HAVANA – The ball bounced off the pavement and Yordeni Caballero swung, whacking it with a soft thud and hurling his bat to the side as if he'd hit a homerun. As the 7-year-old raced down a street-turned-cricket pitch, his coach shouted instructions about a sport that's barely known in Cuba.
The Caribbean is divided between baseball-playing countries with U.S. ties and cricket-playing islands that once belonged to the British Empire. Nowhere is more baseball-crazy than Cuba, but even here, a tiny but passionate group of men is trying to win people over to cricket, baseball's slower-paced, more courtly British relative.
Mostly descendants of sugar-cane workers who migrated from other islands in the early 20th century, Cuba's cricket partisans subsist on homemade and donated equipment from the embassies of cricket-playing countries. They recruit players from the streets and teach them rules of the new sport, while exploiting baseball-honed skills such as batting and running bases.
The offspring of immigrants from the island of Martinique, Kiomai Aguiar said he played baseball and basketball as a child, then switched to cricket at 16, falling in love with its leisurely pace and courtly interactions between players. He now coaches Caballero and other youths playing pickup games in San Miguel del Padron on the outskirts of Havana
"It's a game that forces you to think, to organize, to do things deliberately. At the same time there's respect and unity among the players," said Aguiar, a 35-year-old unemployed maintenance worker. "There's not a single cricket pitch in Cuba, so we play where they let us, on a soccer field, a baseball field, a running track."
Cuba has organized cricket in six of its 16 provinces, with 1,150 registered players throughout the country of 11 million, said Barbara Delarra, an official with Cuba's National Sports Institute.
"Youngsters like it because it's similar to baseball, with pitching, batting and fielding. It's a new sport and appealing to youngsters frustrated with baseball," she said.
Cricket is also part of the cultural identity of Caribbean migrant communities in Cuba, the descendants of some 250,000 workers from Jamaica, Dominica and other British colonies who moved to sugar towns in eastern Cuba where they attended Protestant churches, ate spicier food and played cricket.
"They kept a lot of their identity," said Jorge Giovannetti, chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Puerto Rico and an expert on Caribbean migration to Cuba. "They kept some of their diet, they kept some of their religious heritage, and cricket is part of it as well."
Cricket is most deeply rooted in the eastern province of Guantanamo, home to many of Cuba's immigrant-founded communities, where cricket is frequently taught to children in afterschool athletics programs despite the lack of standard equipment.
"If we don't have a bat, we make it from a stick. If there's no ball, we make it from rags," said Eliecer Brooks, the descendant of Jamaican immigrants who plays for Guatanamo's cricket team. "We've wanted to maintain this tradition because it's beautiful to remember one's roots."
Without a national tournament, Cuba has amateur tournaments like one played on a Havana soccer field last month between three Cuban teams and three teams of students from cricket-playing countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Adithya Senavirath, a Sri Lankan studying at the Latin American School of Medicine, where foreigners receive free medical education, said he enjoyed playing against Cubans instead of the fellow foreign students he usually faced in cricket.
"The Cubans have skills, they're good bowlers," he said. "They lacking some technique, but they learn fast."
Michael Weissenstein in Havana contributed to this report.
Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein