Cricket fans stake their game’s future on school children

A.M. Costa Rica file photo A tense moment on the pitch

Although soccer will probably always be Costa Rica’s most popular sport, a group of English expats has been working for over two decades to reintroduce cricket, and in the past few years the key has become getting it into schools.

To that end, the Costa Rica Cricket Federation is hosting the Inter-Schools Cricket Kick-off, a tournament for secondary-school cricket teams at the end of the month in preparation for a bigger tournament in October.

By promoting the sport in schools, the federation hopes to plant the seed for more teams and more interest among young people, a small piece in the plans of the International Cricket Council, the global cricket authority that supplies roughly half the federation’s funding, to spread the sport globally.

“That is what the ICC wants, of course, not a bunch of old British men playing,” said Richard Illingworth, president of the federation and of Baden Corp’s Croquet and Cricket Club of Costa Rica, a local team based in Heredia.

Developed in Great Britain in the 17th century, cricket’s heyday was during the 1800s when it became the British national sport and was subsequently spread across the nation’s global empire.

The sport continues to be most popular in former British colonies, particularly around the Indian Ocean, in countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and especially India.

“Cricket in India is almost like a religion, like fútbol in Latin America,” said Illingworth.

According to an article on the federation’s Web site written by Illingworth, cricket grew in popularity from the late 1800s until the 1930s along the Caribbean coast, as many workers from Jamaica, a former British colony, began to settle around Limón.

However, World War II put an end to cricket’s growth in Costa Rica, and no one could effectively organize a movement to reintroduce the sport for 50 more years.

“There was some sporadic cricket going on but not much,” said Illingworth.

Often described as a bat-and-ball sport like baseball, cricket is played by two teams of 11 on a circular field about 150 meters in diameter, with a 22-yard-long sand pitch in the center. These dimensions in total are roughly twice the size of a standard soccer field and difficult to find, according to Illingworth.

The game is divided in to innings, in which the batting team tries to hit the ball and run across the pitch as many times as possible to score runs. Meanwhile, the fielding team bowls or pitches the ball aiming for a target or wicket behind the batter, If the ball hits the wicker, it puts the batter out of play to be replaced by another batter until the whole team has cycled through. Batters also can also be removed if the ball is caught before it hits the ground.

Born in the United Kingdom but quick to say that he is “English,” Illingworth moved to Costa Rica in 1986, and within a year he began trying to recruit and organize the small cricket movement here.

He explained how during the 1990s teams grew and Costa Rica began to compete internationally, but the sport did not gain much traction until 2000, when the International Cricket Council wrote to Illingworth and invited the organization to become an affiliate member and receive donations.

“What the ICC was doing was increasing the number of countries and the number of people playing, and they were very successful,” he said.

In addition to providing equipment, the International Cricket Council began giving the organization $4,000 and has been increasing funding up to $25,000 last year.

Additionally, the organization has been able to generate matching funding from private organizations for events developing partnerships with government agencies, culminating last year when Costa Rica hosted an annual international cricket tournament played by six Latin American countries. Costa Rica took fifth place in the tournament and barely ranks in the top 100 of the council’s 106 members.

“It was a super achievement not only from the level of playing we had reached to part in that, but it was an achievement for us from an organizational point of view,” Illingworth said.

However, despite these successes, Illingworth said that the sport has still not generated as much interest as the federation had hoped.

There are only three adult teams in Costa Rica, based in Escazú, Heredia and Limón.

“We’ve been lucky to have sponsorship. However, we still haven’t managed to get hundreds or thousands of people playing,” he said. “Even with sponsorship, people haven’t been showing up in droves.”

In the past few years, the focus has become getting the sport into schools by offering training courses to students and physical education teachers alike, working with the Ministerio de Educación Pública and hosting tournaments for teams of middle-school, high-school, and college aged students.

The sport has caught on in numerous schools in Limón, but the next step is to introduce it in more schools in the Central Valley.

“We’re looking to build on what we’ve already got, and schools are the key,” said Illingworth.

Although the adult league had its championship in May, the next tournament will be a single-day event of about a dozen school teams in Siquirres July 31. The top few teams will go on to play in a bigger tournament in Limón, sometime in October.

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