On October 28th, Rwanda will celebrate the opening of its first real and certainly grassiest cricket ground in the capital, Kigali. Brain Lara is dueto lead a Rwandan XI v Michael Vaughan's Rest of the World.
Centre-piece of the new stadium is arguably the most distinctive pavilion in the world, designed in the shape of a bouncing cricket ball, its three open vaulted arches of diminishing sizes composed of local natural materials, much of it earth.
The opening will realise the dream of Christopher Shale, one of those besotted aficionados who, regarding cricket as a panacea for all the world's ills, hoped its establishment in Rwanda would help heal the wounds left by its terrible civil war 20 years ago.
Shale had friends in high places, among them British Prime Minister David Cameron, and the great and good in the political and cricketing world have offered tangible support to the Rwandan Cricket Stadium Foundation.
Wonderful as this is, is it simply a matter of the Tory Party at play or is there some appetite for the game along the ground?
To answer this question, Wesam al-Asali, a Syrian cricketer who plays the game for his college in England and is part of the Light Earth Design team constructing the state-of-the-art pavilion in Kigali, gathered up a couple of old cricket bats and pairs of pads and several cricket balls prior to a recent visit, determined to find out whether those working on the pavilion had any interest in the game they were building it for.
This is Wesam's story from Rwanda, perhaps a fable cricket-lovers the world over might cherish
-- John Drew loves cricket and all things literary.
An Offensive Weapon
A bad start. I arrived in Rwanda without a bat. I had tried to pack both bats in with the pads and all my other luggage but they wouldn't fit. Couldn't I take one bat with me into the cabin? No, it is classed as an offensive weapon.
What cricket gear I did have with me I took to work at the pavilion. On an earlier visit, several of my work-mates had expressed some curiosity about the game when a New Zealander, an instructor in earth-tiling, and I had got talking about it. How serious was this? My native country, Syria, had been the scene of the first known cricketing outside England – in 1676 – but the English came, played and went away without the locals ever taking it up.
Sadly, I got very little response in the Kigali pavilion. Many of the workers played football, yes, but cricket, no. Some knew of others who did play. It was all a bit disappointing. I gave up after this first day and decided to leave the pads and balls with the Cricket Foundation. They would know what to do with it better than I.
I was carrying the gear out of the car back into the hotel when Capacité, the hotel cook and handyman, asked me if I played cricket. This was a surprise. Capacité is a shy person who hardly ever speaks – his landlady later told me he had lost all his family in the Civil War and ended up in an orphanage.
When Capacité does speak it is in Kinyawanda or French while my languages are Arabic and English. Somehow, in Franglais and with gestures, he told me that once a fortnight a friend took him to play cricket at the Kicukiro College of Technology, home to the one existing cricket ground, unhappily made of concrete and shared with colonies of ants.
Capacité's landlady was astonished as I to hear about his cricketing. He hadn't told anybody about his secret life.
Capacité, to whom I at once promised a pair of the pads, convinced me I should take the gear back with me to the pavilion and leave it where everyone could see it. Sure enough, some engineers soon came across and talked about playing. Two others told me they, like Capacité, went over to Kicukiro to play. I began to feel the sorrier I hadn't been able to bring a bat with me from England.
The pavilion, being built entirely by local people using local materials, is made of compressed earth and re-cycled tiles. Wood is used only to act as props to the vaulting and then discarded for re-cycling. I went with one of the carpenters, Mukomeza Ernest, to look through these discards for a stick that might serve as a bat. Ernest, picking up a saw, said: Forget these sticks, Wesam, I will make a proper bat for you.
A kindly suggestion, I thought, but quite impossible in the circumstances. Oh yes? Next morning when I arrived for work, there was Ernest sanding down the fully-shaped pine-wood bat he had made for me. Wonderful. It looked just like one of the early 18th century bats they treasure at Lord's, the handle thickening into the blade.
Ernest's bat quickly became the centre of attention. By lunch break, when the workers usually go down to the market to eat, some twenty of them passed that up to join the first outing of the bat. There are some very professional nets on the grassy ground outside the pavilion. We felt we ought not to approach them until we had developed a few basic skills.
We tried the adjoining dirt path with the tin shed as wicket. The pine bat stood up pretty well but the ball refused to bounce properly. We moved to the nets where I suggested groups of three or four at a time might use them once I had showed them the proper batting and bowling techniques. Some boldly joined in, others watched shyly but with curiosity. Had it been this way in Syria in 1676, I asked myself.
That very afternoon, Dusingizimana Eric, captain of the Rwanda national team, paid one of his periodic visits to see how the pavilion was coming along. He noticed my hands were stained red from handling a wet cricket ball and he was surprised and delighted to hear the workers had been learning to play cricket.
He was also very touched by the story of Ernest's bat and looked it over with him, taking a stance with it and suggesting the handle should be thinner. That said, he congratulated Ernest warmly and proclaimedthe bat should have its place in the finished pavilion together with the story of its construction.
A Happy Ending
I was heartened by Eric's positive response but also alarmed by it. Granted, it would be a happy ending to the story of Ernest's bat if it were housed in the pavilion where it was made. But I already had in mind an alternative happy ending, selfish as it might seem, and this I shared with Ernest. He approved of it and readily promised to make (as he soon did) another bat for Eric that the workers could use until the pavilion was complete.
My plan was that the bat, more valuable than any I could have brought to Rwanda, should be taken (safely labelled in advance: Security Checked) on the iconic cricketing passage to England. For me, as evidently also for Eric, it is a small but brave indication that, even before the country's first cricket ground is ready, Rwanda has something special of its own to bring to the game.
And that may not be the end of the story. One day I hope to be able to take the bat to Syria.
As a poet, Wesam al-Asali re-imagines the cities he passes through: as an architect he redesigns them using natural materials. Currently, he is a Ph.D. student at Cambridge where he plays cricket for Clare Hall.