Vatican versus: how cricket united Catholics, Anglicans and Muslims

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SHAFAQNA – It began with a conversation between Pope Francis and archbishop Justin Welby. Now, three years on, the Unity Through Cricket tournament is flourishing – and seeking to bring in Jewish, Sikh and Hindu players too.

In September 2016, three unique cricket teams played a tournament unlike any other. The hosting side were the Archbishop of Canterbury’s XI, a team made up of Anglican vicars. One visiting team, Mount, was composed mostly of Muslim players from Yorkshire. The other, the St Peter’s XI, had come to Birmingham from the Vatican.

The competition – played under the name Unity Through Cricket – had been four years in the making, and the idea for it began at the very top.

“It stemmed from a conversation between Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby a few years ago,” says Father O’Higgins, manager of the Vatican team. “It began about football but soon moved on to cricket.” The head of the Catholic church and the head of the Church of England agreed that the game was a natural fit for a message of understanding and harmony. “It provides us with a reason to associate and commune with other people from different nations.”

Not long after that conversation, the St Peter’s cricket club was established. Its founder, the former Australian ambassador to the Vatican John McCarthy, filled the team with seminarians – trainee priests – from India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. They played their first match against the Archbishop of Canterbury’s XI in September 2014 at the St Lawrence ground in Canterbury – a T20 fundraiser for the churches’ joint fight against modern slavery and human trafficking. The Anglicans won by six wickets and a new competition was established in world cricket.

News of the match caught the interest of the press – and also reached the Mount cricket club, a largely Muslim side from Batley, Yorkshire, established in the 1970s by young immigrant Indians. “We were intrigued by the idea of a Vatican team. We knew they’d visited England once, so we contacted them with the idea of a match in the interfaith spirit,” says the club’s spokesman, Abdul A Ravat. “To our surprise and joy they accepted.”

Better still, the Vatican invited them to play the game in Rome. In October 2015, a party of 33, including players, wives and supporters, travelled to Italy for a match at the Campanella sports ground.

“It was an incredible experience on a whole range of levels: social, cultural and spiritual,” says Ravat, proudly. “We discovered a great rapport with the Vatican team. We were treated like VIPs, given a tour of the Vatican and the Basilica and dined with the seminarians after the game. And, most important of all, the story went global.”

Plans were laid for a return fixture – and the participants were beginning to realise that there was scope for a larger tournament.

One of its key organisers was Tom Benham, coach-player with the Archbishop’s XI. “I realised there was a narrative here: to use sport to create unity, with cricket as the driver,” he says. “It quickly became evident that there was an opportunity to take the idea beyond a one-off event between Anglicans and Catholics and reach out to other religions, like the Muslim community.”

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When St Peter’s XI returned in 2016, they played a triangular T20 tournament featuring the Anglican XI and Mount CC at the St Lawrence ground, Headingly and Edgbaston.

Now plans are afoot to extend the next tournament – tentatively scheduled for 2018 – to feature Jewish, Sikh and Hindu sides. The future looks bright – both for the tournament and the people taking part.

“I’m personally getting a lot out of it,” says Benham, who has since coached the Vatican team in Rome. “I’m learning an awful lot. My desire is always to see people come together. You only have to look at what’s happened recently to see how important any positive initiatives can be and the impact cricket can have is huge. Disunity steals joy, but when there’s unity it’s very powerful.”

“What we’ve started feels incredible,” agrees Ravat. “What we learned from these games is that there is more that unites us than divides us. We want to use cricket specifically as a conduit to articulate that. If we can show that people in sport can get on in the world we live in, that’s got to be a good thing.”

 

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