Skyscrapers and US air bases
It is, we were told proudly, the strongest cricket scene in the Americas south of the Rio Grande. Every Sunday afternoon, an entire park in Panama City is taken over by cricket, as four matches in the Panama national league are held place side by side at the Parque Felipe Motta, a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean in the Coste del Este district. Curious Panamanians peer out of the high-rise luxury flats surrounding the park, and occasionally even come down to watch. Three other games will be going on simultaneously across other grounds in the city.
While the boundaries at Costa del Este don’t quite cross over like a Venn diagram – as at Azad Maidan in Mumbai, or Queen’s Park Savannah in Trinidad – then the place does have its own peculiarities. Last weekend, a Revolution CC left-hander flicked one off his hips to midwicket – only to see the ball bounce right back at him from a drain running through the pitch, almost striking him flush in the face.
From the 1890s to the 1960s, cricket in Panama was dominated by teams of Jamaicans, Barbadians and other West Indians, living in the “silver roll” towns along the Panama Canal. But, with Panamanians such as Rod Carew (himself of West Indian background) and Mariano Rivera going on to excel in Major League Baseball, many of their descendants are sadly unaware of Panama’s cricketing heritage. Most of the original cricket grounds have been built on, or converted to ballparks.
Gradually, calypso and barbeques have been replaced by bhangra and biryani, as Panamanian cricket enjoys a new lease of life injected by the waves of Indians who have emigrated to work in the flourishing economy. For several years, Hindu and Muslims competed in separate leagues, but since 2002 – under pressure from the ICC – the best two teams from each division agreed to meet in the knockout stages. The first pan-religious final was a thriller, with Deportivo Hindu beating Muslim in the last over. The rapprochement has paid off, as Panama now fields the strongest possible side in international tournaments. In the last Central American Championships, held at the old Howard US Air Base, Panama even beat the MCC – who brought along a very strong selection of top recreational cricketers for the club’s first appearance in an overseas tournament. That was a grandstand finish too – ending in a huge pitch invasion.