x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

One man's international outreach effort through cricket

On a mission to extol the benefits of cricket to the underprivileged in societies across the world, Tom Rodwell uncovers fascinating stories.

Tom Rodwell's Third Man in Havana takes cricket to new territories. David H Wells / Corbis
Tom Rodwell's Third Man in Havana takes cricket to new territories. David H Wells / Corbis

On a mission to extol the benefits of cricket to the forgotten in society across the world, Tom Rodwell uncovers fascinating stories but fails to convey them as convincingly as a writer would.

Tom Rodwell’s book is the story of the 18 trips to 12 countries he made between 2005 and 2011, running cricket programmes for the poor and disabled. In some of the countries, such as Israel, Rwanda and Cuba, cricket was not part of the culture – in others, such as Jamaica and Sri Lanka, it was.

Rodwell’s journey is serendipitous; a club cricketer who helps to run a London charity that aims to get disadvantaged kids playing the game, he gets his break when ex-West Indies international Courtney Walsh asks him and some of his coaches to help out in Jamaica. The next thing he knows, he’s in a Kingston prison catching a convicted murderer off Walsh’s bowling. The prisoner approaches a concerned Rodwell and shakes his hand for taking a great catch.

Stories like this are indicative of the way that the spirit of cricket – a nebulous construct but one that anyone who’s played the game will acknowledge exists – can have a positive effect in divided countries.

In Rwanda, Rodwell feels the game’s growth mirrors the religious conversion to Christianity that was inculcated by the 19th-century explorers, “but where religion has brought with it enduring problems of confrontation in Africa [...] sport has the ability to swerve most of these problems and concentrate just on the pleasure of performance”. In Be’er Sheva, Israel, he sees Arab and Jewish children playing together – one says he enjoyed it “because I was playing with such good people”. A simple sentiment, says Rodwell, but one which “if multiplied over and over” might get the country on the road to peace.

And there are no doubts about the game’s benefits for the physically and mentally disabled. It seems to be complex but, “nevertheless, has a formulaic structure to it that enables it to be broken down into bite-size chunks that are easily understandable”. This is particularly attractive to children with Down’s syndrome, who are able to get into the game quicker than with some sports that might initially appear less complex.

And blind cricket – played with a ball that has ball-bearings in its core – encourages trust. The batsman has to be aligned with the wickets by the opposition wicket keeper and, if the fielders are positioned in the wrong place, there’s a chance of collisions. As Rodwell notes, many young disabled people are surrounded by a cocoon of caring family and friends, which can be a double-edged sword; the sport encourages more self-reliance, self-confidence and independence.

However, sentimental as it sounds, it’s easy to forget there are some very good people in the world, and Rodwell is clearly one of them, as are the men whom he encounters: this is a story with real heart. In Israel he meets a man from Yorkshire who got a job as the country’s cricket development officer. His makeshift pavilion, in Be’er Sheva, has recently been hit in a Hamas rocket attack. This, he says, put him off his line and length. Later, Rodwell finds the Bedouin kids are difficult to coach in the field – they keep wandering around.

Few wouldn’t be moved by the author’s description of a Sri Lankan child, his scars covered by his cricket shirt, describing how the game has shown him that his “glass is half full” – a phrase he has picked up from Rodwell and his coaches. Nor by the leader of the rehabilitation camp where the coaching takes place; he is a former Sri Lankan brigadier whose major aim is that his young Tamil charges don’t see him as the victor in the country’s brutal civil war.

This man politely makes the point to Rodwell that many of the problems he’s trying to solve are born of colonialism (the British always favoured the Tamils), just as in Rwanda we are reminded that it was the Belgian support of
Eugenics that ultimately created the savage war between the Hutus and Tutsis. As Rodwell says, “if one looks at the polyglot constituent countries in our Commonwealth, cricket, second perhaps only to the Queen, is the glue that holds it all together”. In Panama people play because of British-Caribbean immigrant canal workers, in Israel it’s a result of Baghdadi Jews who moved to Bombay in the 18th century and then on to Be’er Sheva in the 1960s.

This history means that cricket has never been detached from politics. Ever since the first (regularly fixed) games of the 18th century, there have been men seeking to exploit the game for their own agendas.

The work Rodwell does in Jamaica gets him on the radar of the British Foreign Office, which wants him to do the same in Cuba. This, preposterously, is part of a scheme to increase British influence once the Castro regime falls, rather than allowing the island to become an American patsy. And later, he learns the main reason the Foreign Office has asked him to go to a UN conference in Rwanda is because it will help with the 2012 Olympics bid.

Likewise, it’s the London Metropolitan Police which asks him to cement its relationship with the NYPD by working in New York, and the International Cricket Council (ICC) which asks him to work in Israel.

Rodwell maintains an air of amused detachment from these bodies, rarely criticising them openly. He has some stern words for the ICC, pointing out that cricket could become an Olympic sport, which could transform the opportunities for disabled people, but the body won’t consider it because it would disrupt the money flow that comes through current schedules.

But this is a rare moment of dissent. And that’s the only problem with this book. It’s a heartwarming, extraordinary tale. It just would have been better if it had been written by someone else. Rodwell strives for the sort of folksy style that even some ex-Test players seem to feel is essential today, but he’s got no control of tone: the death of 40,000 Tamils is “serious stuff”, apparently.

More seriously, it stops him asking questions of the world within which he’s operating. It’s hardly his fault – he was busy doing good work. But there’s a telling moment in Zimbabwe when he says it seemed petty that the England Cricket Board and ICC were trying to exclude the country from international cricket. The coaches he meets are doing their best in the face of inflation, lack of food and petrol. South Africa should help, he thinks, but when he asks the coaches, “it felt like they were tiptoeing into politics,” so he gets no answer – and nor do we. Sticky (and extremely complex, not that you’d know) issue dealt with, on with the good work. Likewise, he’s happy to stress allegations of French awareness of the 1994 Rwandan genocide were “strenuously denied”.

Rodwell’s the sort of team man who’s happy to hug former London mayor Ken Livingstone like “an old friend” in front of the cameras in Cuba because an old mate asks him to, who doesn’t really have a bad word to say for Uganda president Yoweri Museveni on the grounds that he’s not guerrilla leader Joseph Kony – he’s just playing the game, like everyone else, and what’s more he’s doing it for a good cause.

This lack of willingness to question extends beyond the political to the personal. In Rwanda, he meets Philip, a Tutsi who was educated in Uganda. While there he joined the Rwanda National Front and fought as a guerrilla. When he returned to his homeland he found his family had been murdered by a Hutu boy who lived next door and who had been his best friend. After seven years, he tracked the boy down to a Kigali prison and confronted him.

It’s a fascinating story, the likes of which are somewhat few and far between in this book. And the reason is that, on the whole, stories like this don’t hand themselves to you on a plate. You need a nose for a likely interviewee, and the will to keep asking the right questions, over and over again. But Rodwell isn’t a journalist: he’s a man who does a lot of good work – and his story deserves better than to be told by an amateur. A ghost writer should have been used at the very least. This combination of flippant tone and lack of deep engagement with the individuals with whom he’s working do his trips a huge disservice. They end up coming across as a series of jollies.

Alan White’s work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain’s Gang Culture, republished this year.