THE CAFETEROS RETURN
?My friends think of me as a madman.? Jairo Andres Venegas is a rather unusual Colombian. He?s very probably the only Colombian with a collection of cricket bats from the 1950s and 1960s. He?s almost certainly the only Colombian to have a Lord?s tea-towel framed and hanging on the wall of his living room. He?s surely the only Colombian able to compare the sport of cricket to the Battle of Waterloo or currently juggling his leisure-time reading between CLR James?s Beyond a Boundary and A History of Cricket in 100 Objects by Gavin Mortimer. And next weekend he?ll definitely (last-minute injury disasters notwithstanding) become the first Colombian-born player to ever play for the national cricket side.
Cricket in Colombia is a growing but fundamentally niche sport. The national team has been in mothballs since taking on Costa Rica in 2010. On Saturday, though, hot on the heels of the formation of the Colombian Cricket Board in June, the side comes out of hibernation to host the inaugural Amazon Cup, a triangular Twenty20 affair in Bogot? which will also involve Brazil and Peru. The organisers hope that it?ll be a first step on the road to the Cafeteros competing in the 2015 South American Cricket Championships in Chile.
For Venegas it represents the apogee of a journey that began not long before Allan Border?s no-nonsense Australia side thrashed David Gower?s fracturing England in 1989. And it?s a journey that began, of course, in, um, Belgium. ?I was six years old, we were living in Belgium because my father used to work for Phillips,? he says. ?My older brother and I studied at the British School of Brussels and while my brother actually played at school, I did Kwik Cricket or whatever it was called at the time. We came back to Colombia the next year and cricket became just a memory of good times.?
A flirtation with rugby followed and the first time Venegas played what might be called ?proper cricket? was in Bogot?, after an email to Lord?s, conversations with ICC Americas, contact with the British Embassy in the Colombian capital and a long wait. The wait, though, has been worth it ? now he is a committed convert and admits to being the ?most cricket-obsessed Colombian in the country?.
?He is the one player who you know will turn up, whatever the weather, to our monthly practice games,? says Venegas?s Bogot? CC and Colombia team-mate Olly West. ?Not only that, but some of us struggle to manage to find a even white T-shirt to play in, and you?ll see England rugby shirts, Colombian football shirts, and several horrendous multicoloured shorts amid the attire of Bogot? CC on most Sundays. Our wicketkeeper Jairo, however, is without fail immaculately turned out in full whites, cricket jumper and floppy hat. My Colombian girlfriend was so impressed at how smart he looks that she made me buy cricket trousers last time I was back in England to go with my cricket shirt so I could look equally smart.?
Despite the natty attire, Venegas?s friends struggle with the sport. ?People in Colombia always think of cricket as croquet,? he says. ?They ask: ?Is it the one from Alice in Wonderland?? or ?Is it the one with the wood hammers??? The question then is what exactly, in a country where football and cycling dominate, attracted Colombia?s wicketkeeper to the game?
?What is appealing for me about cricket is its complexity and I?m not talking just about the laws and strategy, it?s more about the history and the passion, how the game has changed people and countries, how it can be sophisticated but at the same time simple,? he says. ?For me it?s easily compared to ancient warfare like a Waterloo or something of its kind. You must have qualities of a soldier, you can be at one moment having the worst time of your life but with the proper catch, swing or sweep you can be the hero of the day.?
This weekend?s international return follows four years of biannual fixtures between Bogot? and Cali CC in the Ambassadors Cup, a competition that in fact goes back to the 1960s but which petered out in the latter part of the 20th century. The history of Colombian cricket goes back even further, all the way to the first game played in the country in 1903 at the Magdalena Hippodrome in the capital. The recent resurgence has seen an increase in participation (the CCB reckons that more Colombian residents ? both locals and expats ? are now regularly playing cricket than at any time in history), a third city, Medell?n, has this summer founded a club and there are plans afoot for a Bogot? Premier League.
Long-term, the goal is for more Colombians to follow in Venegas?s footsteps ? Bogot? hope to follow Cali?s lead and set up a youth programme for local kids ? but for now the national side is mainly a blend of ex-pats from cricketing heartlands. ?Traditionally the cricket community was dominated by BP workers and bankers, though BP are no longer here and Andy Wright, who runs everything, is the only ex-banker now,? says West. ?There?s even one Aussie ? an ex-Argentinian international [Argentina are actually pretty good and play WC qualifiers] and our best player ? who has started a surfing charity on the Pacific coast, one of the poorest regions in Colombia.
Bogot??s large Indian community also provides players for the national side (a Bogot? Indians team is one of a trio of sides pencilled in for the city?s T20 league), while Cali?s youth coaching setup, which has been providing cricket coaching to 25 boys and girls from the Alfonso L?pez neighbourhood in Cali since September 2011 and has seen players graduate to the full side, is run by Guyanese wicketkeeper/mechanic Tony Williams, who is also in the Amazon Cup squad.
Venegas, who is about to begin a masters in history in which he hopes to investigate the history of Colombian cricket in full detail, will line up alongside his team-mates this weekend with a mixture of pride and nerves. ?It?s a great honour to be capped for Colombia,? says Venegas. ?To represent your own country at any international level, it makes me very proud. It also makes me very anxious to not let down the people that selected me and to play well in the field.?
The artificial track at the Bogot? Sports Club ground ?can get pretty fast and bouncy? and at 2,600m above sea level, the ball does tend to travel pretty swiftly, but despite the familiar conditions the home side will start very much as underdogs against their visitors, both of whom are ICC Associate nations and regulars at the South American Championships. Nevertheless, with family and some possibly rather confused friends watching from the sidelines, the weekend gives Venegas the chance to show why he might not be that mad after all.
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