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Cricket and Central America’s Gangs

May 23, 2012

by Nic Wirtz

The ability of sports to unite and promote shared goals has enabled athletes to reach parts of society that have often felt excluded. Could cricket be used to stem gang membership in Central America?

Cricket dates back to the sixteenth century where it was first played in southern England. By the eighteenth century, it was the national sport, and from there it was exported through the Commonwealth.

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There are national teams throughout the Americas that compete in one-day competitions on the world stage. And in Central America, Belize, Costa Rica and Panama are affiliate members of the International Cricket Council, the game’s ruling body.

Yet it is from the unlikely source of the streets of Compton, California that a potential blueprint for combating social problems in Central America exists.

Compton Cricket Club (CCC) was founded in 1995 with the aim of alleviating the effect on the city’s youth of extreme poverty and homelessness. As co-founder Ted Hayes of the CCC said, “The aim of playing cricket is to teach people to respect themselves and respect authority so they stop killing each other.”

Having toured worldwide, the CCC is one of the more successful cricketing exports from the United States. Beyond combating the negative impact of gang activity and promoting good citizenship, the CCC has an historical side. Cricket was popular in the U.S., especially in New York and Philadelphia until it was overtaken by baseball in the mid-late 1800s.

The first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Redstockings hired an Englishman, Harry Wright, to be their first manager. He led them through an undefeated inaugural season in 1860. Cricketing administrators were also highly regarded; Nicholas Young served as the National League president from 1885-1902. Born in New York, he started his sporting career in cricket before moving to baseball.

More recently, cricket has enjoyed something of a revival in the U.S. spurred by migrants from South Asia and the West Indies.

How it managed to wind its way to Guatemala is more surprising. There has been a recent influx of migrants from South Asia involved in call center operations and trading in commodities such as timber and coffee. With neighbor country Belize having a shared heritage with Britain, cricket has flourished there while soccer has been the game of choice for the majority of the Americas.

The nongovernmental organization Manos Amigas has used cricket in its outreach programs into rural Guatemala in recent years. Introducing new sports such as lacrosse and basketball has had a positive impact on those that are exposed to them. Child psychologist Carmen Olivero said, “Coming into contact with new sports and cultures helps broaden the child’s horizons. In the case of cricket I’m not surprised it has a positive impact on gang members. Team sports teach the same kind of unity that many are looking for.”

Now Manos Amigas’ efforts are being backed up by a local team that is playing in Guatemala City and in nearby Antigua. A mixture of ex-pats and locals, they recently played El Salvador over Easter, emerging with an unblemished record of played four, won four.

Olivero said, “The rules of cricket, in particular the batsman only having one ‘life’ means players have to concentrate, focus and use self-discipline to continue batting. Many gang members come from backgrounds where there is little value on things, especially lives. Learning to protect their wicket and value their time batting provides a strong foundation for reintegrating them back into the community.”

Luke Humphries, the co-founder of Guatemala Cricket Club, a teacher and a volunteer youth worker agrees. Having dabbled with a similar program to Manos Amigas in a school he helps run for 225 pupils in Santiago, Sacatepéquez he has seen the positive benefits of cricket. Santiago is a poor town, an hour from Guatemala City. It has a reputation for vigilante justice and a gang problem. The local sports stadium is overlooked by a graffiti-filled wall lamenting the passing of the town’s youth.

Estimates vary widely as to how many gang members are in Guatemala, ranging from 8,000-165,000 with a large amount of associates not included in those figures. With high youth unemployment, massive income disparity and few opportunities especially in rural areas, the threat of a lost generation in a country where 73 percent of the population is under age 30 looms large.

However, youth workers remain confident that it is possible to reach at-risk kids and offer them an alternative, such as a sporting future. Humphries said, “There’s been a massive change in Geovanny (a Guatemalan teenager) in just a couple of months. He’s more confident, he’s more vocal, he joins in more. Everyone who knows him has remarked on it. That’s because he’s basically playing for the Guatemalan national team. It’s a pretty big thing for him.”

For true international recognition, a mixture of infrastructure, administration but most importantly teams of men, women and children need to be organized. Finding enough land to create cricket pitches is difficult, but with local authorities and the sports ministry keen to promote the benefits of teamwork and sport there is sufficient will to expose more youngsters to the self-esteem and potentially life-changing possibilities that cricket generates.

*Nic Wirtz is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. A freelance journalist who has lived in Guatemala for the last six years, his work has been featured on the Christian Science Monitor and GlobalPost and he edits the website Vozz.

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