On playing cricket for El Salvador — a 2013 essay for The Junket

http://thejunket.org/2013/04/issue-seven/la-vida-animosa/

Boy: ‘Mum. When I grow up, I want to play for England.’

Mother: ‘You’ll have to choose, darling. You can’t do both.’

As a child, I had three answers to the perennial question of what I wanted to do when I grew up. The fact that at the age of 32 I am yet to entirely dismiss two of these ideas probably means the growing up hasn’t quite happened yet — a realisation I make with mutually cancelling measures of relief and concern.

Strangely, without having really tried, without having to take it seriously, the third one is already done.

***

It is 2008. I am 28. I find myself standing in a row of men shoulder to shoulder in sportswear. I look left and right. Some of them are praying. I notice my neighbour is holding his hand to his breast. He looks ready to cry. It is hot. It is very hot actually. There is a sick feeling in my stomach, but I am conscious that I am very happy. I am about to grin in disbelief when the first chords of the national anthem ring out through the PA.

This cannot be happening. I catch my girlfriend’s eye in the crowd — she is smiling too. Solemnity, Patrick — this is your international debut. The man next to you is practically weeping, for God’s sake. This is serious.

(I confess I have never taken much seriously in my life, except myself in freshers’ week at university when I remember trying to cultivate an image of distance and poetic seriousness on my first night in the college bar. Later, I was removed from a floating nightclub with a revolving dance floor for falling asleep in the lavatory.)

So, Patrick, if ever a moment is going to require the appearance of real seriousness, this is it. Teeth set, I try to tauten my face over well-padded jaw muscles. I stare straight ahead. No, I am going to have to close my eyes here. The introductory fanfare is so silly I don’t know where to look. How did the Victorians put up with this guff? What am I doing here? The disjuncture between this moment and my recently discarded life as a secondary school teacher in north London is starting to feel parodic. I am stuck in an unconvincing plot development. The collective intake of breath either side tells me to start pretending to know the words.

“Saludemos la patria orgullosos / De hijos suyos podernos llamar; / Y juremos la vida animosa/Sin descanso a su bien consagrar!”

Suddenly, with the swell of noise and the sun on my face, I can feel the euphoria sweep through the team. There is a slight jostling and tensing of upper arms in the rank. You are about to play international cricket, Patrick. A dream come true. Suddenly, I notice I am the only one not patriotically clutching his chest. My hand flies to my heart. I open my eyes, look at the sky and lose myself in the chorus, repeating the final refrain with increasing intensity. ‘Co-on-sa-grar! Co-on-sa-grar! Co-on-sa-grar!’ Alma y corazon, mis hermanos. This is fun. Seriously fun. La vida animosa? I wonder what it means.

***

Before the civil war in the 80s, there was some recognisable cricket played in El Salvador. A yellowed photograph or two survive. As is their way, expat enthusiasts cobbled a game or two together from meagre resources. Between 1979 and 1992, most foreign nationals left. In that time, at least 75,000 Salvadorans died as a direct result of the conflict. That number includes popular hero and candidate for canonisation, Archbishop Oscar Romero, shot by a government death squad in 1980 as he said Mass. Many thousands more disappeared, and not back to Surrey. Los desaparecidos — now a loanword, or loaned expression, in English. To say ‘the disappeared’ signifies something very similar to ‘los desaparecidos,’ but somehow the effect is less. This might be because the English passive past participle is the same in the singular and the plural, necessitating some clarification in context — ‘disappeared people,’ does not do the trick. Like ‘desaparecidos,the two English words make three perfectly balanced trochees, but without the purposeful march of the Spanish. DE-sa-PA-re-CI- dos. Or it might be because events in Latin America have demanded Spanish has an efficient way of expressing unquantifiable disappearances. Suddenly, it becomes a shared term in political discourse. Then a module title on International Relations degrees. An arresting phrase.

It is 20 years since the peace accords now, and new expats have arrived. Most are American, but there are also British, Indian, Sri Lankan, South African, and Australian — enough cricketers to pass the game on to a new community. Safety is still a concern in El Salvador — it has a population similar to Los Angeles, but the number of murders per year is often greater by a factor of ten. The gates to the makeshift cricket ground, as with any public place in El Salvador, are guarded by uniformed, armed vigilantes — a term which has a more official meaning locally than in translation. They wear aviators, big smiles and four-foot-long pump-action shotguns.

To the cosseted British visitor, carrying (as one does on modern adventures) memories of disquieting internet searches, the first encounter with a Salvadoran shotgun is expected but still striking. This is not because of the unusualness, size or potential of a shotgun but because invariably the person who carries it is so incredibly nice. ‘Buenas!’ says the vigilante, eliding the ‘dias’ and waving my 4×4 through with a terrific grin which looks like genuine delight, despite this being something he repeats maybe 60 times a day.

Salvadorans are incredibly friendly. Visitors have to look for violence to see it. That is not to say it does not happen. Cheles — the pale-skinned — are largely ignored by the rival mara groups, powerful gangster networks exacerbated by the influence of Salvadoran diaspora in Los Angeles and other big centres of Latin American crime. Instead, they concentrate on each other, their vendettas and their business interests, like bus route protection rackets. Cheles do not matter. They only stay for a bit and they don’t travel on the buses anyway.

***

The class of 2008 rank second-last in the cricketing world (ahead of Mali). We’re an incongruous lot: a handful of podgy greying peregrines from the fringes of the Commonwealth and half a dozen have-a-go Salvadorans. Enrique is a thick-necked slugger on a holiday from baseball. At the pre- tournament press conference in an Argentinian steak house the night before, he proudly introduces a woman assumed by everyone to be his wife, but who later turns out not to be. Enrique’s wife is in Miami. David is another baseballer, and a Christian preacher from out of town. He is clearly an athlete, or at least, looks more like an athlete than anyone else. He has a kind face. I am alarmed to notice he cannot speak, only whisper. Some time ago, a car-jacker shot him in the throat. I look for Gabriel, the best Salvadoran cricketer in the team. He is not there.

We are also, variously, a Sri Lankan clothes manufacturer, an Indian teak broker, a Zimbabwean geographer, a West Indian scientist, a Mancunian historian, a Scottish teacher of English (me) and our captain, Peter, a steady, thin-lipped man from Dover. Not, perhaps, the way I’d imagined my international sporting debut. A thistle over my heart at Murrayfield, perhaps. Finlay Calder in 1990. No. A sort of Dad’s Armada, smoking fags at a press conference without journalists.

Suddenly, Peter gives the evening an unexpected moment of grace. When he speaks, everyone listens. He does so calmly, with seriousness, his voice dropping so low that it almost falters — not from a sense of theatre (he is not vain) — but because he wants to do this properly. He wants us all to remember our jobs, however small, and asks that we do them as well as we can. Then, perhaps, together, we can win. When he finishes his speech, for a tiny moment, some of us exchange glances of real belief, inspired. Maybe we can do this? Before I can quite complete this thought, the Sri Lankan sportswear manufacturer lunges forward, drunk, and bellows his agreement, adding that if there’s ‘a fucking fight’ then ‘every fucker is in, OK?’ I wonder to myself how much cricket he has played.

Gabriel arrives late, straight from work at the Sri Lankan’s sportswear factory. He is a gristly Salvadoran marathon enthusiast with a wicked smile, a back-turned cap and warm machismo. He grasps my right hand at a Californian angle, squeezes me in with his left and growls ‘amigo’ at me, which I like. He is, as ever, running a cadged Marlboro at one extremity of his smile. Neither of us know that in 24 hours’ time, on the cusp of El Salvador’s maiden victory in international cricket, I will have run Gabriel out, the game will be lost and, for a moment, that smile will have disappeared.

***

The anthem has given us great momentum. Against significant odds, we have the Costa Rican team on the run. Everyone has done his job, very well indeed, excepting the one bowler who hasn’t bowled yet. Their score is well under par for 19 overs. They have one wicket left and there is one over remaining — the hardest over to bowl — and yet somehow it’s being given to me, a willing but occasional medium-pacer. Marking out my run, I think through my routines. Head still, eye on the stumps, arm high, please don’t bowl a wide. Please don’t bowl a wide.

At this moment, it is common for occasional bowlers to have to stifle a creeping sense of crisis. It is the moment you have been dreading all week, and may regret for much longer. Your chances of success are slim; of long- remembered humiliation, sizeable. You just have to start running. Passing the umpire, I am in the part of my delivery stride that resembles a kind of seizure. Once set in motion, control is surrendered entirely. There is no going back now, so let’s hope no-one gets hurt, least of all me.

My first ball in international cricket. Head still, eye on the stumps, arm high, please don’t bowl a wide, please don’t bowl a wide, please don’t bowl a wide. It’s happening now. The ball has left my hand. I watch relieved as it pitches on a good length, somewhere near the correct line. This never happens. Gratifyingly, it then proceeds through a small gap between the batsman’s front pad and his bat as it descends to cover his wicket. Taking the inside edge, it ricochets into middle stump. I cannot believe it. The innings is over. Costa Rica are all out. Their last wicket with my first ball. I find myself trying to execute a kind of emphatic, pointy celebration. Everyone is happy. We only need 118 to win. My international figures read 0.1–0–0–1. An unimprovable strike rate. Figures to retire on. For the moment, I am statistically the deadliest bowler in the history of international cricket. One for the grandchildren.

***

When Gabriel came to a practice match the following week, rubbing his sandy colocho hair, there was blood on his shirt. ‘Don’t worry, it’s not my blood,’ he said. The playing fields we borrowed were adjacent to the ceaseless stock car race that is the Cuscatleca section of the Pan American Highway. This is the midpoint of the world’s longest road, a sheer longitudinal scribble bending down the curve of the Earth from Alaska to Patagonia. Gabriel had been surfing the mara-controlled bus routes with a friend. There is no transport regulation in El Salvador, so thousands of enterprising young men feed their families by resuscitating repatriated 1970s US school buses, adding the obligatory luminous green religious iconography and rattling around the capital collecting as many fares as possible; there are no ‘stops.’ Los microbuseroshave to keep the maras happy by paying a protection cut every month, ‘protection’ meaning the maras give you a solemn promise not to machine-gun and petrol-bomb your bus, passengers inside.

Typically, there is at least one wolf-whistling ‘conductor’ swinging from the low-slung steps of the bus entrance point. Often though, there are two or three men hanging out the passenger door for air, or perhaps for fun. That night, Gabriel had seen his friend ripped from the side of the bus and killed by an overtaking competitor in a late-braking plunge toward some imminent and lucrative stop.

‘Why don’t you go home Gabriel?’ everyone asked. He took a drag of his Marlboro Red, put it out and clapped his hands together once, looking up. ‘Death is a part of life.’ He smiled and set about putting on some fraying batting pads. There is a game to play. You have to grow up fast in El Salvador.

Writing and teaching. Tweets at @i_padawan