Fifteen boisterous 12-year-old boys run to the big field next to the treatment facility where they live, Hogar Bíblico Roblealto, a children’s home in the misty town of San José de la Montaña in Heredia, north of the capital. Instead of pulling out a soccer ball, however, their coach produces two bright blue, wide bats and pushes two wooden wickets into the ground 20 meters away from each other. The boys instantly know what to do, fanning around the runway that separates the “bowler” and “batsman,” who face each other during the game.
It’s Tuesday at Hogar Bíblico, and the boys know that means it’s time to play cricket.
“¡Mae! ¡Mae!” they call out to each other in Tico slang, encouraging their teammates to focus on the game. They are working even harder than usual, motivated to prepare for their first ever tournament against an under-15 team in the Caribbean port city of Limón.
The boys left earlier this week for the match, their travel expenses covered by a donation from Café Britt and their equipment donated by the International Cricket Council.
But not long ago, the British-originated sport was virtually unknown in this small mountain town.
“This man, Andrew, knocked on my door and asked me if I wanted to learn how to play cricket, and I said, ‘What is that?’” says Gerardo Montiel, 47, recreation director at Hogar Bíblico. “And I’m a physical education teacher! But I had never heard of cricket or knew it was a sport in university. He said, ‘When do we start?’ And the next week we started with our first class.”
Andrew Ewbanks came to Costa Rica from England four years ago and brought his love of cricket with him. In 2005, a group of mostly expats formed the first Costa Rican cricket league with four teams of adults.
Ewbanks decided to try to get younger people excited about the game as well, which is why he chose Hogar Bíblico, a home that treats at-risk children under 13 for a period of two years or less. Many of the children have behavorial or emotional problems and turbulent home lives.
“After that (first) practice I liked cricket so much because it was a sport that didn’t have as much conflict and violence,” Montiel says. “And it was also really fun.”
When Ewbanks left, a new coach arrived for the boys: Sam Arthur, from India, another cricket-loving nation.
“We don’t go hard on those kids,” Arthur says in his lilting accent. “We just try to talk to them and keep things smooth and explain to them well.”
At a recent practice, Arthur, 33, is dressed in head-to-toe white, his clothing adorned with Costa Rica Cricket Association insignia. Montiel wears a baseball hat proclaiming “Cricket Without Boundaries.”
Montiel says cricket is a great disciplinary tool that teaches that “instead of hitting, it’s better to think.” He adds that the sport teaches players to value their opponents. He has a saying around the home when people seem to be arguing: “Remember the spirit of cricket!”
Also, when the children misbehave, they aren’t allowed to play.
Michael, a boy of 12 who has been in the home for five years as a special case, tries to nonchalantly approach the boys as they are playing.
“Michael! You can’t be here. You have to stay out,” Montiel calls out to him. Michael shuffles away to the bleachers to watch, regretting the misbehavior that relegated him to the sidelines.
“It feeds your body and makes your mind sharper,” Michael says, watching his teammates wistfully. “It’s more fun than soccer.”
While many of the boys feel the same way as Michael, Montiel and Arthur have encountered some problems trying to start a new team at the University of Costa Rica in San Pedro, east of the capital, where soccer reigns supreme.
Arthur hopes the trip to Limón will strengthen the boys’ commitment to the sport.
“My hope was to take them to show what cricket is, take them to another place and play with other teams of kids to give them more enthusiasm to play even more cricket,” he says.
And Montiel is happy that the coming game keeps the boys even more in line.
“Now they’re fascinated with the trip to Limón,” he says. “When I told them we were going to Limón, they kept on asking me, ‘Gerardo, I’m going, right? I’m going to go?’
Discipline is important, so I’m waiting until the last moment to tell them whom I’ll take.”
Surprisingly, cricket has a long history in Costa Rica. Jamaicans who built the railway between Limón and San José in the 1880s brought the game to the country, and at one point there were 45 teams playing in three leagues (TT, Oct. 15, 2004). Arthur wants to return cricket here to its former glory by forming under-15 and under-19 national teams. He also wants to encourage girls to join. He coaches several school teams in Limón, and wants to get the national teams off the ground by next year.
“It’s going to be a turning point for us,” he says.