Fidel Castro relaxing at a sugar plantation near Havana, surrounded by children    Getty Images
Fidel Castro Getty Images

Fidel Castro is no more. For the uninitiated, Castro spearheaded the 26th of July Movement, a revolutionary group that put an end to the Fulgencio Batista era of dictatorship in Cuba in 1959. As Prime Minister of Cuba, Castro fraternised with Soviet Union to an extent that United States got alarmed, more so after he allowed Soviet Union to deploy ballistic missiles in Cuba as response to USA s deployment in Italy and Turkey. The Cuban Missile Crisis resulted in both powerhouses withdrawing their missiles in 1962. Cuba also gained immunity of sorts from USA (as long as Cuba did not attack USA directly) as per the subsequent treaty.

But the story does not begin there. In 1961, USA had planned an invasion on the South Cuba inlet of Bay of Pigs. Despite the backing of the anti-Castro Cuban Democratic Revolutionary Front, the American invasion failed, and Castro had been hailed a national hero.

Just before the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F Kennedy s USA had put a commercial, economic, and financial embargo on Cuba. Rumours (mostly verified) are that Kennedy had ordered 1,200 Cuban cigars just before enacting the embargo, but let us not get into that.

This post, however, is not about Cuban politics. This is about Castro, the most influential man in Cuban history despite not having a face as t-shirt-friendly as his compatriot Che Guevara.

The Cuban sugar mills attracted immigrants from the Caribbean, mostly Barbados. The advent of cricket was inevitable after that. Cricket was played in Cuba, most famously at Guantanamo Cricket Club, founded by Leonard Ford. The first significant Cuban cricketer, Ford had showed up from Barbados where he was a prolific cricketer to work at Guantanamo Naval Base in 1928.

Cricket became organised in subsequent decades. Cuba played their first known international match in 1952, against Jamaica a side that featured one Howard Cooke.

Unfortunately, cricket faded out in Cuba since Castro took over. Castro did not exactly oppose cricket, but there was no support either, and cricket in Cuba came on the verge of dying with a whimper barring an annual contest on Emancipation Day in Baragu nobody cared for. Baseball became the more popular sport among the second-generation Cuban West Indians.

The revival began with Leonard Ford s daughter Leonora Leona , a retired Professor of English. She worked on a book on Cuban cricket, only to be astonished at the lack of documentation on the sport anywhere in the country. So she took things to the next level.

In 1998 Leonora Ford presented a paper on the legacy of Cuban cricket. She worked tirelessly towards the revival of the sport in the country. She wrote to Cooke, by then Governor of Jamaica. Cooke sent cricket kits to Cuba. Cooke also nominated a Jamaican mentor who went by the name of Courtney Walsh.

Earl Best, sports writer of Trinidad Express, visited Guantanamo shortly afterwards. Equipment came from Trinidad as well. Leonora, more determined than ever, organised for a six-week cricket coaching programme among sports coaches.

Cuban Sports Ministry recognised cricket in 2001, albeit without funding. This was where United Kingdom Sport stepped in with help. Thanks to UK sport, finances came. Equipment came from both MCC and a businessman named Syd Lowe.

Guantanamo hosted a cricket match in 2001, where they beat Havana. The next year Cuba became an ICC affiliate.

What about Castro, then? The great man had always wanted to put a halt to the Cuban youth coming under influence of American culture. In 2006 cricket got official approval. It became one of Cuba s 38 national sports, and was even taught in schools.

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal. On one of his trips to Barbados, Castro was driving (or being driven) by a ground with a cricket match in progress. What followed was typical Castro: the car was stopped; Castro walked out, the Barbadian President in tow; he marched towards the cricketers; he enquired what was going on; he grabbed the bat and insisted the Barbadian President bowled; and there stood Castro, brandishing the bat like a baseball club

Whatever was the case, Castro gave cricket his approval, and Leonora Ford won his battle. Charlie Connelly rightly wrote in Elk Stopped Play: No person anywhere can have had such an overwhelming and dramatic effect on the development of cricket in their country.

It was not easy. Tom Rodwell wrote in Third Man in Havana: Fidel and Raul Castro [brother of Fidel] came from a white middle-class background as did most of the early leaders Che Guevara was an Argentinian doctor but Leona s fierce intellect, striking looks and combative personality forced the authorities to take notice of her, when she invoked Fidel Castro s early policy statement that Sport is the Right of the People .

In 2007-08 Cuba was one of the teams in the Stanford Twenty 20 in Coolidge, Antigua. They were pitted against St Maarten. Unfortunately, they never got a chance. The match report ran thus: The USA government refused Stanford a permit necessary for the Cuba team to compete so the match had to be cancelled and St Maarten entered the next round. Stanford was, after all, an American citizen.

In lieu of the tournament Cuba travelled Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), playing 8 matches and winning 2 (against National Lotteries XI and SVG Prime Minister s XI). The last match, a 15-over contest, deserves particular mention, for Cuba scored 140 for 7 and restricted the opposition to 46 for 7.

In 2009-10 they were pitted against Mexico, Falkland Islands, and Costa Rica in Division Four of ICC Americas Championship but had to withdraw again. By then Fidel had been succeeded by brother Raul at the helm.

Fidelius Charm

On Test debut he had routed Sri Lanka with 5 for 36 and 1 for 54 at Sabina Park. Months later he became the first to take 6 wickets on debut, that too at the cost of a mere 22, when the hapless Zimbabweans, clueless against his searing pace, were left reeling at 22 for 5.

His best days are probably past him, but it would be unfair to leave Fidel Edwards out of this piece. It is not every day that you come across a Test cricketer nicknamed Castro, you see.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry. He blogs at ovshake.blogspot.com and can be followed on Twitter @ovshake42)