Saturday 24 March 2018

Pope's cricket XI shows game is a broad church

Henry Kelly saw the Vatican team take on the Anglicans - in Canterbury

Zimbabwe's Henry Olonga (L) is congratulated by Zimbabwe captain Alistair Campbell during a match against India in 1999. Photo: Paul Hackett/Reuters.
Zimbabwe's Henry Olonga (L) is congratulated by Zimbabwe captain Alistair Campbell during a match against India in 1999. Photo: Paul Hackett/Reuters.

Henry Kelly

I went to a cricket match last week, unique in the history of the game. It was between the Archbishop of Canterbury's XI and St Peter's Cricket Club - the Vatican. It was played on one of England's great cricket grounds, the St Lawrence ground, home of Kent County Cricket Club. The ground is now officially the Spitfire Ground after their sponsors, Spitfire Ale. As one observer remarked, God and Mammon supporting a 20-over contest.

Everything was as it would be for an ordinary match: neatly produced sheets with scorecards and team news. The Vatican team looked - on paper - suspiciously good, being made up of seminarians from the sub-continent with one Englishman and, from Ireland, Eamonn O'Higgins. The rest were Indian, a couple of Sri Lankans and one wicket-keeper, Amir Bhatti, from Pakistan.

The Archbishop of Canterbury's team were curates and priests from all over England. Their captain, Steve Gray, chaplain at Bradfield College, had to retire hurt, but in an intriguing game, the Anglicans beat the Roman Catholics in the final overs. Archbishop Justin Welby allowed himself a cheer.

The idea for the match came from the Australian Ambassador to the Vatican, and he persuaded the Pope to sign a bat which the team took with them on their tour - they played other games against Authors XI, Army Chaplains and others.

Playing the Anglicans was the big one. We had prayers before the game, led by the Catholic Archbishop of Southwark and the Anglican Bishop of Dover. Just before play, a priest came over to introduce himself. He was the auxiliary Bishop of Southwark

He looked at me and said: "You look like a Jesuit boy, I suppose you were at Belvedere. I'm Cork myself, a Christian Brother". Then he wandered off. How in the Lord's name could he have known that?

Two things I wasn't prepared for. The first was the number of bishops, archbishops, priests, vicars and curates there. If you hadn't a collar or a pectoral cross you felt almost a freak! The second was the yellow blazers of the Vatican team. All cricket blazers have a hint of vulgarity about them. The Vatican's were class: yellow and with the Papal keys on the breast pocket. I tried to buy one but they'd run out of the few dozen they'd brought on the tour.

There was a point to all this, explained to me by Henry Olonga. Henry, as even people not interested in cricket probably know, was the first black Zimbabwe cricketer to play for his country. In an international match in 2003, he and a colleague - Andy Flower, later to become coach of England - wore black armbands. Henry told me: "We did it because of the state of our country; we felt as sportsmen we should, in a small way, make the point that not everyone in Zimbabwe agreed with what was happening."

It cost Henry a lot. He lost a potential money-spinning career and sought refuge in England, where he has lived ever since. At Canterbury last week, he was there as commentator and spokesman for the charity set up by a joint venture between the Vatican and the Anglican communion. It's the Global Freedom Network, with the objective of eradicating modern slavery and human trafficking in the world. It's a wildly optimistic ideal - but it just might work. 'Old-fashioned' slavery - where we saw black men and women shackled and being bought and sold in markets - still exists in some parts of the world. It is, however, the hidden slavery that is harder to patrol: the basement rooms in Europe and the Americas, where young men and women are locked with little comforts and forced to work 24/7. A collection was taken for the cause.

It was a great fun day in perfect surroundings and on the train home I started to chuckle. Fortunately, most of my fellow passengers were asleep or listening to something on their mobile devices. My chuckle was when I called to mind the speech we heard many years ago, when the then Archbishop of Dublin, George Simms, spoke at the annual dinner of the Leprechauns Cricket Club.

He told us there had once been a match between the Church of Ireland and a team of Catholic clergy. The Protestants were worried because they believed the Catholics were very strong, so they recruited the great Colin Cowdrey as a 'ringer'.

At lunchtime, the Archbishop phoned to know how the match was going. "Not too good," he was told, "we were out for only 92 runs." The Archbishop was stunned: "What about the Reverend Cowdrey?"

"Oh, he was bowled for only five by a Jesuit - Father Freddy Trueman."

Sunday Independent

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