Samba & Sixes
How Cricket Brasil is Aiming for World Cup Qualification as Sport’s Next Great Underdog Story.
There are two stories of sporting over-achievement that Cricket Brasil Development Director Matt Featherstone likes very much. Miracle on Ice – the story of how the USA ice hockey beat the defending champions USSR in the 1980 Winter Olympics and then went on to win Gold. The second is Cool Runnings, when a Jamaican bobsleigh team qualified for the 1988 Games in Calgary, a story popularised by the 1993 movie Cool Runnings which was based loosely on the real-life story.
‘We talk about it a lot although we haven’t got an egg, but there are similarities!’ he says, referring to character Sanka Coffie’s pre-race ritual of asking his team-mates to kiss a ‘lucky egg’.
‘We draw inspiration from the ‘Miracle on Ice’ documentary, definitely. In sport, there’s always a chance that these fairy tales could happen and these sort of stories exist – just look at Emma Radacanu in the recent US Open. She didn’t bring enough kit with her because she thought she’d be going home soon enough. Then she goes and wins the whole thing, just incredible,’ he says, speaking from Cricket Brasil’s Poços de Caldas HQ. The organisation reached out to PAYNTR regarding shoes, and founder David Paynter was very happy to help supply some products and begin what will hopefully be a long-term partnership with the emerging nation.
Featherstone is a former professional cricketer with Kent but moved to Brazil in the early 2000s and represented them at national level. He now heads up Cricket Brasil, the governing body for the sport which has recently offered professional, central contracts to 15 women cricketers including national team captain Roberta Moretti Avery who will lead them into action in the forthcoming ICC Women’s T20 World Cup Americas Qualifier. The top team in the round robin tournament progresses to next year’s World Twenty20 Qualifier event, with the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow being a place at the T20 2023 World Cup in South Africa. And while there have been postponements and cancellations a plenty because of COVID, Roberta is itching to get out there starting on Monday against the US in Mexico.
‘It’s been great to have additional time to train and come together as a squad, but the uncertainty over the dates when the tournament would be played did make it a little bit complicated, so we are very happy to get to Mexico,’ she says.
‘This is a big tournament for us, and the results are important, but the critical thing is that we can go out and show people we can play cricket well and Brazil then becomes known as a cricket nation,’ says Matt.
‘It’s a long-term project, and we know it’s not just going to happen in 10 or 15 years, but we are basing a lot of our work and emphasis on the Olympics, and we are pretty hopeful cricket will be in the Games in 2028. The USA has the strongest team, on paper anyway, in this region but the women have a chance to prove that wrong next week. We are hopeful the US team gets a free pass into the Games in Los Angeles which might well mean another entrant from the Americas region – and we want that to be Cricket Brasil.
‘That will give us a big push and will be massively helpful for our credibility. When we’ve approached Brazilian brands and companies in the past, they always want to know if cricket is an Olympic sport. And even though it’s the second most popular sport in the world, it isn’t yet in the Olympics so then the brands will ask the question “so does that work?” Once that change happens, it will be fantastic for us,’ he adds.
Two problems facing Cricket Brasil is getting enough qualified coaches into the sport as well as the sky-high import costs of products into the country, so the organisation set up their own bat making factory, and Roberta hopes that the current crop of professional athletes will be great role models for the girls coming after them in future years to get involved in the sport and help spread the word.
‘We always looked for our cricket role models outside of Brazil. I met (former England Captain) Charlotte Edwards in 2017 and she was a big role model for me, looking at the history, past games, achievements, what they were involved in, but now we hope we are creating our own Cricket Brasil role models and hopefully that shows girls that it can be done, that there are pathways to being a professional cricketer if you’re Brazilian. On a smaller scale, we hope we are becoming role models for the next generation of Brazilian women players, and we feel very proud of it,’ she says.
Having authentic, Brazilian born players taking part in the sport and progressing to national level is one of Cricket Brasil’s key values. While other nations allow players to represent the country because of their residency qualifications, Matt is keen to make this a team for Brazilians.
‘I think one of the main focuses for us as an organisation is to make sure cricket is available for Brazilians. Working with the ICC for many years I’ve seen national teams feature in tournaments, but they aren’t always filled with locally born people. They feature players who live in the country, who are eligible to play, and that’s great but our biggest aim is to make this a true Brazilian sport, for the people here to love it. We want a really Brazilian face and edge to this product,’ he adds.
Anyone who has watched a Brazilian sporting team play, whether it be cricket, football or volleyball, will recognise the incredible passion and flair both in the playing arena and in the stands, and it’s this energy that Cricket Brasil wants to bring to the world game, and something both Matt and Roberta feel the game can benefit from.
‘Brazilians – and Latin people in general – we are very passionate about everything that we do. When I learned to play cricket, I didn’t know how it was different in England, how it was played in Australia – I just knew how it was played here. The singing, the dancing – these are Brazilian ways of supporting a sport or something you love, we have brought our natural style to cricket. We play shots that nobody else does, we do things in the field that no one else does, and we created our own Brazilian style which we are very proud of,’ she adds.
Cricket Brasil are certainly blazing a trail by awarding professional contract to the women ahead of the men’s team, but Matt is keen to stress this wasn’t done as a marketing tactic.
‘It wasn’t done deliberately to blaze a trail, but because of the limits on funding – we had to simply choose our best team based on who was the most likely to have success and that was the women. We have a pathway and development programme whereby 33,000 people will start playing cricket in this region, half of which will be women, and by highlighting the opportunity that the current squad members have earned – to be a professional athlete – it gives younger athletes something to aim for. They can now become a professional cricketer, and this is a game changer for a lot of people.
‘Yes, of that 33,000, cricket will be a bit of fun in the park – like in every sport – but for the dedicated and talented in that number who want to take it really seriously, there’s a life-changing opportunity. We’ve got the green shirts which are the centrally contracted players, and then beneath then we have the blue shirts – the development squad. Education is also really important for Cricket Brasil, so we put people through university, we go to the social projects and a lot of deprived areas and offer an education alongside cricket. The idea is that they go through university, they embark on projects with us, and at the end of that if they want to come back and work for us and spread the word, that’s even better.
‘That’s how we can grow. The reality is when I talk to a Brazilian about cricket, you can see they want to believe you, but it’s only when native Brazilians are telling their compatriots about the sport will the message start to get through. They can look at Roberta’s example because five or six years ago, she was just like the girl she is now communicating with. That girls can see a real-life example of what is possible – a central professional contract, university education and travelling the world with a great group of athletes and playing a brilliant game. Do you fancy it? It’s not an English bloke saying it, it’s your next-door neighbour,’ he concludes.