small son slept under my chair in the scoring hut. In due course Jade decided that pace bowling was her destiny and developed the longest run-up in the history of the sport. When practising she would retreat to the full length of the ground, fling her ball-clutching hand into the air and bellow "Jade ball!" - charging forward, hopping nimbly over tree roots and open drains to arrive exhausted at the crease and release the ball, which, nine times out of ten, ricocheted off the metal poles that sustained the net, terrifying the batsman for fear of decapitation.

Jade (sitting, second row, second from right) with the CanAm Women's cricket team at Lord's

Jade (sitting, second row, second from right) with the CanAm Women's cricket team at Lord's © CanAm Women's Cricket

Yet this glut of cricket-crazed gringos (in Peru, all foreigners are gringos, regardless of nationality) led to something of a renaissance.

In 2006, Cricket Peru (CP) earned ICC Affiliate status and with that came the need to demonstrate development of the game. Regular cricket clinics were held in the few international schools where students with some inkling of the sport were to be found. A national women's cricket team, the Vicuñas, was hastily formed in 2011 to compete in the South American Women's Championship and, at 11, Jade became the youngest player ever in the tournament. She took her first international wicket and earned from the Brazilian hosts the Revelación de Cricket award and the nickname Chaverinia ("Keychain" - because of her small size). She participated as the only girl in the Under-13 and U-17 teams of the rapidly growing Junior Cricket League.

Over time I became women's officer on Cricket Peru's Executive Committee and vice-captain and then captain of the Vicuñas. We struggled to attract players, relying mainly on sporty expat teachers from the UK and Australia and partners of male players. We were initially brought into being to satisfy ICC rules and suffered the usual small indignities inherent in a testosterone-driven environment. I was once implored to "stop cheeping" by one of my fellow executive committee members when I was making a forceful point. But our involvement grew in direct correlation with our enthusiasm for the sport.

However, we were still a gringo-dominated, expat-fuelled organisation. A chance meeting in a hotel in northern Peru between El Presidente Harry and the mayor of Magdalena del Mar changed all that.

In Lima there is a lack of accessible sporting opportunities for lower-income families. All the popular sports - football, volleyball, basketball - require financial outlay. Coaches are underpaid and facilities charge the coaches, who in turn mark up to charge the kids user fees. Basically you pay to play. Cricket Peru, with seed funding from the ICC, proposed to provide free cricket.

The author conducts a scoring course

The author conducts a scoring course © Cricket Peru

The ensuing negotiations with schools, councils and sporting facilities were led by the CP development officer Steve Hallett, a jack-of-all-trades/backpacker/student who arrived in Lima in 2011 to finish a doctoral thesis proposal in Latin American studies. As a rural Aussie, his passion for cricket had begun in his backyard. His father was an enthusiastic bush cricketer who eventually started his own club and built a ground and clubhouse on their property.

For the big launch of the project - a mass participation event to be attended by a number of district schools - he needed volunteers. The CP executive committee members were called on to scour their networks and produce bodies. I drummed up Tricia and Caitlin, two of only six Trinidadians living in Peru. Jade and I had successfully drafted them into the Vicuñas and we were the only two mother-daughter duos playing on the same team. Chandan, the executive committee's channel to the Chak De Massive, delegated Sonu, mysterious man-of-business and staple club and national cricketer. Fellow Vicuñan Sadie, a Welsh lass given to apropos expletives, also turned up. As did the CP secretary and WG Grace lookalike Chris Hodgson; Ian "The Body" Roughton, a stylish and buff bat-wielder for Eidgenossen; and South African Tony "The Finger" Sanford, one of Peru's most well-respected umpires.

Among the junior volunteers were three Peruvians: Diego de la Puente (who in 2013 had scored 14 runs from the final over to ensure a Peruvian South American Cricket Championship victory for the first time at any level), George "The Dragon" Glynn, and Mauricio Rivas, whose mother Maritza had become a mainstay provider of mid- and post-match water bottles and cookies.

Cricket pads make the best beds: the author's son, Gael, finds a secluded spot for a nap

Cricket pads make the best beds: the author's son, Gael, finds a secluded spot for a nap © Juliet Solomon

So there we were, on that overcast Saturday in Lima, waiting to play a demonstration game to illustrate the beauty of cricket. As Harry's harangue drew to a close we assumed our positions. Some on the perimeter of the stadium, others hunched over behind the football goalposts to serve as wicketkeepers, or high up in the bleachers to field the hopefully infrequent mis-bowled ball.

As I have written elsewhere, it looked to be shaping into an uphill struggle when the first ball was bowled. A slow delivery, the batsman offered no shot and the ball trickled past the wicketkeeper. The stumps were set up directly on the goal line, and a cheer went up from the attentive spectators as the ball came to rest at the back of the net. "Gooooooooaaaal!" chanted the kids.

All hell broke loose once we got them on the pitch. As soon as the batsman hit the ball, instead of running towards the opposite stumps the non-striker would run after the ball and try to hit it as well. Sometimes non-strikers even tried to hit the ball as it left the bowler's hand - seeming to think that it was some kind of free-floating piñata. It took multiple attempts and screams of "Corre! corre!" [Run! run!] accompanied by shoves between the shoulder blades by the CP volunteers to get the point across.

Peru's men's team

Peru's men's team © Cricket Peru

The fielders, weaned on the concept of chasing a football with single-minded intensity, could not get it through their heads that they had to wait until the batsman hit the ball to run after it. Deliveries were constantly interrupted by three or four small lads leaping Gus Logie-like from point or cover to snatch the ball out of the air before the batsman could offer a shot. When the batsman did manage to hit the ball, the entire crew, off- and on-side fielders, wicketkeeper, bowler, non-striker - the lot - hared after it and ended up in a heap on the ground trying to wrestle it from each other.

In this way was born a development programme called Cricket Magdalena. A second mass participation event was followed by a summer academy and two classes per week in term time. In one of the schools, Steve met the representative of the Police Youth Club - and just like that we were volunteering to teach cricket to police youth groups every Saturday and at their summer academies. The programme has spread. Cricket clinics are now held regularly in Pueblo Libre, Lince, Breña, Surco, Jesús Maria, and in collaboration with the Peruvian National Sports Institute, in San Juan de Lurigancho and Villa María del Triunfo, two of Lima's poorest districts.

Two of the participants in the initial Magdalena chaos took to heart Harry's advice to give the "world's second most popular sport" a try and will represent their country this month at the South American Junior Championships in Brazil.

A South American Cricket Championship match in São Paulo

A South American Cricket Championship match in São Paulo © Getty Images

Steve's doctoral thesis proposal is unfinished and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

I have moved to Panama, where my son is rapidly becoming infected with football fever. But Jade has kept the faith. Now 16, she has competed in a number of regional and international tournaments and recently toured England with the CanAm Women's Cricket team. Unsuccessful at finding a coach in Panama, she has informed me that she will be moving to Barbados next year to continue training because she plans to play for West Indies in the next World Cup.

Juliet Solomon currently lives and writes in Panama, and is the author of Yes… But It's Different Here