Episode 54: George Headley and a supporting cast of two emperors, one king and Evita Peron, in Latin America’s cricketing drama

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

Timothy Abraham and James Coyne are co-editors of the perennially fascinating and expanding section of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack on cricket around the world. Together they completed a long-cherished project, a personal odyssey into Latin American cricket, which took them from Mexico to the southernmost tip of Chile. They have just published an unputdownable book about it called Evita Burned Down Our Pavilion. They discuss it with Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their cricket-themed podcast, which returns after a short interval.

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Timothy and James set out their aims for the book in uncovering the riches in Latin America’s cricket story and set out their contribution to the global history of cricket. They describe their regular thrill at discovering lost cricket stories, especially in the oral memories of Latin American cricketers or their families or descendants. The British generally left detailed records of the cricket clubs they founded and the tours that they made, but Timothy and James uncovered very much more in newspaper archives and online research and personal contacts, including two men in their nineties who had played cricket before the Second World War. They were occasionally mistaken for spies from the International Cricket Conference. 2-7 minutes

Latin America’s greatest contribution to cricket was George Headley – born in Panama where thousands of West Indian migrants worked in grim conditions on the Canal or in the mines. Remarkably, Headley had his early sports upbringing as a Spanish-speaking baseball player. Timothy and James met people who had seen him play in exhibition matches in his native land. Often played on pitches burnt by kerosene to dry them after downpours, these may have helped his superlative bad wicket technique. 8-12 minutes

They reveal some of the astonishing individual stories within the book:

  • Philip Whitcombe’s could be a John Le Carré novel, the teenage wicketkeeper at an English public school, whose natural father was the notorious drug baron Pablo Escobar, and whose adoptive father was an MI6 agent 13-18 minutes
  • The first-class tour of Argentina led by Plum Warner in the 1920s, and his harsh captaincy of a future British Prime Minister 24-28 minutes
  • The early prowess of Simon Bolivar, the liberator, as a bowler: in an act of high symbolism he knocked off the cap of the future King of Spain 51-53 minutes
  • The two Latin American emperors who loved cricket 46-48 minutes
  • Brian Johnstone’s early adventures in Brazil in the family coffee business, including keeping wicket in a state fixture 41-44 minutes
  • CLR James trying to explain cricket to a bemused Trotsky in exile in Mexico City 55-58 minutes
  • the England footballers who played two challenge cricket matches in Mexico 49-50 minutes
  • The Smith Vaughan cricketing family of Nicaragua and their encounter with the Sandinista revolution 28-34 minutes
  • The title story: why Evita Peron instigated the arson of the Buenos Aires Cricket Club pavilion after thinking herself snubbed by the British Royal Family 21-24 minutes

In almost every Latin American country, cricket was established as part of Britain’s commercial expansion ahead of other sports. Timothy and James offer explanations why it was overtaken by the contact sports of football and rugby, especially the insistence in the best British-run clubs on carefully prepared grass pitches. For native Latin Americans without money or connexions, it was simply much easier to play and progress in football, rugby or other sports than in cricket. The interwar period was the apogee of cricket in Latin America, especially Argentina, but it failed to recruit enough local players outside the British-led élite. After the war, cricket was also hit by the loss of Britain’s commercial influence and assets in Latin America to the United States, and by the advent of left-wing or populist governments. 18-23 minutes

For all that, organized cricket is still played in every Latin American country, and is gaining young adherents in many countries, where cricket projects often have a special role in rehabilitating children and young people have lived with violence. 59-63 minutes

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Peter Oborne, Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

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