On a soccer field in Guatemala, players take their positions batting, fielding or pitching. No one speaks as they wait for the action to begin. From the far end of the field, the pitcher rushes forward and flings the ball at the batter, sending the whole team into motion. A batter swings and a crack resounds as he makes contact with the ball. A fielder scoops up the ball and throws it to his teammate, who then hurls it at a wicket in an attempt to get the batter out. But he narrowly misses, bringing the play to an end with an eruption of laughter that releases all the intensity of the previous moment.
This is a typical practice for the Guatemalan youth cricket team, made up of about 15 boys who are challenging the reign of soccer in Latin America by playing the bat-and-ball sport that originated in England. Playing cricket offers an alternative to violence in the Central American country, where young boys are often susceptible to gang recruitment so common that in recent years it has been called a humanitarian crisis.
By the time Guatemalan boys (and girls) reach their teenage years, many are recruited to run errands for the gangs, eventually leading to full gang membership. But instead of taking this route, 17-year-old Marvin Jolón fills his idle time with cricket, either at practice on Thursdays and Saturdays, or watching cricket videos with his friends after school and on the weekends.
“I still play soccer, but I prefer cricket,” said Jolón during practice on a cloudy Thursday morning at a soccer field in San Lucas, halfway between Guatemala City and tourist-haven Antigua. “In soccer, sometimes people react violently because it’s a sport where there is a lot of contact. I like cricket better because it’s calmer, but still fun.”
Guatemala suffers from endemic levels of violence—last year there were 13 homicides per day on average. A fight over soccer can have dire consequences, according to cricket coach Luke Humphries, who previously led a soccer team where players wound up in the emergency room after violent fights.
But at cricket practice, there is an overwhelming sense of camaraderie between the teammates. The boys help Humphries unload the equipment—bats, balls, plastic wickets, and protective gear— before running laps to warm up. Former youth players and assistant coaches 17-year-old Antony Vicente and 20-year-old Geovany Jolón (Marvin’s older brother) call out instructions and words of advice to the younger players as they bat, pitch and field.
To an American sports fan, the rules of cricket may sound a bit like baseball, and they do have a lot in common: A player pitches to a batter on the opposing team, who tries to score runs while fielders try to get the batter out. But there are some major differences. Instead of a diamond baseball field with bases, a batter runs straight across to score a run, crossing with another teammate who must run in the opposite direction. Plus, the batter stands in front of a set of wickets (a base supporting three sticks) and when knocked over this means the batter is out. Each player only bats once each game and the game ends after each team bats for one inning.
The Guatemalan youth cricket team is not the first in Central America, but it is unique because it defies the game’s historical elitism.
Cricket isn’t sport that can be picked up in a few hours (I spent a while watching YouTube videos before I could explain the rules, and that’s just the basics). For the Guatemalan youth team, learning a new sport from scratch has been a bonding experience that Humphries says has brought the team together compared to the violent competition that soccer sparked.
“I love soccer. It’s a passionate sport and so is cricket,” said Humphries, a British teacher who started the youth cricket team with his dad Russell. “But here soccer generates fights. Cricket is competitive but there is also a lot of respect.”
The Guatemalan youth cricket team is not the first in Central America, but it is unique because it defies the game’s historical elitism, where the majority of players coming from affluent families. Many of the cricket leagues in Central America are made up of foreigners, mainly from the UK, Australia and India, or Central Americans from wealthy neighborhoods. Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua have small cricket leagues. Belize, Costa Rica and Panama’s teams are recognized by the International Cricket Council, the sport’s international governing body.
For now, the youth team plays friendly matches within Guatemala, with a few select players getting the opportunity to play throughout the region. Humphries is hopeful cricket will gain more traction— girls at the school have started to express interest in playing too— so that the team can earn international accreditation.
Marvin Jolón and his teammates live in Santiago Sacatepéquez, Guatemala, a town about 20 miles outside of Guatemala City that has been affected by gang violence in recent years. In Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—known as Central America’s Northern Triangle— Los Angeles-born gangs MS-13 and Barrio 18 terrorize communities with extortion, random shootings and forced gang recruitment. Many of the team members have been pressured to join gangs, one of the main driving factors of the current wave of young Central American migrants to the US.
“He always brought home a ball and bat to play and I started to ask him about the rules.”
Marvin Jolón was almost drawn into the gang lifestyle about two years ago. With nothing to do after school, he spent time on the street corner with friends who now sport tattoos marking their gang membership. But after about six months, he started looking for a way out.
“I needed something to distract me and that was when I turned to my brother who played cricket,” said Marvin Jolón. “He always brought home a ball and bat to play and I started to ask him about the rules. I started learning little by little by practicing every day.”
His mother Juana Ticun Yucute has even noticed a difference in her sons’ behavior since playing cricket, describing them as more motivated and with stronger relationships between their siblings and friends. Now that they play cricket, she worries a little less about her sons joining a gang.
Marvin Jolón could get kicked off the team if he joins a gang, so he hasn’t considered it since starting to play cricket. Plus, he has seen the opportunities cricket has given his brother Geovany Jolón, which would not be possible playing soccer. Geovany Jolón recently traveled to El Salvador to play cricket, the first time he traveled outside of his home country.
“I’ve played soccer for years and it hasn’t brought me any special opportunities,” Geovany Jolón said. “But with cricket I have been able to play in El Salvador. I have more of a future playing cricket than soccer.”
Marvin Jolón has the same aspirations. At a recent practice, he focuses on pitching, his favorite part of the game. He takes a running start before winding his arm and hurling a ball the size of his fist at the batter in front of him. When he concentrates on his form, he forgets about the violence in his neighborhood and his former friends who may end up in jail, or worse.
“Playing cricket keeps you busy,” Marvin Jolón said. “By practicing in your house or watching videos of cricket players, you forget everything that happens in the streets with gangs.”